Popeye Jones, Harlem Globetrotter? How the Pacers assistant coach still has a bag of trick shots
By Scott Agness
CHICAGO — Whenever the Pacers take the court for practice or shootaround, assistant coach Popeye Jones is typically out in front ready to make a basket.
“He wants to make the first basket,” said head coach Nate McMillan. “He’s throwing some type of hook off the glass. I’m sure he’s got a lot to his game. Pop was tricky back in his day.”
Growing up in Tennessee, Jones admired the Harlem Globetrotters and enjoyed the challenge of making creative shots. He still does, in fact.
Fellow assistant Dave McClure was working out in the employee weight room inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse last week when he heard Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady mention Jones on ESPN’s “The Jump.”
Steph Curry had dropped 51 points in three quarters, including 11 3-pointers, in a dominant win over the Washington Wizards, so the Rachel Nichols-fronted show discussed how Curry gets even the craziest shots to fall with great regularity. That led to a fun back-and-forth between McGrady and former Celtics swingman Paul Pierce.
“You know what, I will pay money to see Steph Curry and one of my old teammates when I was a rookie, Popeye Jones, in a HORSE contest,” McGrady said.
“Popeye Jones?” Pierce questioned. “Popeye Jones ain’t got a shot.”
“Popeye Jones is the best trick-shot shooter I’ve ever seen,” McGrady emphasized.
To which Pierce said: “That man (Curry) is shooting from the tunnel.”
“We’re playing HORSE, man,” McGrady replied.
Jones has been a trusted assistant coach on the Pacers bench since 2013, when Frank Vogel asked Jones to join his staff after three years with the Nets. Jones played 11 seasons in the league, including two years with Toronto from 1996-’98.
“I’m sure he’s seen the hook shot from the 3-point line,” Jones said of McGrady. “He’s seen the hook shot from half court, the over-the-head-behind-the-backboard shot, the bounce it in from half court. Bounce it in from behind my back from the post. So a lot of different, crazy shots that I’ve tried.”
Jones was in his office when he received a text from a cousin and was also informed about the debate by McClure. Jones’ quick recall about shots he had tried made it obvious that he wasn’t making this up on the fly. Just before I spoke with him after practice inside the United Center, he had just made a hook shot from the right corner. Casually, and without any fanfare (or video).
“As a player,” Jones said, “you’re always trying different, crazy trick shots. Growing up, I was a fan of the Harlem Globetrotters so I loved to watch those guys — and I actually wanted to be a Harlem Globetrotter when I was a kid. I wasn’t thinking about NBA basketball.
“I think at 12 or 13 years old I became a big Globetrotter fan. Seeing on TV all the shots they could make and then I would go to the park and try some of them. The half-court hook shot, just different things. By kind of just working at it in my spare time, I got pretty good at some of the shots.”
Jones, a 6-foot-8 former power forward, is obviously good with a hook shot. He can spin the ball on a finger, bounce it off his head and then bank it in. “Globetrotter stuff is what I call it, which I think it’s fun,” he said.
The Globetrotters, specifically the late Meadowlark Lemon, inspired Jones’ bag of tricks. “Watching him, I picked up a lot of stuff,” Jones said. “I enjoy trick shots, but I don’t practice them as much as I used to.”
If you weren’t aware, Popeye isn’t his given name — though it does have a nice ring to it for showbiz. He was given the nickname by his mother after watching the popular cartoon when she returned from the hospital. (Nobody in basketball refers to him as Ronald.)
In addition to his great touch, Curry also has the distance. He makes shots from half court look like standard attempts — because they are for him. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr recently joked how the two-time NBA MVP’s accuracy and range is so strong that he is fine to see his sharpshooter launch from 40 feet.
So I wondered — how does Jones think he would fare in a game of HORSE against arguably the best shooter of all time?
“I don’t know,” he said, adding, “obviously Steph, his regular shots — he can shoot it from half court. I’d like to try actually the tunnel shot that he shoots before games. I think I could make that one.”
This can be arranged, I told him.
The Pacers won’t face the Warriors until Jan. 28 when they make their annual visit to Indy. The Pacers play in Oakland on March 21, the final game of a four-game trip out west.
How appropriate that on the same day Jones revealed his childhood goal of playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, Curry was captured playing with a few of them at the Warriors’ facility.
Hopefully coming soon: Popeye from the tunnel.