30-Year NBA Lifer Popeye Jones Adds Nuggets Championship to Resume

Popeye Jones, Nuggets assistant coach

Getty Popeye Jones, Nuggets assistant coach

LAS VEGAS — Early during the NBA‘s summer league here, I asked Nuggets assistant coach Popeye Jones when everyone from the club had sobered up following the championship celebrations.

“Sober?” he asked. “Not yet.”

The laugh that followed was hard-earned, not just through the development of a title team in Denver, but of Jones’ more than 30 years in professional basketball. He’s been at this a long time, through seven stops and six teams as a player (Dallas twice) and 17 years and five teams as a coach. Jones is obviously clear-eyed as he and the Nuggets turn the page, but the afterglow and the celebration humor remain.

He’s learned quite a bit in those decades, and there may be something for people at all levels of the game to take from the way the Nuggets won their title. The kind of ball movement and unselfishness they displayed, accompanied by concerted defense, is a nice blueprint for youth league teams on up. Sure, it helped having a colossus like Nikola Jokic as the hub of the enterprise, but having a star play the way he did is instructive, as well.

“I was a rookie in ’93, so I’ve been after it a while,” Jones told Heavy Sports. “I didn’t know what to say right after we won. It was so surreal when it first happened. I just went to Joker and said, ‘Thank you.'”

‘Joker’s an Awesome Guy’

There was more to the Denver championship than Jokic, of course.

“Obviously he was a big part of it, but everybody was. You understand that to win a championship it takes not only your starting five, but it takes your whole team, even guys that weren’t in the rotation — veteran guys, young guys that are bringing energy every day — and then the whole coaching staff, the front office. It just takes a collective group that everybody’s pulling the same way, and that’s what happened.

“Joker’s an awesome guy. He’s very humble, very selfless. I don’t know if you can copy him. But the way we played as a team is an example. It’s a copycat league, and you may start to see teams try to move the ball more. I think teams already try to, but maybe they’ll get away from the more ball-dominant guards. You’ve still got to use what you have, but it helps everyone when the ball is moving.”

Jones paused a moment and went on, “You know, the one year I worked for Doc Rivers in Philly, I remember one meeting Doc said, ‘You can tell when a team is ready to win a championship.’ What he said next has really stuck with me. He said, ‘It’s when the open man gets the ball.’

“And that’s really what it is.”

Nuggets Getting Ready to Repeat

Popeye Jones was certainly one of those team-oriented guys as a player. He averaged 7.0 points and 7.4 rebounds with the Mavericks, Raptors, Celtics, Nuggets, Wizards and Golden State.

(His one year in Denver as a player proved perhaps more fruitful for other members of his family. Sons Caleb and Seth were interested in hockey, so Popeye asked Joe Sakic from the Avalanche for advice. From skating lessons then, the two have worked their way to the NHL, where they are now teammates on the Chicago Blackhawks.)

“Once it was over, I think you just reflect back on your whole career — not just your coaching career but your playing career, everything that you’ve been through, from a little kid all the way through middle school to high school to college,” Jones said. “It was just a great feeling.

“Obviously there’s been a bunch of partying going on. It was nuts. The city was crazy. It makes you appreciate all the hard work, all the late nights, all the film study, everything that you’ve gone through. To see how the city responded was unbelievable. They estimated there was anywhere from 600,000-to-800,000 people there at the parade. It was just great to see everybody and to do it for the city.

“It’s slowed down lately, starting to get ready to try to do it again. It’s funny because you talk to people who’ve won multiple championships and they tell you, when you do it once, you really want to do it again. That’s not only how I’m feeling, but how everybody in the organization’s feeling.

“It’s going to be tough to repeat, but we’ll come into training camp and we’ll be ready to go.”


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