If you had traveled along U.S. Highway 68 last week-swerving past the road kill, breezing by the $16-a-night motels and finally finding your way into the town of Murray in western Kentucky—you would have come upon a scene reminiscent of a time long past in college basketball, a time when the biggest guy on the floor was only 6'8", when arenas had rafters instead of domes and when a season-ending conference tournament really meant something.
Remember 1974, the year when North Carolina State and Maryland were two of the nation's best teams, yet only one could represent the ACC in the field of 25 teams that competed in the NCAAs? Thus the ACC tournament was huge that year, and the basketball those two teams played in the final reflected that importance. The Wolfpack won 103-100 in overtime and went on to become national champions. The Terps stayed home.
Today, in this era of runaway bid inflation and a 64-team field, most league tournaments aren't much more than money-making socials. But a bid's still a bid in the Ohio Valley Conference, and last week in Murray, where the county is dry, the basketball was appropriately sober. The Ohio Valley team rated highest in the USA Today computer rankings was Murray State, the conference's regular-season champion, which logged in at number 144. So the chance that someone other than the tournament champion would receive an at-large bid was, as one league official put it, "somewhat less than slim, and maybe a fraction above none." No matter that representatives of this amalgamation of seven schools have pulled off first-round NCAA upsets in each of the past three seasons; there would be only one bid for the OVC. End of discussion.
Thus the business attended to at the 36-year-old Racer Arena in Murray was serious, notwithstanding the whimsical name of the most efficient fellow on the floor. He's the conference's regular-season Player of the Year and tournament MVP, a 6'8", 255-pound cholester-All-America candidate, a sophomore at Murray State known as...Popeye.
He has a brother everybody calls Brutus, and a mother everyone calls Sweet Pea.
They call you Sweet Pea because of him?
"Nah," says Anna Bondurant, who raised Ron (Popeye) Jones and four other children in Dresden, Tenn. "They call him Popeye because of me."
She's kidding, of course. Ron is called Popeye because another brother (no, he is not called Wimpy) happened to be watching the eponymous cartoon character on TV when Bondurant brought her newborn home and asked, of no one in particular, what he ought to be called.
So Popeye it is. In truth, Popeye looks more like Olive Oyl—facially, anyway—except for the ears, which struck spectators at Lamar earlier this season as resembling Dumbo's. No wonder a knot of fans at Tennessee State—borrowing from Who Framed Roger Rabbit—taunted him in late January by yelling, "You're a 'toon, Popeye, you're a 'toon!"
Below the face, Jones devolves into long-limbed, bottom-heavy amorphous-ness. He's not unlike the inflatable toy down in the rec room that snaps back up when you give it a whack. Yet Jones is positively chiseled compared with what he looked like last season, when he weighed 309 pounds, took medication for high blood pressure and couldn't play more than a few minutes at a time because of poor conditioning. His size 15 sneakers were wobbly pedestals beneath his size 48 shorts. "Health-wise," Popeye says, "I knew I didn't want to go through life being big."
Last summer Paul Newman, a Murray State trainer, and Rebecca Noffsinger, a weight-control counselor at Murray-Calloway County Hospital, did what the Racers' opponents in the Ohio Valley Conference would soon be forced to do. They double-teamed him. Jones went on an Ultra Slim-Fast diet supplemented by running and basketball. The results so filled him with pride that his locker is now a shrine to how far he has come—an exhibit for the Before-and-After Hall of Fame. There, under a picture of Jones as a freshman larding over the lane, he has added the following legend: I SHALL NEVER RETURN! POPEYE JONES, 55¾ POUNDS LOST IN 4½ MONTHS.
Now he doesn't need the medication. He still meets with Noffsinger weekly and keeps a log of everything he ingests, which doesn't include spinach ("I don't like it," he says). He can also run a mile in less than seven minutes.
"It's kind of great," he's wont to say about his new health, or about any other good fortune that should find him, such as Murray State's winning the final last week, with Jones contributing 49 points and 25 rebounds in two victories. Why "kind of" great? "Because it's great for the moment," says Popeye. "Because I'm never satisfied. Because tomorrow is another challenge."
To describe Jones as animated is way off base. If he gets a pass in the post, he'll take a half turn and toss up a soft, stiff-armed half hook. "I developed it in high school," says Pop-eye, "because my vertical jump's not too good."
Jones's field goal percentage (.508) is misleadingly poor, for one of his favorite ploys is to toss the ball onto the backboard and then retrieve it. "Now that I've got quickness, I can get there a step sooner," he says. "When I do shoot the ball, I never think it's going in. I go right to the basket so I can tip it."
What with Popeye's pyramid physique, dunks are aerodynamically problematic for him. "Last year it looked like a cartoon when he tried," says Ismael Rosario, a Murray State reserve from Puerto Rico, using familiar imagery. The first in-game dunk of his collegiate career came this year against Morehead State on Jan. 13. Now he can cuff dunk and reverse dunk—in practice, anyway.
As Murray State found itself looking at a 60-57 deficit heading into the last five minutes of its semifinal against Austin Peay, on March 7, Popeye downed one of his half hooks. A minute later he added one of his multipart rebound-layups. A couple of Popeye free throws and a Popeye rebound of a miss by the Governors' Donald Tivis seemed to settle matters, but Jones wasn't finished. After teammate Greg Coble knocked away an Austin Peay inbounds pass in the final minute, Popeye sprinted half the length of the court, just to share a high five.
It has been a tumultuous year in the Ohio Valley, the league that attracted attention several years ago by instituting a series of games near midnight in order to cop some airtime on ESPN. Its members make do with 'tweeners—guys in the 6'5" range who are too slow to play guard and too small to play forward—and any academic casualties, jucos and transfers who slip through the major-college cracks. Every team except Murray State lost at least one player for academic or disciplinary reasons this season, and there was that ugly brawl between Middle Tennessee and Tennessee Tech in early January.
The Racers, nevertheless, expect to do justice to the conference's NCAA tournament record over the last three years, which is the envy of every other middling conference in the land. In 1987 Austin Peay, seeded 14th in its region, beat third-seeded Illinois, forcing TV commentator Dick Vitale to make good on a bet and stand on his head. In the next round the Governors came perilously close to eliminating sixth-seeded Providence. (But for a missed Austin Peay free throw, then Friar coach Rick Pitino might still be cad-dying for John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca at Big East golf outings instead of moving on to the New York Knicks and Kentucky Wildcats.) Two years ago Murray State stunned third-seeded N.C. State in the opening round of the tournament. And last season Middle Tennessee State, the 13th-seeded team, beat fourth-seeded Florida State.
Eastern Kentucky's very appearance opposite Murray State in the Ohio Valley final was astonishing. The team the Colonels beat to reach the championship game, Morehead State, had thumped Eastern Kentucky 91-58 in Eastern's gym on Jan. 10. After that game, as first-year coach Mike Pollio wrestled with the debacle and contemplated his 4-9 record, a notion struck him. His team was young, virtually all freshmen and sophomores, and "didn't know what a good shot was." So Pollio did a little X-ing and O-ing with an old scheme called the Mongoose, a spread offense designed to milk the clock. In spite of losing their best player, Randolph Taylor, to grades the following day, the Colonels, with the 'Goose, won their next game, beating Austin Peay, the preseason conference favorite.
Pollio had quit at Virginia Commonwealth after a tragedy-studded season in which star Michael Brown died in practice from an undetected heart condition. On four other occasions Pollio had to inform a player of a family member's sudden death. "I can't even read about that other kid," says Pollio, referring to Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers. "Two years ago, after a January 10 like this, I'd have been in the pits. Instead, I kept it in perspective. As a result, the players kept it in perspective."
Eastern Kentucky slipped through the semis, 52-50, thanks in part to a timekeeping snafu. The Colonels led Morehead State by that score as the Eagles' Tracy Armstrong lined up one final shot—a three-pointer with the last seconds waning. But at :05 the 45-second buzzer mistakenly sounded, and Armstrong hesitated before taking—and missing—the shot. Morehead coach Tommy Gaither was furious at the error, but the officials let the result stand.
"A lot has been said about conference tournaments being all for the money," Pollio said afterward. "Not true. It's all for this. This is why you keep your head in the game all year long. Here we are, 13-16, and we're going to be on national TV tomorrow night."
In the final the Colonels regularly let the shot clock tick down to about :20 before running its three guards through a top-of-the-key weave. This was the Mongoose: "We just sit there and then—boooom!—a quick strike," Pollio says.
Meanwhile the Racers had lolly-gagged through the first 35 or so minutes until Jones took command. With six minutes to play in their whiskered home arena, the Colonels had seized a 49-40 lead from their hosts.
From then on, however, the school that has won two NCAA riflery championships over the past five years stepped up and fired bull's-eyes. The Racers sank 13 of 14 free throws in the last four minutes, for a 64-57 win. With 48 seconds remaining, Jones squeezed off the foul shots that put Murray State ahead for good and earned the Racers a first-round date with Michigan State, the top seed in the Southeast Regional.
For the Racers and their Sailor Man, this was "kind of great." And for plucky Eastern Kentucky, whose only departing starter is forward Mike Davis, there was the glow of accomplishment. It didn't seem to matter that no at-large bid was coming down. "I'm as proud of this team as I've ever been," said Pollio. "We were one win away from an absolute dream."