Eddie Jones arrived at the beach in a black stretch limousine.
Very Southern California. He looked out the tinted window at the
lights and cameras that were set up in the sand, waiting for
him, and he wondered if it was too late to back out of this
session. Maybe he could just turn around and go home, the way he
did when he was 11 years old and decided that football wasn't
the sport for him. One day in the middle of practice he just
took off his helmet, pads and jersey, dropped them on the grass
His mom still teases him about that, but Jones doesn't regret
doing it. You have to know who you are and who you are not. For
instance, he is not the limousine type--the surfing magazine for
which he was doing this photo shoot sent the vehicle--and even
though he grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., he is not a beach guy
either. In fact, anyone who had stumbled across this scene would
have been surprised to find that the Los Angeles Laker in the
back of the car was Jones. They might have guessed that
Shaquille O'Neal was making a guest appearance on Baywatch,
perhaps, or that Kobe Bryant was shooting a sneaker commercial
that required him to walk on water in his Adidases. Jones
prefers to lead a simpler life, which is why John Chaney, his
coach at Temple, admiringly calls him "plain old ordinary Jones."
But the people from the magazine were ready for him, and camera
crews from several television stations were waiting, so Jones,
the Lakers' 6'6" fourth-year shooting guard, climbed out of the
limo. It wasn't long before he was paddling into the Pacific and
standing on top of a surfboard for the first time in his life,
and, suddenly, everything felt right. "I loved it," he says.
"There's something about riding that wave that I can't even
describe. It's like you have control, but not really. It's the
wave that really has the control. After a while you figure out
that you just have to go with it, that the only way you're going
to stay up is if you give yourself up to the wave."
Jones and the Lakers have been riding the crest of a tsunami
this season. After a 119-102 victory (in which Jones scored a
game-high 28 points) over the crosstown Clippers on Sunday, they
were 11-0 and the league's only undefeated team as they headed
into road games, on Tuesday against the Miami Heat and on
Wednesday against the Boston Celtics. Already the Lakers have
proved they can beat good teams--among their victims are the New
York Knicks, the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the
Utah Jazz (twice)--and that they can win close games on the
road, as they did in San Antonio, Houston and Utah. At times
they have been, as a surfer dude might put it, totally awesome.
The Lakers' 118-93 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the
Forum on Nov. 19 turned into an exhibition of their almost
frightening athleticism. Just before the halftime buzzer Jones
grabbed a desperation shot by point guard Nick Van Exel and, all
in one motion, jammed in a dunk with his back to the basket. The
19-year-old Bryant scored on a variety of double-pumping,
gravity-defying, reverse layups. The 7'1", 315-pound O'Neal
somehow maneuvered his gargantuan body through a maze of
defenders and scored on a nifty little layup, which he
punctuated with an imitation of San Francisco 49er Merton
Hanks's spasmodic "chicken dance," although it looked like a
loss of all motor control.
"There's a reason why the Lakers are the best team in the league
right now," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said after his team's
loss. "It's because they are very, very versatile. They have an
outside game, they have an inside game, and they play a lot
better defense than they did a year ago." Through Sunday the
Lakers were leading the league in scoring, averaging 111.9
points, far ahead of the Phoenix Suns, who were second (103.6).
Los Angeles might also be the deepest team in the NBA--six
Lakers were scoring in double figures (chart, page 59)--which is
why it has kept winning despite the fact that O'Neal, Bryant,
forward-center Elden Campbell and forward Robert Horry have
already missed games due to various ailments.
Thus not even the news last Friday that O'Neal would be
sidelined for at least 10 days after aggravating an abdominal
muscle strain could detract from the good humor among the
Lakers. ("I feel like punching someone," said a deadpan Shaq
after his upcoming absence was announced. "Any volunteers?") "We
know this could be a special season for us," Van Exel says.
"I've been here five years, and I've never seen the Forum
rocking like this so early in the season."
Jones, an All-Star for the first time last season, has been
vital to the Lakers' fast start. He has sprinkled himself all
over the stat sheet, leading the team in steals, with an average
of 2.64, and in minutes played (37.7) and ranking second to
O'Neal in scoring (21.7) at week's end. He had a particularly
impressive line against Minnesota: 31 points, six assists, four
steals, three rebounds and two blocked shots. Jones's
accomplishments have been all the more impressive given the
distraction of a persistent rumor that he was about to be traded
to the Sacramento Kings for guard Mitch Richmond. Jones wants so
badly to stay in Los Angeles that he spoke openly to the media
about it, saying, "I don't want to go to Sac." For the
soft-spoken Jones, that was the equivalent of a tirade.
The rumor has died down now that Jerry West, the Lakers'
executive vice president of basketball operations, has twice
assured Jones that he would not be traded; moreover, the Lakers'
early-season performance has made it all but certain that the
team won't make any major changes in the near future. But Jones
admits that the trade rumors stung him. "Every day I kept
hearing it, over and over again," he says. "It makes you start
to think, Can I trust what I've been told? Maybe [the Lakers]
really don't want me. It's something you can't get out of your
mind, especially when you're away from the court. You tell
yourself to just play, because trades are something you can't
control, but it's not easy." In other words, sometimes it's hard
to give yourself up to the wave.
"Coach? It's Eddie."
"C'mon, Coach.... "
Chaney has been taking these phone calls ever since Jones
graduated from Temple and joined the Lakers three years ago.
They can hold an entire conversation without either one of them
mentioning that it happens to be 3 a.m. "I'll call him any time
of the day or night," Jones says. "Sometimes I'll call him late,
when we get in from a road trip. It doesn't matter what time it
is. We talk about life and stuff, everything but basketball. I
guess by now he figures he's taught me all the basketball he can."
Chaney has taught Jones far more than X's and O's. It was at
Temple that Jones learned how to carry himself, how to forgo all
the attention-grabbing, celebratory antics. "Coach Chaney never
liked high fives or chest bumping. He never liked any big show
of emotion," says Detroit Pistons guard Aaron McKie, a Temple
teammate of Jones's. "That's probably why Eddie is always so
calm on the floor. Even after you're finished playing for Coach
Chaney, you still behave the way he wanted you to, because you
know he's watching."
One of the few issues Jones did not discuss with Chaney was the
trade rumors. "I guess I wanted to prove to him that I could
handle it," Jones says. "Plus Coach tends to get emotional, and
I didn't want to be the cause of that. I didn't want us both
getting emotional. I like to keep things a little more under
It is because he is so controlled that Jones has become that
rarest of players: a low-profile Lakers star. Surrounded by
O'Neal, the multimedia conglomerate; Bryant, the spectacular
prodigy; and Van Exel, the unruly gunner, Jones often gets
overlooked. "He lets his game do his talking for him," says
Lakers coach Del Harris. "He doesn't showboat or call attention
to himself. I think that's why coaches like him so much and why
he's so respected around the league."
Not only does Jones not mind getting lost in the shuffle, but he
also helps make sure that he does. For the most part he limits
his public appearances to the time he spends on the court. "My
friends know where to find me," he says. "Home." More
specifically, at his pool table, honing the skills that have
made him the Lakers' resident shark. Jones, who is single,
changes his home phone number so often that even his teammates
sometimes have a hard time getting in touch with him. "I just
don't want my number getting into the wrong hands," he says. He
apparently includes booking agents for television shows in that
category. When Jones does get media requests, like recent
invitations to appear on a pair of late-night talk shows, Vibe
and The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, he has a standard approach. "I
say, 'Yeah, I'd like to do that sometime,' and then hope they
forget about it or find somebody else before I actually have to
do it," he says.
Backup center Sean Rooks hurried into the Lakers' practice
facility last Friday morning, worried that he was late for the
club's workout. He was surprised to find that Jones was the only
other player in the gym, leisurely talking to a reporter, and
even more surprised to find that practice was scheduled for an
hour later than he had thought, which meant Rooks had sped down
the freeway for nothing. "You don't want to do that," Jones told
him. "That's what gets people in trouble, hurrying like that.
That's why I never rush."
That seems to be Jones's approach to his career as well. He has
followed a pattern of steady progression at every stop,
developing quietly during his first two years at each level
before blossoming in his third. At Ely High in Pompano Beach he
played junior varsity as a freshman and was a varsity substitute
as a sophomore before attracting the attention of college
recruiters as a junior. At Temple he wasn't even a full-time
starter until his junior year. With the Lakers he was a rookie
surprise, then a solid second-year player before making the
All-Star team in his third season.
His teammates understand how essential Jones is to the Lakers'
success. "Nick is our first weapon," says O'Neal. "Eddie is our
second weapon, and I'm the atomic bomb." Jones can do damage
offensively, particularly on his slashes to the basket and on
the fast break--he is among the league's best finishers--but he
made his reputation on defense. Longtime Lakers assistant coach
Bill Bertka considers Jones's defensive skills to be equal to
those of Michael Cooper, the Lakers' stopper during the Showtime
era of the '80s. Jones has been known to predict how many steals
he will get before a game and then make his prediction come
true. In a game against the Philadelphia 76ers last season, he
correctly foretold that he would have seven steals--a modest
guess, considering that he once had eight thefts against the
Sixers. "Sometimes with young teams that like to get up and down
the floor, you know the ball will be thrown around a lot because
they're going to be aggressive," Jones says. "When that happens
I know I can get my hand on a lot of balls. It's just a matter
of anticipating and picking your spot."
Like the Lakers, Jones has picked all the right spots so far
this season. At the Forum fans have been chanting his name just
a bit more than usual lately, perhaps their way of saying they
don't want him to be traded any more than he does. The chant,
"Ed-die, Ed-die, Ed-die," rises like a wave. It's the kind of
wave that Jones should have no trouble surrendering to.
If Eddie Jones stays hot and either Kobe Bryant or Nick Van Exel
gets hotter, the Lakers could achieve a rare double: having
three players with scoring averages of 20 points or more per
game and six with scoring averages in double figures. Come
playoff time, however, such an achievement may not be so
desirable: None of the three teams that accomplished that feat
(with the players scoring in double figures appearing in a
minimum of 40 games) came close to winning an NBA title.
TEAM PLAYERS/PPG RECORD/POSTSEASON
1966-67 Sam Jones/22.1 60-21/Lost to the 76ers in the
CELTICS John Havlicek/21.4 Eastern finals
1969-70 Chet Walker/21.5 39-43/Lost to the Hawks in the
BULLS Bob Love/21.0 first round
1980-81 David Thompson/25.5 37-45/Did not make the playoffs
NUGGETS Alex English/23.8
1997-98 Shaquille O'Neal/24.5 11-0*
Lakers Eddie Jones/21.7
Nick Van Exel/17.1
*Through Nov. 23 Source: Elias Sports Bureau