By Chris Lane
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So when the Rockets showed up for training camp, Jones, who'd long ago decided he was NBA material, made sure to shag balls for the team. He also made sure the Rockets knew he'd one day be in the league; he even challenged them to shooting contests – and held his own.
"He talked a lot of trash as a high school kid," recalls Robert Horry, a young Rockets forward at the time. "It was amazing. I'm like, 'This kid thinks he can play with us now.' "
Jones already had caught the attention of the University of Houston. The coaches liked his shot, his quickness. But mostly they liked him. They liked how, when they passed a note through his high school coach that read, "UH loves Damon Jones," Jones scribbled back: "Damon Jones loves UH!" They liked how Jones did as much talking on the bench as he did on the floor.
And like all great shooters, Jones seemed to consider himself always open. Says Robert Kirby, the former Houston assistant who recruited him: "He could go 0-for-30, and he thinks he's the best thing since fried rice."
Jones started as a freshman, averaging ten points a game and quickly emerging as the team's mascot-in-uniform. He was always turning off the hot water or tying up the freshmen – always doing something. He once tried to wear two different colored shoes during a game. "It bothered some other people," remembers Alvin Brooks, UH's head coach at the time. "But I didn't mind. That was just Damon being Damon. If you tried to contain or curb him, or keep him from that, he couldn't play."
After his junior season, in 1997, Jones thought he was ready to go pro. His coaches, his mom, NBA scouts – everyone told him to finish college, to work on his defense, his passing, his ball-handling. But Jones was expecting his first daughter, he says, and "had to come out and make some money."
Of the 58 players drafted, he wasn't one of them. Nor was he invited to a single training camp. He got a tryout with the CBA's Yakima Sun Kings but promptly got cut.
The International Basketball Association called, and Jones started his career with the Black Hills Posse of Rapid City, South Dakota. It was a season of 19-hour bus trips to Winnipeg and $277.05 a week after taxes. But it was a paycheck. "I was able to send money home," he says.
His play earned him a promotion to the Idaho Stampede of the CBA – and a raise to $1,200 a week. More important, it earned exposure. By February 1999, the New Jersey Nets wanted Jones's help. He played there for a month, then got cut. Over the next six years, he would do time with Boston, Golden State, Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Sacramento, Milwaukee – never lasting more than a year.
But if he hadn't proved it to anyone else, he'd proved it to himself: Damon Jones was worth some coin.
So when the Bucks offered him a million bucks in 2004, he said no. He'd watched free agents sign big deals, and he knew he could play with those guys. He waited on that contract.
It eventually came from the Miami Heat. They needed a shooter to keep defenses from collapsing on O'Neal, so they offered Jones $2.5 million a year.
"We're winning games, I'm able to contribute," he'd tell reporters later that season. "What more could you ask for?"
Oh, this should be good.
The press is huddling, this time outside the Cavs' locker room. The team just finished a brief morning shoot-around. Jones is still slumping, but for the moment, they've put that aside. They want Jones speaking Chinese. Now that'stelevision.
Jones has just finished explaining his new endorsement deal with Chinese shoe and apparel giant Li Ning. The company first called last season, when he was emerging as the Heat's goofy sidekick, the Alfred to Shaq's Batman and Wade's Robin. Jones remembers exactly what they told him: "We like your three-point shooting. And we like your personality."
Over the years, he had carefully noted the way stars like Shaq and Jordan used their personalities to maximize their marketability – and their paychecks. When Jones was finally getting recognized – albeit barely – he seized the opportunity.
"He knows that his 15 minutes of fame may run out at any time, and he's gonna maximize every single second of them," says Ira Winderman, who covers the Heat for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Whenever Shaq would walk into the arena, that shot ABC or TNT or ESPN would show of getting ready for the game, Damon was always next to him. Shaq's the last guy off the bus? Damon's with him. That's not accidental."
The way he holds three fingers over his palm after draining a three; the way he kicks up his leg when a defender guards him close; the way he lingers in the stands after chasing a loose ball: It's all him. But it's also his way of making ESPN pay attention.
"Damon could probably walk into a building and tell you the seven camera positions," Winderman says. "That's what he does. Give him credit. He works it. He's endured the system so long he knows how to work it."