Hustle Time

Damon Jones has traveled from UH to all around the NBA chasing stardom and a sound bite

"I try to set myself up for the future," Jones explains. "That's why I do the radio shows, and do a lot of things with ESPN or TNT – to create that relationship for when the air finally goes out of the basketball."

And it's working. Jones is a regular on Kenny Smith's satellite radio show – a gig Jones secured because he's known Smith for years, and because he speaks his mind and can deliver a punch line.

When a Benz dealer in North Olmsted, Ohio, needed a spokesman, they picked Jones. And when Li Ning needed a pitchman, they picked him too. In January, Jones became the first NBA player to endorse the company's gear, signing a two-year deal he calls "very lucrative."

With LeBron James drawing attention, Jones hoped to repeat the success he found in Miami.
Walter Novak
With LeBron James drawing attention, Jones hoped to repeat the success he found in Miami.
With LeBron James drawing attention, Jones hoped to repeat the success he found in Miami.
Walter Novak
With LeBron James drawing attention, Jones hoped to repeat the success he found in Miami.

"And I'm not dealing with U.S. dollars," says Jones, whose journeyman mug is now on billboards in China. "I'm dealing with yen. And you know yen is stronger than the dollar? All right now. Now you're starting to put it all into focus. This Damon Jones kid is smarter than you guys think."

But all the promoting, accompanied by all the missing, is what has everyone booing. Announcing that he is "going global," and is now "just behind Yao" Ming, the messiah of Chinese hoops, magnifies every missed shot and errant pass. Other Cavs – Sasha Pavlovic, Donyell Marshall, Drew Gooden – can disappear for a half without the fans even noticing. But not Jones.

"Everyone recognizes the fact that he's a solid reserve role player," says Steve Kerr, the former Bulls guard. "But he likes to pretend like he's a superstar...He has to live with that when things don't go well."

So at every turn, the press swoops, and today is no different. But before they ask him about all those misses, they need some happy footage, something that will make him look the part of shameless self-promoter. Something people can boo.

So, Damon, know any Chinese?

He smiles into the camera and lets it go, a slow, deliberate run of obviously much-practiced Chinese: "Ee-che-doe-ker-nun." Anything is possible.

Money!The next day's stories will practically write themselves.


For home games, the Cavaliers ask players to arrive 90 minutes before tip-off. But by the time Jones pulls his Mercedes into the players' parking lot, he's usually 35 minutes late. He doesn't shoot much before games, and let's be honest: When you look this good, it doesn't hurt to make a grand entrance.

The walk to the locker room should take just a minute or so. But as Jones casually strolls through the arena's bowels, he stops to share a sincere hello and handshake with everyone he sees: security guards, reporters, support staff. Especially opposing players. After ten teams in eight years, he knows most of them. Ask him who his NBA friends are and he'll tell you, "Shit – half the league!"

Jones likens himself to Terrell Owens – the NFL's maligned wide receiver and a friend since they both played in California. They're both "misunderstood," he says. He even lifts one of Owens's favorite quotes: "I love me some me!" But while NFL players routinely bad-mouth Owens, finding an NBA player to bash Jones is a tougher proposition.

Journeyman? Sure. Shameless self-promoter? Of course. But the personality that fans boo is what makes him widely considered one of the league's best teammates.

"People take life too serious, and he's enjoying it," says Horry, the former Rocket now playing for San Antonio. "I think every guy around the league knows him and knows he just likes to enjoy life."

Former teammates and coaches credit Jones with keeping locker rooms loose, serving as a vocal leader and providing consistent comic relief in an otherwise tense work environment. The things fans see are just Damon having fun, they say; the things fans don't see are what make him a cherished teammate.

By the time Jones arrived at Golden State in 1999, Donyell Marshall had been trapped in the miserable Warriors organization for four years. Jones played there for only a few weeks, but he breathed life into the locker room, Marshall says. "In Golden State I didn't have too many fond, good memories of certain people," Marshall says. "But I've always remembered him."

Chris Webber, the 76ers forward often cast as scapegoat himself, played with Jones in Sacramento. Though Jones played just 49 games, Webber was miffed when the Kings let him go. "He always kept me upbeat, but at the same time he was real focused on the game and he was very serious about the game," Webber says. "When I played with Damon I really loved him.

"I think the bad rap comes from his putting his leg up when a guy's checking him, or putting the three sign. But that's from...people who aren't playing ball or don't play with him, and just have an idea of what the game shouldbe like."

And he's always prided himself on possessing the class clown's all-important off switch. "When it was time to get serious, he got serious," says Terry Porter, who coached Jones in Milwaukee. "He's a jokester, but not when it was time to do work." On game nights, as Jones makes his way toward the locker room, most of his teammates are already dressed, taped and shiny with sweat. Ask them about Jones, and they quickly go into NBA Interview Mode. Yes, forward Drew Gooden says that Jones's antics are "not a distraction," that "he's our family." Zydrunas Ilgauskas says, "Damon has our support 100 percent." And LeBron James swears that "we love Damon for who he is, and we don't want him to change for nobody."

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