Popeye is the Pied Piper

Popeye is the Pied Piper

January 14, 1999

   WALTHAM - Ronald Jones has always had good timing. You should take that statement literally. Jones has been alive for 28 years. He has had good timing for 28 years.

It started in 1970, when he was only a few days old. He just happened to arrive from the hospital at the same time his older brother, David, was watching the animated, spinach-gulping Popeye on television. So after being alive for fewer than 100 hours, young Ronald Jones had a cool nickname for life: Popeye Jones. Try saying it and you'll find that one sounds strange without the other. The merger of "Popeye" and "Jones" rolls naturally, no?

When he's on basketball courts, Jones seems to have a side deal with time. Think about it: He is a 6-foot-8-inch forward who doesn't jump very well, yet he has averaged 9 rebounds a game for his career. During the 1994

-95 season, he collected the most offensive rebounds (329) in the NBA. And you know what coaches like to say about rebounding. It's not jumping that matters; positioning and timing are more important.

So it shouldn't have surprised anyone when the NBA lockout actually helped Jones's career. If the lockout had been settled in the summer and training camp had begun on time - October 1998 - Jones wouldn't have been ready to play. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in November 1997. He was ready to play last October, according to doctors. "But to me, I just didn't feel comfortable," he said yesterday at Brandeis.

Jones spent his time rehabilitating, lifting weights, and doing conditioning drills. He watched the NBA lockout grow into a six-month tug. "I kept thinking, 'As it keeps going, I'm doing nothing but getting healthier and healthier,' " he said. He got healthier, following a workout routine that Shaun Brown gave the Celtics before the lockout. He heard the stories about players and owners losing income. You should not be surprised to know that Popeye Jones lost no money during the lockout.

"Financially, I was OK because I had been in the league a while," he said. "But I couldn't say I was losing money."

Why wasn't he losing money?

"Because I was a free agent. So in that sense, I wasn't really worried."

He's right. He spent last season watching games from the end of the Celtic bench. But he became a free agent July 1. No team owed him a check and he wasn't expecting one. And although he was working out in the Celtics' facility yesterday, wearing a black shirt with "Celtics" emblazoned on the chest, Jones is still a man without a team. But not for long. You should not be surprised by this: At least a half-dozen teams are interested in signing him, the Celtics among them.

Jones, though, is surprised.

"It's very shocking to me," he said. "Coming back from an injury, I didn't realize that many teams would be interested in my services. It makes me feel good and makes me work that much harder.

At this point, Jones is in a position to tell the Celtics to stand in line. He could demand a NASCAR clause in his contract, giving him permission to watch one of his loves any time he wants. He could ask for a clothing contract. Popeye is in demand.

"No," he said, laughing, "it's nothing like that. My take on contracts and stuff is that I really try not to get involved in the money part of it. I let my agent do that. One thing I do know is that it doesn't take a lot of money to live and be happy."

Now all the 250-pound Jones has to do is wait. He has his body fat down to 12 percent; "it is usually 20-something." His knee feels good. He is ready to play for the first time in more than a year and will be "a little nervous" on the first game night.

He definitely can help the Celtics. The team could use his rebounding and his presence. Jamal Mashburn, a former teammate, once called him the Pied Piper of basketball. That's why the Celtics, Sonics, Mavericks, and others are all interested in having him. Jones was asked if he had a preference.

"It's really not fair [ to the teams interested in him] for me to say that," he said. "But this is one of the teams I really like, and I think my services could really help this team. And I feel that I fit in here."

Jones does not have a team yet. He'll have one soon. And you get the feeling it will be the right one for him.

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