Life on the Fringe of the NBA: The Dwayne Jones Story

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Life on the Fringe of the NBA: The Dwayne Jones Story
Stephen Sylvanie

LAS VEGAS — In every corner of the world today, there are basketball coaches looking for a few good men who can be relied upon to show up on time, get rebounds and go home without causing a scene.

The supply of these good men is extraordinarily low, and the demand is increasingly high. So for the last nine years, Dwayne Jones, a 6'11" son of a construction worker from just outside Philadelphia, has made a robust living by traveling the globe, grabbing rebounds and making more than half of his free throws.

“I’ve seen it all, done it all almost,” he said. “I guess it’s just...I don’t know. It’s a journey.”

Itemizing Jones’ basketball transactions is sort of like trying to count water. He flows here and he flows there, sometimes staying for a while, sometimes barely getting out of the airport before he’s gone again.

He has been on five teams in the NBA and five in the NBA Developmental League. He has played in Turkey, China, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Lebanon, Bahrain and Qatar, but even he isn’t completely sure he could name all the teams that have held his rights since he entered professional basketball with the D-League's Florida Flame as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2005.

John Locher/Associated Press
Jones (right) with the Kings at the Las Vegas Summer League

This week he is playing for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, his 18th professional basketball organization in the last nine years. He has played in six countries since 2010 and has traveled so much that his passport ran out of room for stamps, so now he’s working on filling up passport No. 2.  

"We’ve had our house for six years, and I’ve never completely unpacked everything," said Jones, who lives in Wilmington, Delaware. "I try to keep stuff in a bag. If I’m going to a warm-weather climate, I have a bag for that. If I’m going to a cold-weather climate, I have a bag for that. I won’t say they’re fully packed, but if I need to get on a flight in an hour or two," it's no problem, he said.

 

Getting from There to Here

Jones went to high school in Aston, Pennsylvania, where as a 6'5" freshman he was so good that people around town told him if he worked hard and believed in himself he had a real chance of playing Division III ball somewhere.

“I was raw,” he said.

Well, he kept growing and he worked at it, and pretty soon the big idea was that he might be able to make it onto a small D-I roster. It ended up that he got a scholarship offer to Saint Joseph’s, which is bigger than “small” but still not the sort of school that regularly plays on national television.

That was, until Jones and the rest of his classmates arrived.

With Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, Pat Carroll and Jones, Saint Joseph’s in 2004 completed an undefeated regular season and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. The Hawks made it to the Elite Eight.

Jones averaged six points and seven rebounds that year. He averaged 10.1 points and 11.6 rebounds as a senior in 2005, but Hawks coach Phil Martelli thinks it was the team success in 2004 that made Jones, who redshirted as a freshman, an NBA prospect. He thinks it’s Jones’ quiet professionalism that has caused him to stick around.

AP Photo
Phil Martelli celebrates 2004 NCAA tourney win over Wake Forest.

“You have to be a decent human being,” Martelli said. “I can’t overemphasize that enough. None of these guys, none of the foreign guys, none of the pro guys, none of them want to be dealing with issues. With Dwayne Jones, there’s no issues.”

When Jones was coming out of St. Joe's, what NBA scouts saw was a guy with good size, good work ethic, minimal ego and no offensive game whatsoever. Jones went undrafted, which bugs him to this day, and it bugged him even more that people kept saying he couldn’t score.

He spent the first few years of his career trying to prove those people wrong, trying to show teams his jump shot and post moves, but eventually he figured out the market was strong for players who would show up on time, get rebounds and get home without causing a scene, so he stopped trying to be something he wasn’t.

That identity issue worked itself out organically.

“Teams weren’t going to run plays for me,” he said.

 

His Pro Odyssey Begins

And so it was that for Jones, basketball became as much a trade as it was a profession. He was traded for the first time as a rookie in 2006, a small piece of a deal that sent Jones, Michael Olowokandi, Wally Szczerbiak and a first-round pick from Minnesota to Boston for four players and two draft picks.

Jones played in 14 games for the Celtics before getting traded to Cleveland for Luke Jackson. That deal would turn out to be the high point in Jones’ career. From 2006-08, he played in 60 games for the Cavs, who made the NBA Finals in 2007.

Jones averaged 8.2 minutes, 1.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in those 60 games, and although those numbers were not technically career highs—he averaged 8.7 minutes, 2.0 points and 2.0 rebounds in six games for Charlotte in 2008-09—Jones’ career is better measured in games played than points scored.

NBA teams have paid Jones a combined total of $1.8 million, and $1.4 million of it came during that two-year stretch in Cleveland.

AP Photo
Dwayne Jones, far right, on the Cavs bench with LeBron James.

“I definitely consider Cleveland my unofficial basketball home,” he said. “To me, it reminded me of where I grew up.”

Jones’ actual home, which he occasionally visits, is inhabited by his wife, Jessica, and their two rambunctious young boys, ages five and three. Jessica and Dwayne met in college, so Jessica had a good idea her life might involve a little bouncing around, and, hey, they were young, childless and making plenty of money—what a fun way to spend your 20s!

“In the beginning it was fun, when we were young and I didn’t have kids,” she said. “Now, the kids are getting older. It would be nice to have the extra set of hands at home. I always, in my mind, thought 30 was the end. I thought at 30 you were tapped out. I was always banking on 30. Here it is, over 30, and he’s still doing it.”

Jessica says she’s the opposite of her even-keeled husband, who has on occasion come home with job opportunities in parts of the world that gave her pause.

“There are some places he’s brought up that I’ve shot them down just because I think it’s too terrifying, the idea of it,” Jessica said. “Like, Venezuela he brought up before. Some of those Middle Eastern ones I said no like five times before I told him I guess it’s OK.”

 

Photo by Stephen Sylvanie
Dwayne Jones battles for inside position in NBA Summer League game against San Antonio.

Old for the NBA Summer League

Jones turned 31 in June, which makes him extraordinarily old for an NBA Summer League guy. The summer league is for rookies and D-Leaguers, guys 10 years younger than Jones.

“It’s kinda funny,” he said. “I feel like I have more conversations and more in common with coaches and executives than players.”

The summer league serves a couple major functions within the global basketball ecosystem: 1) It’s a place for NBA rookies to acclimate themselves to professional basketball; and 2) it’s a place for scouts from overseas to find good players who aren’t quite good enough to play in the NBA.

It is tempting to think of guys like Jones as failures, and by the strictest definition, they are. They are trying to play in the NBA, and not succeeding.

But according to the International Basketball Federation's most recent data (which is from 2007), there are about 78 million basketball players on earth. Just 450 of them, give or take, are on NBA rosters at any given time, which means that if you are even close, if you’re close enough that you have a practice jersey from the Sacramento Kings, you are (probably) better at your job than anyone you will ever meet.

If life is a single-elimination tournament, you are in the championship game.

“To be able to make it to the NBA and to come where I came from, I feel like my basketball career is a success,” he said.

Monday in Las Vegas, the Kings played something called the D-League Select, which is exactly what it sounds like. The biggest name on that team was Devin Ebanks, who was a star at West Virginia four years ago.

Photo by Stephen Sylvanie
Dwayne Jones, far left, watches the Kings play the Spurs from his seat on the bench.

Jones, who is playing in the summer league for the sixth time, sat on the bench and chewed gum and looked up at the scoreboard a lot. When there was a timeout, he popped up to exchange high-fives with his teammates, the way good bench guys do. He sat and sat and sat, and then the score got a little lopsided and it was down to the last couple of minutes, and if he was going to get in, this was going to be the time.

Instead, the Kings went with a giant named Sim Bhullar, who stands 7'5", weighs 360 pounds and, perhaps most importantly, is 21 years old.

The Kings are three months from deciding on a roster, but Jones has been cut, traded, signed and released so many times that he generally has a feel for it.

“I wish I could sit here and say I had a 95 percent chance of making it,” he said. “I’ve kind of become more realistic with things like this. If they play me, great, I’ll go out there and do what I can. If not, I’ll be on the bench and cheer guys on.”

 

He's Not Done Yet

So he keeps his bags packed. Could there be another stamp on the passport this fall? The rejection doesn’t sting like it used to, but it’s still rejection.

AP Photo
Dwayne Jones as a member of the Orlando Magic.

“The very first time it happened, I was in Orlando and we were in training camp,” Jones said. “I really thought I made the team. I thought I made a good impression. I remember being brought into the office and having a talk with Coach (Stan) Van Gundy and him telling me they were going to let me go.

"I remember walking back to the hotel just thinking it was like the end of my world. ... It always sucks, but with the experience I’ve had, I can sense it. I’ve gotten used to the business. I know how it works."

Jones and his family have gotten used to the travel, but it’s not the way Jones wants to live his life. There’s a reason he bought a house just three miles from his father.

“I’m actually a homebody,” he said.

He thinks he’ll give it a few more years if he can. Maybe five or so. He’s not done yet, but he can see the end from here. His wife wants him at home, and his kids aren’t babies anymore. Sometimes they get upset when he leaves, and they get very excited whenever he comes home.

So, yeah, it’s a living. Most of the time that’s what it is, and Jones could hang 'em up today and start as a coach or a scout immediately. He knows more basketball people than almost anyone on Earth. That’s all in his head.

But then there are those nights. Game nights. And they throw the ball up and Jones guards the post and gets rebounds and it’s me vs. him, us vs. them, and afterward he’ll call his wife and tell her about it and she’ll know it’s not over yet.

“Usually when I’m thinking it’s time for him to hang it up and come home, he’ll play a game and he still has that sound in his voice,” Jessica said. “You know he still loves it. Those game days, you can hear it.”

 

Tully Corcoran has been working in professional journalism since 2003, covering everything from high school soccer to the NFL to the Final Four. He lives in Houston and loves sandwiches.

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