Seth Jones' Fast Break

Popeye Jones played in the NBA for 11 years and introduced his kids to the likes of Michael Jordan, so why did they choose to chase their dreams in the NHL? Maybe because they were too good not to try.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterApril 2, 2019

You wouldn't exactly call what Popeye Jones did on the ice that day skating. For most of the year leading up to his hockey debut, Popeye had been playing for the Washington Wizards. His three sons, meanwhile, had stayed with their mother in Denver and had taken intense lessons from a former figure skater. When Popeye saw their progress, he began to realize that he wouldn't be raising basketball players. But rather than bemoan his boys' choices, he wanted to learn what they loved about the sport.

For the 6'8" Popeye, just getting on the ice presented plenty of problems. The first was that no stores stocked skates that could accommodate his size 17 feet. So he called CCM—the Nike of ice hockey equipment—to create a custom pair for him. The second problem was that he didn't want to be seen. He was an NBA player with an athletic reputation, after all, and he knew this wasn't going to be pretty. So he decided to rent an entire rink.

For his sons, it was sheer joy. Caleb, the baby, "checked" his dad. Justin, the oldest, faked slap shots at his mom. And Seth, the middle child—now one of the NHL's best defensemen with the Columbus Blue Jacketsskated circles around everyone. For the parents, it was less of a thrill.

Amy, the boys' mother, fell trying to dodge one of Justin's fake slap shots and bruised both her knees on the ice. And Popeye…well, he never really skated. The only time he let go of the side railing was when he made a short push toward the net to lean on it instead. "He never fell, though," Seth jokes now, "which was unfortunate, because I would have loved to see that."

"I realized around then that they ain't ever going to play basketball," Popeye says. "They'll go to the park or the driveway or the Y and mess around, but hockey was their sport."

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Neither parent ever skated again. Those custom skates are collecting dust in a box in Popeye's basement. But the boys never stopped. And for the middle son, Seth, that day on the ice was one of the first strides on the path to breaking out of his NBA father's shadow and making a name for himself as one of hockey's brightest young stars.

How children choose their hobbies is often a mystery to their parents. Popeye and Amy put their boys onto every field, course and court possible. The kids played team sports like soccer and lacrosse and tried individual sports like tennis and golf. "Of course," Popeye says, "I always thought it would come back to basketball."

In 1999, Popeye, a power forward with the strength to match his childhood nickname, landed with the Denver Nuggets. The family moved from Dallas, where Popeye had originally settled after being drafted in 1993, to Denver, and Justin found friends who played hockey. A few sets of rollerblades and a net in the cul-de-sac soon evolved into ice skates and pads and playing on travel teams.

Justin played a year of basketball, and so did Caleb, but for Seth, hockey froze out every other interest. "I don't even know what drew me to hockey," he says. "It wasn't one thing. I just loved to skate. It made sense to me, and I had fun doing it."

Popeye Jones played 11 seasons with six different teams in the NBA, and while his sons were frequent visitors to his locker rooms, they never took up basketball.
Popeye Jones played 11 seasons with six different teams in the NBA, and while his sons were frequent visitors to his locker rooms, they never took up basketball.JEFF KOWALSKY/Getty Images

Seth spent plenty of time around basketball, of course. He went with Popeye to practices and would play Xbox with his brothers in the players' lounge. But hockey always came first. When Popeye was playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, Seth was fundraising for his travel hockey team and asked his dad to get him a signed pair of sneakers from Michael Jordan for an upcoming auction.

Instead, Popeye sent Seth two stalls down to ask Jordan himself. Jordan grabbed a pair of game-worn shoes and signed both of them on the spot. "I don't remember how much money they went for, but I know it was a lot," Popeye says. "They auctioned the shoes off one at a time."

When Popeye retired and returned to Dallas as a player development coach, Seth would watch his dad defend against Dirk Nowitzki in warm-ups. But he was equally enthralled when team owner Mark Cuban offered his suite to the family for any of the Dallas Stars' home games. After the games, Popeye would use his all-arena access pass to plant the kids right in the path from the visitor's locker room to the bus so that they could snag a few autographs.

Those flashbulb basketball moments, though, weren't part of the boys' everyday reality. As his playing career wound down and his coaching career picked up, Popeye moved from city to city while Amy stayed in Denver with the kids. They separated and then eventually divorced before Seth was through high school. And so around the house, the honorary title of Coach Jones belonged not to Popeye but to Amy.

It was Amy who found the boys' skating instructors and Amy who discovered the defensive coach who put Seth on the path toward stardom before he was a teenager. She ordered the instructional VHS tapes and watched them in the basement with her sons until everyone understood each concept. She bought the coach's whiteboard with the ice outline and made them diagram plays after practice. She even showed them how to get away with little shoves while the refs weren't looking. She called it Amy's Sneaky Trips Camp.

She shuttled them to their games and recorded them. And if she ever caught them giving any less than their absolute best effort, she was the one with her face pressed to the glass staring them down. "Every iota of my being went into those kids," she says. "My whole life revolved around them, and that's exactly the way I wanted it."

They returned to Dallas when Seth was 12, and for a few years the family was mostly in the same city. It wasn't long before Seth stopped being "Popeye's son" and became one of the area's most promising hockey prospects.

The benefits of being from an athletic family were obvious in his game—he had broad shoulders and a big frame but was still exceptionally quick. He had the work ethic of a professional too, arriving early to every practice and game and never talking back to coaches. And he also had a feel for hockey that was all his own.

Seth Jones displayed the work ethic he had seen often around his dad in becoming a quick-rising hockey prospect before the age of 15.
Seth Jones displayed the work ethic he had seen often around his dad in becoming a quick-rising hockey prospect before the age of 15.Photo courtesy of Amy Jones

By age 15, he bolted for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, finishing first in defensive scoring in his first season and second the next. The following season, he was in the Western Hockey League, registering 56 points in 61 games and winning Rookie of the Year Honors. He was the consensus No. 1 overall prospect entering the 2013 NHL draft and was even talked about as a generational talent.

Instead, he spent an agonizing 40 minutes mic'd up in the green room at Newark's Prudential Center before the Nashville Predators selected him fourth overall. Amy sweated through every second right next to him while Popeye waited in the tunnels.

After the photoshoots and interviews, he finally found his father and they embraced. Popeye told him not to worry about falling to fourth. "After all," Popeye says, "I was a second-round pick. They didn't even invite me to the draft. I watched it at home."

Seth had been disappointed, but it didn't last long. The son had eclipsed his father in a meaningful way. He wasn't an NBA player's son, but a professional player in his own right.

Seth was out to dinner in Nashville in January 2016 when he got a call from general manager David Poile. He thanked Seth for his service and told him he'd been shipped to Columbus. Seth paid for the appetizers he hadn't eaten and went home out of sorts. As usual, his parents knew exactly how to respond.

Amy had moved to Nashville with Seth to help him transition to adult life. They actually liked to joke that it was he who lived with her, not the other way around. She had been out that night as well but rushed home to help him with the logistics.

As the weight of the moment overcame Seth and he began to weep, Amy gave him a hug and helped him pack. When Popeye called later that night, he got the first laugh out of Seth. Popeye had been traded six times in his 11-year NBA career, and he told Seth, "You've got a long way to go if you want to catch me, buddy."

Seth has excelled with the Blue Jackets, who were so committed to him that they signed him to a six-year, $32.4 million contract a little more than six months after acquiring him. In his first full season with the club, the 6'4", 210-pound Jones led Columbus in ice time and, despite missing six games with a right foot fracture, earned career highs in goals, assists and points. Last season, he was selected as an All-Star and tied the Columbus franchise record for single-season goals by a defenseman. He finished fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy, presented annually to the NHL's top defenseman.

This year has brought more honors. Predicted to win the Norris Trophy by The Hockey News before the season, Jones played in his third straight All-Star Game in January. While he missed the first seven games this season with an MCL sprain, he still ranks fourth in the league in minutes per game. His 45 points lead all Columbus defensemen. Most important, he has the Blue Jackets in a heated battle for the final wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference.

As one of the NHL's few non-white stars, Jones understands the importance of his success. And that's his main motivation for maintaining a sterling reputation. "I'm 50 percent black and 50 percent white. I'm not going to put myself on either one of those sides," he says. "I don't think I need to. At the same time, if African-Americans want to continue to play the game, I can be the guy they look up to. They come to the game and they want to meet Seth Jones, and that's pretty awesome to hear. When I hear that it puts a smile on my face, and it puts more responsibility on me too."

Seth, with his mother, Amy, and his younger brother, Caleb, who made his NHL debut earlier this season for Edmonton.
Seth, with his mother, Amy, and his younger brother, Caleb, who made his NHL debut earlier this season for Edmonton.Photo courtesy of Amy Jones

Even now, in his sixth professional season, his parents aren't afraid to offer their advice. Most nights, Seth will return to his locker, pick up his phone and discover a dozen messages from his mom. They range from a nonsensical string of emojis to practical advice like "SHOOT THE PUCK!" Amy insists that it's not after every game, but Seth jokes that it feels that way. "I always ask her," he says, "Do you think I have my phone out there with me? Did you think I was going to answer?"

Texts from Popeye come too, though normally later. Now an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers, Popeye doesn't normally see the Blue Jackets' box scores until after Indiana has finished playing. When he's on the road, he'll prop up his iPad next to his laptop and watch replays of his sons' games while he types out his team assignments. Although Justin's pro career never panned out, Caleb is a rising prospect in the Edmonton Oilers organization and was called up from the AHL for 17 games this season.

Only then did Seth begin to understand the parental impulse to send a message. "I was more nervous for his first game than I was for mine," he says. "I was on the couch, and I didn't really move. I know how hard he's worked and what he's been through to get up to this point. I was laughing because I was realizing just a little bit what it's like to be a parent. I almost texted him. The game was going on, and I was like, 'What the hell are you doing out there?'"

In the next few years, so many of Seth's career goals seem achievable. He could win the Norris Trophy. He could become Columbus' captain. (He is already an alternate captain.) And if the aggressive moves the Blue Jackets made at this year's trade deadline pan out, he could be the linchpin of a perennial contender.

But the most meaningful one for him is to face off against Caleb. Even though they're both defensemen, Seth says he'll be angling for an opportunity to face his little brother one-on-one. "I know he'll try to get me to take a penalty," Caleb says.

Amy has been making her plans too. For the past few years, she's racked up the frequent flyer miles, seeing each of her three sons at least every two months. When Caleb and Seth finally meet, she'll have a Fathead for each of them and a jersey that's somehow split down the middle. "I always wanted so much for them," she says, "and it's amazing to see what they've accomplished. They are each their own men now."

As hockey has become a career for Seth, basketball has become an escape. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Seth would make the two-hour drive north at least once a year to watch the King play in person. He even got to meet James after a game once, and it brought back all the butterflies he used to get as a child walking into the locker rooms with his father. He never played organized basketball, but that doesn't mean the game hasn't mattered to him.

Jones, who reached his third straight All-Star Game this season, ranks among the league leaders in minutes played and leads all Columbus defensemen in scoring.
Jones, who reached his third straight All-Star Game this season, ranks among the league leaders in minutes played and leads all Columbus defensemen in scoring.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"Basketball has always been a big part of my life because of my dad," he says. "Still to this day, basketball is my favorite sport beside hockey. The NBA is my favorite thing to watch on TV."

He rarely plays pickup basketball these days—"I play hockey, so I don't need any help getting hurt," he jokes—but he did make one exception last summer. He and Caleb were training at home in Dallas when Popeye flew in for Father's Day weekend. At dinner one night, Popeye playfully ribbed them about how much better off they'd be financially if they'd chosen basketball. The next day, they got their revenge.

After lifting weights at a local Lifetime gym, they played a version of King of the Court in which you keep the ball after a make and have to sub yourself out after a miss. They played to 15, and Seth cruised to an easy win. Then they played H-O-R-S-E, and Caleb won. "They had never beaten me in anything," Popeye says. "And I was shut out—by hockey players, of all people."

The next day, Popeye went to the rink to watch Caleb and Seth train. He saw how Seth coached his younger brother through positional drills and helped him refine his shot. As Caleb and Seth came off the ice, Popeye stopped them and told them how proud he was—not that they'd become professional athletes, but that they had chosen to spend so much time together. He thanked Seth for focusing so much on his little brother's development. Caleb grinned. And Seth just said: "I'm happy to do what I can to help. We're family."


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