As an NBA journeyman, Popeye Jones had walked through the Rose Garden Arena in Portland dozens of times, whenever any of his six teams tangled with the Trail Blazers. But until the night of Sept. 21, 2012, he had never been there as a spectator, had never paid much attention to the concession stands—and definitely had never hidden his face to keep people from seeing his eyes well with tears. "I just stood there and watched them sell my son's jersey," he says, his voice catching with emotion, recalling the hour before Seth Jones's home-ice debut with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. "I couldn't believe how far, I mean how much work, I mean ... proud father, that's all. Proud father."
Popeye has reason to be proud. Last month Seth led all defensemen with six assists as the U.S. won the under-20 title at the world junior championships in Ufa, Russia. (Last April he captained the U.S. under-18 team to a world championship in the Czech Republic.) In his 46 games with league-leading Portland, Jones, 18, tops all WHL rookie defensemen, with 42 points, and is a gaudy +35. Last month the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau rated the 6'4", 205-pound backliner as the No. 1 North American skater for June's NHL draft in New Jersey. (It is widely assumed that Jones and 17-year-old Canadian center Nathan MacKinnon of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Halifax Mooseheads will be the top two picks.) When he is selected, Jones will make history as the first NHL player whose father played in the NBA. Add his talent and skill to his maturity and warm personality, and Jones could become the most marketable black player the NHL has seen.
On the ice Jones looks different than any other 18-year-old defenseman—for reasons that have nothing to do with the color of his skin. He skates with an economy of stride more common for players with smaller, less robust frames. At the opposing blue line, where indecision leads to turnovers, he is poised and moves without hesitation. "He has it all: size, smarts, skill and a great, great head for the game," says Phil Housley, Jones's coach at the world juniors. "He reminds me a little of [Hall of Fame defenseman] Larry Robinson when he was in Montreal. He's the total package."
Ronald (Popeye) Jones wasn't graced with his son's physical gifts. By his sophomore year at Murray State in 1989, the 6'8" center had cut his weight from 315 pounds to 250. Though his frame was newly thin, he kept his heavy legs. "I couldn't outrun anybody, outjump anybody, outlift anybody," he says. "But I carved out a career because I was always trying to learn and I was never satisfied."
At the NCAA tournament in 1990, Jones scored 37 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as the unranked Racers took Michigan State to overtime before losing 75--71, the closest a No. 16 seed has come to beating a No. 1. The defeat always rankled Jones. He was drafted by the Rockets in the second round in '92. Four years later, after he set a Mavericks record with 28 rebounds in a loss to the Pacers, he blamed himself for the defeat by misjudging a carom in the closing minutes. He didn't measure his game in points—he averaged only 7.0 in his 11-year career. He measured it in bruises and floor burns.
Still, Jones had his tricks. If you spread your feet, you'll make yourself wider. If you lean on someone before the ball hits the rim, they have to go around you, so you play taller. Instead of playing video games, he often tangled with Nick Van Exel—his teammate in Denver, Dallas and Golden State—in chess. When passing on advice to Seth, Popeye's best cross-competitive analogy came not from power forwards and point guards but from bishops and knights. "Control the middle of the ice the way you control the middle of the board and think two or three moves ahead of everyone," he would say. "See what board awareness does? Learn ice awareness."
Popeye was a basketball vagabond, jumping to Italy out of college for a season before returning to the U.S. in 1993 to play for six NBA teams over the next 11 years. When he played for the Mavericks, Stars center Mike Modano gave him tickets to a Dallas playoff game. When he played for the Raptors, he'd spend his off-nights trying to decode Don Cherry's blustery banter on CBC. In Colorado during the 1999--2000 season his Nuggets shared a weight room with the Avalanche, and Jones approached Avs captain Joe Sakic about getting his three boys—Justin, 9, Seth, 5, and Caleb, 3—into hockey. The two oldest had been pestering him to play. Sakic didn't know Jones from the Jolly Green Giant, but he recognized genetic potential when he saw it. "First of all, they'll be huge," he said. "Never mind hockey. Just get [your kids] skating. Get them comfortable on their feet. The sooner, the better."
Jones put the boys in figure skating lessons. "I figured technique was the most important thing," he said. "Fundamentals."
Seth took to the blue line because, he says, "if you're a forward, it's go, go, go. It's reaction. On defense, you have the whole game in front of you." He can also, of course, play a little hoops. (In a driveway last summer, the son coaxed his dad into lobbing him an alley-oop. "I had no idea he could dunk," Popeye says.) But Seth never fell in love with the game. "My dad may not like it, but [basketball] was too slow for me," he says. "Hockey had an intensity, but also a structure, I just always loved."
Jones won his first national title at the peewee level, as one of only two 10-year-olds playing on the Littleton Hawks, a team of 11- and 12-year-olds. Coach Kent Murphy recalls how well Jones took his mantras to heart: Never argue with the referees. Don't bang your stick. Don't speak badly about your teammates. Never pull up short on your drills. When Jones was the Hawks' captain in his final year, he would make sure to introduce himself to new teammates to make sure they felt welcome. "When he was 12, you'd think he was an 18-year-old, the way he comported himself," says Murphy. "He never made anybody feel like he was our best player, which he was. But he made them feel like the team would be better because they were there."