Popeye Jones on his hockey-loving sons, the NBA’s return and racial justice

Life’s been pretty hectic for Popeye Jones of late — and not just because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers, Jones — an 11-season NBA veteran with six different teams, including the Toronto Raptors — has been keeping busy with his job and a 10-month-old for a little while now, and the novel coronavirus rearing its ugly head only proved to complicate matters a little more.

And now, with the NBA set to return at Walt Disney World at the end of July, and a historic movement for racial justice marching forward every day, there’s even more on Jones’ plate to think about.

Sportsnet recently managed to catch up with Jones where, among other topics, he weighed in on the debate about whether NBA players should play during this time of civil unrest, the NBA’s return-to-play plan and his two famous NHL hockey-playing sons, Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers’ Caleb Jones.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

You’re an assistant with the Pacers. What have you done to stay busy from a coaching perspective in this social distancing world we live in?

Popeye Jones: I’ve just been participating in virtual coaching clinics that people are hosting online, studying film, studying not only our team but other teams and international teams. And listening to NBA coaches talk about basketball, international coaches talk about basketball and having phone conversations with other coaches to talk about the game. Just trying to get better in my mind and trying to keep my mind fresh and engaged in the game of basketball.

In regards to your team, Victor Oladipo had just recently returned from a bad knee injury last year and was looking pretty good. What’s he looking like now with the season close to resuming?

Before he went down, obviously, he was gradually getting better with every game. If I’m not mistaken, I think he was able to play in 13 games and I thought the last game we played against Boston was pretty special, he almost willed us to that victory.

I think you can do a lot of individual work, like that strengthening stuff, but you still need that game of basketball to help you get all the way back. I’ve been there in my career when I tore my knee up and, again, you can do all the stuff in the weight room and do all that stuff, but you do need to play basketball for your timing, for your reactions and just getting used to the game again. That’s the only way to get all the way back.

But I’m interested in seeing him and I’m excited to go down to Orlando and see what we can do with our full roster.

What’s your opinion of the NBA’s return-to-play plan?

I’m happy. All through the pandemic, I’ve done a lot of listening and a lot of reading about Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Fauci likes the NBA plan. So I have, listening to him, a lot of trust. He’s one of the best doctors, I think, in the U.S. and he’s happy with the NBA’s plan, so with him saying that it makes me happy.

It’s the only way, I think, that we’ll be able to do it. We’ll have to isolate, especially with the cases rising in Florida and also in Orlando. So this isolation and start plan we’re going to have to do this, we’re going to have to test every other day and, hopefully, everybody can stay healthy and we can get some sports back on TV, because I know a lot of people are wanting to see sports back on TV.

You mentioned the rising cases of COVID-19 in Florida. Does it make it you nervous you’ll be heading down into that hot zone soon?

It really doesn’t make me nervous just in terms of we’ll pretty much be locked up in Disney, even though, you’re right, we are in Florida where the cases are rising. But hopefully, again, I think that in today’s climate I don’t think we’re going to be able to do anything that’s 100 per cent safe.

You can’t even go to your grocery store or to the mall or out to dinner that’s going to be 100 per cent safe, but I think the NBA is taking the initiative to make it as safe as possible and I’m happy with their plan.

There’s another side to this return-to-play talk — whether it’s even OK for players to do so given the movement for racial justice we’re seeing around the world. What are your thoughts on what’s happening right now?

First of all, as a Black man growing up in Tennessee, in the Deep South, I think that there does need to be change and I think that the Black Lives Matter movement, you can see that it’s taken effect on not only America but the world. I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is, I remember back with Rodney King and you were seeing a lot of the protesting back then in L.A., but it was mostly African-Americans. I think that when you’re seeing the diversity that’s out protesting, it gives me hope that there will be change in America and the racial injustices.

The things that have happened to my race, as we know, it’s gone on for over 400 years. So hopefully we can help not only myself as a Black man, but we need everybody and we need the white society that we’re seeing step up and saying, “Hey, you know, there is a problem here. There isn’t equality and we need to help fix this problem.” And I’m actually really excited about it.

In terms of terms of playing, I think everybody has to make that decision for themselves. I don’t think people can bash a guy if he doesn’t play or bash a guy if does play. I think that there’s two sides to that story. You could say, “I’m playing because this is what I do. I work and I’m able to earn a paycheque and I can help my Black community with that money.” But then there’s the other side of it, as we know where you might say, “No, no, no, no. I’m not playing. I want to see change before I play.”

So, I can’t bash either side. I think a person has to make his decision on his own whether he chooses to play or not. Not only because of the racial climate, but also the individual player in terms of COVID-19, because there is going to be some risk. And not only COVID-19, you’ve also got to think about guys who, with their contracts, maybe that they’re up for a big contract and it’s a quick return to play. Maybe they think they’re going to get hurt and maybe they don’t want to come.

I think that Commissioner [Adam] Silver put it as best as he can: “We understand that this might not be for everybody.” And, again, I just feel that everybody has to make that decision.

If you were still playing today, would you want to play?

I think I would. Maybe I’m a little old school, but I know what I signed up for. My job is to play and hopefully by me playing then I could use my platform to help social change.

Maybe it’s easier for me to say because I don’t have to make that decision, but I think that I would play.

You have a 10-month-old who’s keeping you busy right now and, of course, you have three hockey-loving sons in Justin, Seth and Caleb, with Seth and Caleb playing in the NHL. Given the larger conversation going on right now, have you had those same discussions with your sons?

I’m actually headed down to Columbus to see Seth because before the COVID thing my 50th birthday was June 17 and I had a thing planned that we were all going to meet in Austin and go to a lake down there and rent a huge house and rent a boat and some jet-skis and hang out this weekend. So that plan got crushed because of the COVID thing – and I’m not going to be able to see Caleb because he’s in Texas – but I’ll get to drive down and spend some time with Seth in Columbus.

But we’ve talked on the phone and the biggest thing that we’ve talked about, you know, you hear these conversations and them being biracial kids – their mom is white – I told them and I said, “I don’t know if, when I think about, if I was right or wrong because I tried to shield you guys from racism.” Because we had discussions and they knew what it was, but I shielded them and they never really had to deal with it.

You hear a lot of NHL players who are talking, that are maybe biracial or that are Black, [spoke about] how they dealt with racism in the NHL or minor-league hockey or college hockey, but [my sons] never had to deal with it. I just used to always tell them to treat people the way you want to be treated and me and their mom used to tell them that, “You’re special. You’re both. You embrace the white society, but you also embrace your Black side.” And I’m proud of the young men that they’ve grown up to be, and they’ve obviously done that.

So it’s funny, Caleb talked to me and he said, “Dad, I’ve never been scared when the police got behind me when I was driving.” And I was like, “Well, I have growing up as a young man in the South, but it was something that maybe, growing up in the suburbs, you really didn’t have to deal with that.”

In regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re a man who seems quite close to your sons. How hard has it been not being able to see them regularly during all of this?

It is extremely difficult. You know, it’s kind of an emotional subject, and I’m sure that there’s a lot of other parents that maybe haven’t seen their kids or touched their kids or hugged their kids since all of this happened. And even with FaceTime and phone calls it’s still not enough, to be honest with you. It’s still not enough.

So extremely emotional subject and I’m going to be excited to see [Seth], COVID or no COVID. I’m going to give him a hug and just make sure he’s doing well.

You mentioned previously shielding your sons from racism when they were kids. How did you go about doing that?

I think how I went about doing it is I have Black friends and I have white friends and when they first went into a hockey rink I went ahead of them. And, you know, it’s a good question to ask because they could have easily encountered that experience in the locker room or on the ice when I wasn’t around them. But it just never happened because I think that it was always about, “You’re both. Embrace both races,” and to treat people the way you want to be treated, and you just hoped it worked out.

But, do they know about Black history? Yes. Do they know about white history? Yes. They understand what happened to Black people with slavery and they understand the whole history of that.

Given the general demographics of hockey, when you were going down to the rink with your sons when they were growing up, did you experience anything untoward when you were up in the bleachers watching them play?

No, I never did, and my kids have been pretty much all through Canada playing youth hockey. And maybe it helped because because I was an athlete and I was kind of visible because I played for the Toronto Raptors and was in the NBA. And even when they played in Denver, when they started. So if people said it behind our backs or something, I never experienced it and they never experienced it, and I know that that is rare in the world of hockey.

You know, I knew [racist incidents] could happen, but they chose the sport and I think that, as a father, I wanted to give them every opportunity in whatever sport that they liked. They played lacrosse, they played basketball, baseball, football, tennis, golf. So, as a father, I wanted them to experience whatever sport they wanted to play because I grew up playing basketball and football, and they found hockey and once they found hockey they fell in love with the sport.

And at first, yeah, I was kind of reluctant, like, “Hey, it’s the summertime, so now it’s time to put the hockey away and let’s do something else like play baseball or play golf or something.” And they would look at me like I was crazy. Like, “No, no, no, no. We still want to go to the rink and skate and play hockey.”

Specifically in regards to Seth and Caleb, have you had conversations with the two of them about what they might be able to do as biracial professional NHL hockey players to help further this movement in the fight against racial inequality?

I think that trying to get more minorities in the sport is the biggest thing in the conversation that I had. And I know sometimes the economics of the sport makes it tough to get minorities in the sport. But just trying to help advance the sport and give minorities an opportunities to play more [is what we discussed].

Because I look at some of the athletes in the other sports and I think that some guys could be some hell of some hockey players. Like, what if Michael Jordan decided that he wanted to play hockey? [laughs] Or even LeBron James, with the power and force and the size that he has, who decided as a little boy growing up in Akron that he wanted to play hockey and he became the Columbus Blue Jackets fan?

Maybe there’s a kid there right now in the Columbus area, or in Ohio, that’s watching Seth play and they grow up to be as big and strong as LeBron James and want to get on the ice or are already getting on the ice.

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