Popeye Jones is scheduled to get an injection in his lower back Monday, hours before his Dallas Mavericks play his former team, the Washington Wizards, to help unknot a muscle/joint injury that had him unable to stand erect for nearly a week earlier this season. The shot is the latest in a series of treatments the power forward has received since throwing out his back in the preseason picking up his gym bag, of all things.
The freak injury, as well as a turned ankle in training camp, has all but ruined the best start in Mavericks history for Jones, who signed a one-year, free agent contract with NBA-best Dallas (22-4) after being spurned this summer by the Wizards (12-14).
"It's obviously frustrating because playing for a contender you want to contribute and do well," Jones said. "I was excited about this year. I want to get well and help. We've hit a funk and I want to help us get out of a ditch."
Things are going that well for the Mavericks, where a two-game losing streak is a funk. Part of the team's struggles, if they can be called that, is its lack of production off the bench, particularly inside, Coach Don Nelson said.
That's where Jones could help but so far, hasn't. He has played in just 11 games, averaging 9.3 minutes, 1.8 rebounds and 2.6 points.
"I played 19 minutes in San Antonio the other night and didn't get a rebound," Jones said. "You know that's not me."
The gritty banger who was a fan favorite in Washington led the Wizards in rebounding (7.3 per game) last season, his second with the team. He averaged 7.7 points and 24.3 minutes and started 40 of 79 games after finally shaking off years of injuries that slowed down a once-promising career.
His most important role for the Wizards, though, was in the locker room. He was what coaches call a "glue" guy -- a player who holds the team together no matter the adversity. Jones helped then-rookie Kwame Brown deal with the uneasy transition from high school and provided an ear to others who had gripes or concerns. He also nudged when needed.
No player was more respected.
Coach Doug Collins frequently proclaimed his affinity for Jones, saying, "He's one of my favorite people. He was a big reason why we were able to win 18 more games than the year before. He was the ultimate pro. I miss Popeye because he's a really great guy to have on your team. He's a winner. He was the ultimate pro for us. He was great with Kwame. I wish he was still here."
Despite those feelings, which were shared by many in the Wizards' front office, when it came down to negotiating a deal this summer, things never got serious. Jones wanted a multi-year deal so his family could move from Denver.
The Wizards did not want to commit years or big money because they have set things up to have millions under the salary cap next summer to pursue free agents. Plus, the team wanted to get its young big men -- Brown, Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood -- more playing time along with veteran Christian Laettner.
"It was frustrating because I established myself as leader on that team and having to leave that and to try to become a leader on a new team is tough," Jones said. "You have to earn the respect of the players on the court and I haven't been able to do that yet because of injuries. I earned that respect in Washington on the court and the guys really listened to me and I was a voice in the locker room."
Jones, who was mildly courted by Chicago and Seattle, signed with Dallas and Washington replaced him with Charles Oakley, who has provided a similar locker room presence but has not gotten much of a chance to establish himself on the court.
Said Brown: "Popeye was great. He was just like Oak. Oak has a little bit more aggressive approach but Popeye and Oak both want to help you. They're veterans who worked hard their whole career and they're trying to show that to me."
Wizards Note: Rookie forward Jared Jeffries twisted his right knee at practice today and had to use crutches to help walk to the team bus. Jeffries will be examined by the Mavericks' team doctor on Monday.