COLUMBUS, Ohio — Popeye Jones spent two seasons as an NBA player in Washington, often using what was then called MCI Center as an incubator for his young son Seth and his budding hockey career. He recalls waiting after Wizards practices for the arena crew to switch the hardwood to ice so Seth could skate before the rink was inhabited by the Capitals.
One time, Seth had the idea of using his father’s connections to help raise money for his traveling youth hockey team. The kids were holding an auction, so Seth asked Popeye if he could score a pair of sneakers from teammate and locker neighbor Michael Jordan, who from 2001 to 2003 spent his final two NBA seasons with the Wizards.
Popeye had always wanted to support his son’s dream of playing hockey, even though he didn’t know anything about the sport. Mostly he wanted his son to learn how to be his own man. So he said he told Seth to approach Jordan at his locker and ask politely himself. Seth nervously walked up and asked. Jordan looked in his locker, pulled out a pair and signed them before handing them to the future NHL standout.
Popeye and Seth Jones have a unique place among father-son tandems in professional sports, and they reveled in some special moments this week.
Seth is now a 23-year-old defenseman for the Columbus Blue Jackets who helped his team storm his father’s old stomping grounds in Washington as Columbus won the first two games of its best-of-seven first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Capitals. After the Capitals’ road victory Tuesday night, Columbus leads the series 2-1 heading into Thursday night’s Game 4.
“Knowing that my dad has been here and played in this locker room, it’s pretty cool,” Seth said Saturday at Capital One Arena.
Popeye rushed to watch the Blue Jackets’ Game 2 victory on television the following night but not until after the Indiana Pacers — for whom he has served as an assistant coach since 2013 — upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of their first-round series in the NBA playoffs.
That very well could have upset Seth, too, because he is a longtime fan of Cleveland’s LeBron James. Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas and Denver, Seth never had any interest in playing any sport other than hockey, but watching basketball — specifically James — remains one of his passions. Seth texted his father last week to wish him luck in the playoffs and signed off on the note by adding, “Keep LeBron on the perimeter.”
Seth was led to hockey through the NBA. When he played with the Dallas Mavericks, Popeye got to know former Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano, and he took Seth and Seth’s two brothers to their first NHL game when Seth was still very young. When Popeye played with the Denver Nuggets, he approached Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic for advice on how to get his sons involved in hockey. Sakic told him to start with skating lessons.
“When we were driving to the rink, you see the glow on [Seth’s] face. You could see how much he loved it,” Popeye said.
Popeye had to teach himself the rules, memorizing the positions so he could relate to his son’s budding passion. He had always prided himself on being a quality defensive player in the NBA, so the thing that might have meant the most to him was when Seth told him he wanted to be a defenseman.
Popeye soon was teaching his son how to carry himself on the road — how to check into a hotel and how to order a wake-up call so he wouldn’t be late to practices and games with his traveling team. He taught him how to manage his time.
He also taught Seth not to look at race as an issue — Popeye is African American, and Seth’s mother, Amy, is white — but he knew his son was stepping into a predominantly white sport. Seth, who was selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2013 draft by the Nashville Predators, is one of just a handful of black players in the NHL. He said his place in that small fraternity is not at the forefront of his mind when he is on the ice, but he wants to help bring more diversity to the league.
“I’m just going out there and playing the game, right?” he said. “Obviously, it’s cool. There’s not very many African Americans in this league. We’re trying to grow the game nationwide, worldwide, so whatever I can do to help that cause, I’m going to help do it — and I know a lot of other players are on board that are not African American.”
Seth’s younger brother, Caleb, was a 2015 fourth-round draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers. The 20-year-old defenseman spent this season in the American Hockey League.
While he plans to expand his role as an ambassador for diversity in hockey, Seth has also become a fixture in Columbus and a more dominant personality for the Blue Jackets. He walked into Coach John Tortorella’s office last month and asked to take over coaching his younger defensive partner, Zach Werenski, who had been struggling.
“I want someone to show me on video — any coach, anybody in this league — show me another defenseman that can defend like he can defend and get up the ice and put the points up on the board like he can,” Tortorella said of Seth, who scored a crucial third-period goal in Game 1 against the Capitals.
On television, Popeye was watching his son celebrate in the same building he used to play in.
“You know,” he said, “it reminds me of when he was a kid playing.”