1-on-1 with Popeye Jones, an NBA lifer and champion with the Denver Nuggets
Another Championship Conversation — this time with Nuggets assistant Popeye Jones. He was on the Pacers' staff from 2013-2020.
After the Denver Nuggets handled the Miami Heat 4-1 in the NBA Finals last June, assistant coach Popeye Jones posed for a photo proudly holding the championship trophy and a bottle of champagne in celebration.
He texted that photo to his friends with the caption: “I’ve been chasing this girl for 30 years. I finally got a hug and a kiss.”
It’s a moment he’ll never forget. One of many.
It’s been a long road for this NBA lifer. He spent a decade playing in the NBA, in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. He then got into coaching and worked his way up from player development to assistant coach. To now, entering his third season on the bench with Michael Malone and the Nuggets, Jones has a whole new appreciation for the game.
Coaching was always in his future and he started grooming himself for a role during his final few years in the NBA, in Dallas and Golden State, since he wasn’t getting on the court.
“I never was one not to ever help young guys be successful in the NBA,” he said. “Even if they were ahead of me, I was always helping them and encouraging them, telling them things and trying to teach. So it was a natural fit to go into coaching after playing.”
He established himself as an assistant in Indy, first under Frank Vogel and then Nate McMillan. When the Pacers moved on from McMillan in 2020 and brought in a whole new staff, Jones and longtime assistant Dan Burke joined Doc Rivers in Philadelphia. However, Jones accepted a lesser role; he was behind the bench for games.
The following season, after Wes Unseld Jr. left the Nuggets to become the head coach of the Wizards, there was an obvious fit for Jones. Unseld called Jones and recommended him to Malone for the job.
Malone, meanwhile, had interviewed Jones previously for his staff in Sacramento so there was already a connection there.
“Popeye was a guy that I always heard nothing but great things about, whether it was from Frank Vogel, Doc Rivers or Dan Burke, a friend of mine who I have great respect for,” Malone said. “And they’ve always said the same thing: Yes, Popeye is former player but he works his butt off, he’s a student of the game, he’s coached offense and defense.”
It was an easy decision for Jones. Working with MVP Nikola Jokic was even sweeter.
“I had met my wife in Colorado, I love Colorado and I got married in the Rocky Mountains so I packed my things pretty quickly and got here,” he said.
Fast-forward to his second season in Denver. After their Game 5 win over the Heat, the emotions came pouring out. So many all at once. The national TV broadcast captured an emotional Jones finding Jokic on the court, hugging him and simply repeating “thank you.”
A few weeks later, I spoke with him for a Championship Conversation. On his love for the game, journey throughout the NBA, landing with the Nuggets and celebrating the title. And now, ahead of ring night for the Nuggets, you can listen to that conversation with Jones — an assistant coach for the Pacers from 2013-2020 — at the bottom.
“When the horn went off, it was a surreal feeling at first,” he explained. “You reflect back on not only your coaching career, but I reflected back on even when I was a kid on the playground in the small town of Dresden, Tennessee. And then going to the junior high and playing. And then playing at Dresden High School and winning Mr. Basketball. And then going to Murray State and doing all I did there.
“Then being a journeyman in the NBA, tearing my ACL, hurting my back. The beginning of my coaching career, how I started from the bottom as a player development coach and worked my way up.