Chaney has been taking these phone calls ever since Jones graduated from Temple and joined the Lakers three years ago. They can hold an entire conversation without either one of them mentioning that it happens to be 3 a.m. "I'll call him any time of the day or night," Jones says. "Sometimes I'll call him late, when we get in from a road trip. It doesn't matter what time it is. We talk about life and stuff, everything but basketball. I guess by now he figures he's taught me all the basketball he can."
Chaney has taught Jones far more than X's and O's. It was at Temple that Jones learned how to carry himself, how to forgo all the attention-grabbing, celebratory antics. "Coach Chaney never liked high fives or chest bumping. He never liked any big show of emotion," says Detroit Pistons guard Aaron McKie, a Temple teammate of Jones's. "That's probably why Eddie is always so calm on the floor. Even after you're finished playing for Coach Chaney, you still behave the way he wanted you to, because you know he's watching."
One of the few issues Jones did not discuss with Chaney was the trade rumors. "I guess I wanted to prove to him that I could handle it," Jones says. "Plus Coach tends to get emotional, and I didn't want to be the cause of that. I didn't want us both getting emotional. I like to keep things a little more under control."
It is because he is so controlled that Jones has become that rarest of players: a low-profile Lakers star. Surrounded by O'Neal, the multimedia conglomerate; Bryant, the spectacular prodigy; and Van Exel, the unruly gunner, Jones often gets overlooked. "He lets his game do his talking for him," says Lakers coach Del Harris. "He doesn't showboat or call attention to himself. I think that's why coaches like him so much and why he's so respected around the league."
Not only does Jones not mind getting lost in the shuffle, but he also helps make sure that he does. For the most part he limits his public appearances to the time he spends on the court. "My friends know where to find me," he says. "Home." More specifically, at his pool table, honing the skills that have made him the Lakers' resident shark. Jones, who is single, changes his home phone number so often that even his teammates sometimes have a hard time getting in touch with him. "I just don't want my number getting into the wrong hands," he says. He apparently includes booking agents for television shows in that category. When Jones does get media requests, like recent invitations to appear on a pair of late-night talk shows, Vibe and The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, he has a standard approach. "I say, 'Yeah, I'd like to do that sometime,' and then hope they forget about it or find somebody else before I actually have to do it," he says.
Backup center Sean Rooks hurried into the Lakers' practice facility last Friday morning, worried that he was late for the club's workout. He was surprised to find that Jones was the only other player in the gym, leisurely talking to a reporter, and even more surprised to find that practice was scheduled for an hour later than he had thought, which meant Rooks had sped down the freeway for nothing. 'You don't want to do that," Jones told him. "That's what gets people in trouble, hurrying like that. That's why I never rush."
That seems to be Jones's approach to his career as well. He has followed a pattern of steady progression at every stop, developing quietly during his first two years at each level before blossoming in his third. At Ely High in Pompano Beach he played junior varsity as a freshman and was a varsity substitute as a sophomore before attracting the attention of college recruiters as a junior. At Temple he wasn't even a full-time starter until his junior year. With the Lakers he was a rookie surprise, then a solid second-year player before making the All-Star team in his third season.
His teammates understand how essential Jones is to the Lakers' success. "Nick is our first weapon," says O'Neal. "Eddie is our second weapon, and I'm the atomic bomb." Jones can do damage offensively, particularly on his slashes to the basket and on the fast break—he is among the league's best finishers—but he made his reputation on defense. Longtime Lakers assistant coach Bill Bertka considers Jones's defensive skills to be equal to those of Michael Cooper, the Lakers' stopper during the Showtime era of the '80s. Jones has been known to predict how many steals he will get before a game and then make his prediction come true. In a game against the Philadelphia 76ers last season, he correctly foretold that he would have seven steals—a modest guess, considering that he once had eight thefts against the Sixers. "Sometimes with young teams that like to get up and down the floor, you know the ball will be thrown around a lot because they're going to be aggressive," Jones says. "When that happens I know I can get my hand on a lot of balls. It's just a matter of anticipating and picking your spot."