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AN HOUR before the Heat tipped off against the Sixers in Philadelphia last week, Miami point guard Damon Jones was already providing running commentary--on the action in the locker room. Loudly and enthusiastically he ribbed passing teammates, called out their nicknames (backup guard Keyon Dooling is "Sammy" because Jones thinks he looks like Sammy Davis Jr.), touted Shaquille O'Neal for MVP to any reporter who would listen ("I'm baffled that there is even a discussion," Jones said) and, while seated next to reserve forward Qyntel Woods, decided it was never too soon to wax nostalgic. "Just me and Q," Jones said wistfully, putting his arm around Woods, "reminiscing about those cheesesteaks we had earlier this afternoon."
Whether firing one-liners or three-pointers, Jones, a seven-year veteran, is the unsung spark plug of the team favored to come out of the Eastern Conference. "Damon being a very upbeat guy has been important," says coach Stan Van Gundy. "I tend to be very tough and very negative; he gives our locker room some positive energy and light."
What Jones doesn't bring to the locker room is humility. He calls himself "the best-looking man on the team" and the "funniest person in the NBA--and the world!" At least he's more realistic about his job on the court. "We're going to give the ball to Shaq and let him dictate the majority of the offense, then we're going to get the ball to [shooting guard Dwyane] Wade," says Jones. "People like me just fit in where we fit in."
Such willingness to play a role was exactly what Miami was looking for when it signed Jones to a one-year, $2.5 million free-agent contract last August. The team needed a playmaker who could serve as a butler: bring the ball up, then cordially present it to O'Neal or Wade. "We wanted a guy who didn't turn it over much, who could run our offense, make entry passes and make shots," says Van Gundy. The 28-year-old Jones has provided impeccable service. At week's end his assists-to-turnover ratio was 3.56 to 1 (fourth in the NBA), he was averaging a career-high 11.8 points, and he'd hit a franchise-record 221 threes on 43.5% accuracy (fourth in the league). No one else in the top 10 in accuracy was within 100 attempts of him; more than two thirds of his shots have come from behind the arc.
Jones is among the slower playmakers in the NBA, and when he launches from long range, he has so little lift that he looks as if he's playing Pop-a-Shot. Yet with the Heat's two stars drawing such extensive attention from defenses, Jones has had no problem getting open looks. Early in the season he would celebrate each triple he hit by raising the last three fingers of either hand for all to see. But Van Gundy found the gesture too provocative and told him to cut it out. "No big deal," Jones says. "I'm a basketball player first and an entertainer second."
Jones's road to point man on a title contender has been long, but his confidence seldom has been shaken. He left Houston in 1997, after his junior season, despite being advised by pro scouts to stay in school, went undrafted, then spent the next year kicking around the USBL and the IBA. During 1998--99 he tied a CBA record by getting called up to the NBA three times in one season. In seven years he has made nine NBA stops. "I never brag and boast about what I've done as a player," says Jones, who promptly does so. "But my last two situations, the guys that have played off-guard with me have been All-Stars, [the Bucks'] Michael Redd and Dwyane."
Jones stops short of takings credit for O'Neal's success, instead saying that Shaq took his game from "an eight to a 15, and the scale only goes to 10." That may explain Jones's devotion to the big man. He exits the bus on Shaq's heels, wears the same brand of sneakers and even got whistled for a technical seconds after O'Neal got one in a January game. The 6'3" Jones is so comfortable as a sidekick that teammates call him Donkey (to Shaq's Shrek) or Lil' Him. "I've always made it a tradition to be good friends with the shooters on the court," says O'Neal, who calls Jones his best friend in the league. "Off the court he's a funny guy, and laughing relieves a lot of stress." Upon seeing Jones in an outfit with a Latin flair, Shaq began salsa-dancing in the locker room and humming a song by the Miami Sound Machine.
Jones laughs off his nicknames, then turns serious about what he has learned from Shaq. "I never shy away from knowledge, and he's been there and he's done it," Jones says. "Anything he can say about how to approach this or that, I'm going to listen."