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If you had traveled along U.S. Highway 68 last week-swerving past the road kill, breezing by the $16-a-night motels and finally finding your way into the town of Murray in western Kentucky—you would have come upon a scene reminiscent of a time long past in college basketball, a time when the biggest guy on the floor was only 6'8", when arenas had rafters instead of domes and when a season-ending conference tournament really meant something.
Remember 1974, the year when North Carolina State and Maryland were two of the nation's best teams, yet only one could represent the ACC in the field of 25 teams that competed in the NCAAs? Thus the ACC tournament was huge that year, and the basketball those two teams played in the final reflected that importance. The Wolfpack won 103-100 in overtime and went on to become national champions. The Terps stayed home.
Today, in this era of runaway bid inflation and a 64-team field, most league tournaments aren't much more than money-making socials. But a bid's still a bid in the Ohio Valley Conference, and last week in Murray, where the county is dry, the basketball was appropriately sober. The Ohio Valley team rated highest in the USA Today computer rankings was Murray State, the conference's regular-season champion, which logged in at number 144. So the chance that someone other than the tournament champion would receive an at-large bid was, as one league official put it, "somewhat less than slim, and maybe a fraction above none." No matter that representatives of this amalgamation of seven schools have pulled off first-round NCAA upsets in each of the past three seasons; there would be only one bid for the OVC. End of discussion.
Thus the business attended to at the 36-year-old Racer Arena in Murray was serious, notwithstanding the whimsical name of the most efficient fellow on the floor. He's the conference's regular-season Player of the Year and tournament MVP, a 6'8", 255-pound cholester-All-America candidate, a sophomore at Murray State known as...Popeye.
He has a brother everybody calls Brutus, and a mother everyone calls Sweet Pea.
They call you Sweet Pea because of him?
"Nah," says Anna Bondurant, who raised Ron (Popeye) Jones and four other children in Dresden, Tenn. "They call him Popeye because of me."
She's kidding, of course. Ron is called Popeye because another brother (no, he is not called Wimpy) happened to be watching the eponymous cartoon character on TV when Bondurant brought her newborn home and asked, of no one in particular, what he ought to be called.
So Popeye it is. In truth, Popeye looks more like Olive Oyl—facially, anyway—except for the ears, which struck spectators at Lamar earlier this season as resembling Dumbo's. No wonder a knot of fans at Tennessee State—borrowing from Who Framed Roger Rabbit—taunted him in late January by yelling, "You're a 'toon, Popeye, you're a 'toon!"
Below the face, Jones devolves into long-limbed, bottom-heavy amorphous-ness. He's not unlike the inflatable toy down in the rec room that snaps back up when you give it a whack. Yet Jones is positively chiseled compared with what he looked like last season, when he weighed 309 pounds, took medication for high blood pressure and couldn't play more than a few minutes at a time because of poor conditioning. His size 15 sneakers were wobbly pedestals beneath his size 48 shorts. "Health-wise," Popeye says, "I knew I didn't want to go through life being big."