The white Mercedes-Benz rounded the corner in Beverly Hills, gently pulled into the alley and stopped at a curbside spot that had been saved, allowing Eddie Jones either the convenience of avoiding the crowded valet parking structure for the arrival or the opportunity for a quick getaway. His wiry 6-foot-6 frame emerged from the driver's side, his father, E.J. Thigpen, a man who would gladly trade metabolisms, from the passenger door. Together, they walked to the back entrance of the nearby building.
It's four days after Jones has been named an NBA all-star for the first time and he's here for an autograph session being sponsored by KLAC, the radio station that carries Laker games. Several hundred people wait, some for more than an hour, so he is escorted into Niketown, and then an elevator.
"I've just been told Eddie Jones is in the house!" Lance Jackson, KLAC's director of sports marketing and master of ceremonies for the event, announces.
The crowd squeals, literally squeals, in delight.
The Laker shooting guard, his father and friends along for the ride, reaches the second floor, steps out and walks the short distance to a small VIP lounge. Snacks await--Jones goes for a glass of juice--but so do the fans. This is impossible to forget because the scene downstairs is being broadcast on the built-in wide-screen TV in the small room. And the sounds that break through the walls and up from the hardwood floors.
"Ed-die! Ed-die! Ed-die!" the faithful chant in familiar refrain.
"Hear your theme song?" asks Lowell Moore, president of Successful Marketing Group, the firm that handles Jones' endorsements.
"Let's do it," Jones answers, impatiently.
Within seconds, he is ready to walk down the flight of stairs. Jackson goes into the introduction, noting how Jones starred at Temple, that he currently leads the NBA in steals, how he came to the Lakers as the 10th pick in the 1994 draft and how that "was a great day for L.A.!"
"Let's go," Jones says.
He sounds exasperated.
Stardom has landed on his doorstep and been greeted like it's ticking. Of course, once Jones finally does make it downstairs, weaving through the crowd with the help of narrow passages cut by rope, and settles into a director's chair next to Jackson, a couple of dozen children planted at their feet, things go well. He takes some basic questions from the audience, gives some basic answers, and they eat it up.
He can do this. He'd rather not, but he can do this.
"We fight all the time because he'd prefer to be home playing pool and watching TV," Moore said.
"I had arranged a part for him on the show, 'In The House.' We fought two weeks prior to it, we fought about it three days prior to it. I'm like, 'Eddie, it's national TV. It's great timing and will get you more national exposure.' And after that, he found that it was kind of cool. It's an interesting balance trying to keep him out there and also keep within his personality.
"We just had this conversation last night. I said, 'Eddie, you know your life is going to be altered. You're not going to be able to continue on a down mode. He said, 'I know. But it's not going to change me.' "
At least not much. Consider the project SMG is trying to line up now: Jones in a sports video with . . . the Olsen twins!
"I know I've got a battle coming," Moore said. "But we've been together 3 1/2 years, so I know if he really hated it I wouldn't still be here."
On this day, that means near Jones' side during the KLAC appearance. Thigpen, who came to Los Angeles for a visit from Parkland, Fla., can tell his son is nervous during the question-and-answer session because of the way he hurries parts of the responses into the hand-held microphone, almost stringing words together as one--"If wecontinue to grow, I cansee another championshipbanner in L.A."
Otherwise, Jones is handling the spotlight this day brings. Just then, Jackson announces that portion is over, that Jones will move behind the table to sign autographs, and wasn't it great he would take some time to speak to his fans first. The crowd cheers wildly. Jones' chin drops into his chest.
Thigpen motions to his son.
"He's got his head down so you won't see the glow in his eyes," the father said.
Jones may be known as a frequent flier on the court--dunks in transition or after beating his man off the dribble and then driving the baseline on his own, or with the steals that become a fastbreak basket for another Laker--but his personality is a contrast. Laid back. Chillin' when he isn't thrillin'.
"My time at Temple," he explains later. "That started it. Coach [John] Chaney never likes high fives, never liked any big show of emotion. I guess that just kind of rubbed off."
"I'm not really embarrassed," Jones said. "I really appreciate it. I just don't know how to handle it, I guess. People giving you things. All my life, I've had to work for things."