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Jason Jones takes work seriously, not himself

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Part two of our series on the locker room reporters who cover the Sacramento Kings features Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee.

Photo via Jason Jones

When I checked in with Jason Jones for this interview he was on vacation in his hometown of Los Angeles with nothing on his calendar but a trip to get his hair cut, the gym and a Dodgers game. It was some much-needed downtime for the LA native, who covers the Sacramento Kings as the beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. Most of the year you will catch him at Kings games and practices, where he commutes to from his home in Vallejo. He may or may not be decked out in a humorous or political-statement shirt or hat.

Or you may catch him at a WWE event. (Yes, he knows professional wrestling is not “real.”)

Or you may catch him on Twitter playfully defending himself as a Kings fan questions his background as a Los Angeles Lakers fan (he grew up watching them).

And if you attend a Kings game, you will probably see him courtside chatting it up with the players and coaches in a cool and calm manner to pull information out of them.

All this to say that Jones doesn’t take himself too seriously, nor does he think you should, but don’t confuse that with not taking his job seriously. In many ways, his lighthearted nature and dedication to his craft blend together to make up how Jones operates as a reporter. He has seen media members over the years take themselves so seriously that the players don’t want to talk to them because they don’t seem like real people. As he puts it, the players see reporters like that simply as someone with a notepad who shoves a recorder in their face. He takes a different approach.

“I ask these players to open up to me and get to know them on a deeper level, they can know about me. They can know that I like to hang out with my frat brothers on the road, or that I like the new Game album or I watch Power, I can do that. They can know that I have a shoe collection too,” he said.

Jones has been known to compare his kicks with DeMarcus Cousins’ shoes. He admittedly concedes that Cousins, of course, is going to have the better collection because he makes “more in a game than I make like in a year” so he will beat him every time.

“To me, stuff like that makes the job easier,” said Jones, who has long used his laid-back style to connect with players either in the NBA or the NFL. It takes some writing talent as well, which he began developing at a young age.

Growing up in Long Beach his family didn’t have a lot of money. What he did have was a love of sports and a lot of newspapers. As a kid, he would read the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the Long Beach Press-Telegram every morning to see how each reporter wrote about the games and the players. He memorized bylines and their writing styles, and remembers writing his own fake stories about Lakers games. “I was literally almost obsessed with the idea of these guys go there and they watch the game, they talk to these guys and they get to write about it,” Jones said.

He would later attend Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Jones had decent grades in school and he remembers a lot of people telling him that he should be a lawyer. He also loved chemistry. One problem: He had no interest in becoming a chemist or a lawyer. He had other ideas. When applying for colleges he had his sights set on USC, but a school counselor made him apply to UC Berkeley and UCLA as well. He ended up attending Berkeley. He remembers the questions: “With your grades, and you are going to be going to Berkeley, why would you want to waste that on being a journalist? You’re not going to make any money.” But he wanted to go watch games, talk to players and write about it, just like those reporters did whose stories he read religiously as a child. That was his dream and he was going to do it. He wasn’t quite sold on writing, however. When he got into college, he was leaning more toward radio.
“I thought I wanted to be the next Jim Rome … I could be snarky,” Jones said.

Jones would go on to graduate from Berkeley and be the first in his family to complete a four-year university. He then enrolled in the master’s program at the school for journalism. He didn’t give up his radio dreams all too quickly.

It took a graduate student instructor to nudge Jones in the direction of writing.

One night, he put together a paper last-minute and the next morning was sitting in the back of the classroom where he had just taken his headphones off (he assumes he must have been listening to Westside Connection or Jay Z at the time because it was around 1997 to 1998). Gregg Bell, who now covers the Seattle Seahawks for The News Tribune in Seattle, was the instructor. Bell began discussing the best paper that was turned in.

Jones recalls his thought process: “I’m like whatever, what little kiss-up wrote this great little story?”

Bell announced it was Jones.

“I was like, oh my God, me?” he recalls thinking.

Bell went on to encourage Jones to write, which in turn, motivated him to join the school paper at Berkeley.

“I saw the promise in writing and initiative,” Bell said.

So did The Sacramento Bee. After finishing grad school in 2002, the Bee offered to let him cover prep sports at the paper. In 2005, he landed the job of covering the Oakland Raiders. He always considered himself a “football guy” so he thoroughly enjoyed the gig. He would be moved to the Kings beat alongside Sam Amick, however, during the 2008-09 season. Shortly after, Amick, who now covers the NBA for USA TODAY, left the Bee and Jones was given the full-time beat writer position for the Kings in March of 2010. Being one for interaction, he soon discovered what he liked more about covering the NBA compared to the NFL: You can get to know the players a little better in the NBA than you can in the NFL simply due to the number of games and players on a team.

“Basketball players tend to have more personality [than NFL players], they seem more engaging and it makes the job a lot more fun,” Jones said.

One player who had quite the personality was Hassan Whiteside, who Jones said might be one of his favorite players ever. Jones appreciated Whiteside when he was a member of the Kings because of his determination to be a star, humor and ability to deliver a solid comeback in the form of a one-liner. He remembers Cousins giving Whiteside a hard time over Anthony Davis breaking one of Whiteside’s college records. He responded to Cousins with, “I lost to West Virginia and you lost to West Virginia, and I didn’t have five first-round picks on my team.” This, of course, was in reference to Cousins’ team at Kentucky. There was a certain bit of honesty Jones liked about Whiteside, as reflected in this story he recalls during a road trip in Whiteside’s second season.

“He says, ‘Jason, so wherever we go you go.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you interview us. So that’s your job, right?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And then DeMarcus says ‘what do you think he’s been doing the last year?’” Jones said.

Whiteside, of course, has since gone on to find success in an unconventional manner. After looking like a bust in his first couple of seasons with the Kings (2010 to 2012), he spent some time playing in the D-League and overseas, only to suddenly resurface in 2014 with the Miami Heat where he began to put up impressive numbers. This summer he signed a reported four-year, $98-million contract with the Miami Heat. Jones always thought Whiteside could have benefitted from a few more years in college and being drafted into a more stable situation. And he’ll always remember Whiteside’s promise he made to him.

“One day Hassan goes, ‘You know what Jason? When I make it big, I’m only going to give you interviews and you’re going to be the only one because you talked to me when I was a nobody,” Jones remembers.

Though Jones hasn’t taken Whiteside up on that offer yet, he did take some time to reflect on the center’s rise to prominence during a recent road trip to Miami. While walking through the airport, he noticed Whiteside merchandise for sale so he bought a shirt. In addition to the Whiteside T-shirt, Jones’ shirt/jersey collection features: a Lamar Odom Dallas Mavericks jersey, Allen Iverson Memphis Grizzlies jersey, a “Free Sean Payton” T-shirt and multiple WWE T-shirts. (Oh, he also owns a Shaq jersey from every team he played for other than the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics – the LA in him won’t let him own anything related to the Celtics.) Jones bought the Whiteside jersey because “you could have never convinced me in 2010 anybody would ever be selling Hassan Whiteside merchandise,” Jones said. “I’m happy for him ... now he makes a whole lot of money so one day I’m going to hold him to his exclusivity with interviews.”

Getting exclusive stories and breaking news is a goal of every reporter, including Jones, but he also enjoys writing longer, feature-style articles. For example, before Cousins’ rookie year, he traveled to Mobile, Alabama, Cousins’ hometown. He spent around five days there and met Cousins’ whole family and people at his school. He was able to give his readers a look at Cousins outside of what they would have read about him already. The story ran on Media Day that season and he remembers Cousins walking by him and saying, “Thanks man, I appreciate that.” While on this trip, Cousins and Jones bonded over Subway sandwiches - Cousins’ choice.

According to one of his longtime mentors, Paul Mitchell, who teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, Jones’ ability to connect with players through his lighthearted nature may come from the fact that he has three kids.

“When you have kids, anytime you are dealing with kids, you can’t be too serious all the time, you have to set the tone as a parent and as a parent you have to laugh and joke,” said Mitchell, who started mentoring Jones in college when he was part of the Maynard Editing Program.

Just like his work, Jones takes parenting seriously. In fact, having kids motivated him to hit the gym. Jones, who once weighed 340 pounds, realized before his first son was born that he always tired. That was when someone at the gym asked him, “you want to be able to play with your kid, right?” Jones answered yes, and now he works out five to six days a week.

“My initial goal was first to get under 300, then my next goal was to be able to buy clothes at a regular store,” he said with a laugh.

He now weighs 228 pounds.

Recently, during Kings training camp Rudy Gay noticed how thin Jones was and commented on it (around the 1:13 mark).

Jones’ dedication to striving for better health for his kids is another example of how when he sets his sights on something he is going to make it happen, just like he did with journalism. This is described as a “bulldog mentality” by Mitchell.

And in case you didn’t know by now, Jones understands that what he does for a living is supposed to be fun; he chose journalism over law and chemistry, after all. This is something that his former instructor is proud of.

“I am glad that he followed his passion of what he really wanted to do,” Bell said. “He knew he wanted to be in sports journalism and so he did it, instead of worrying about the pay, or the job market, the industry … That’s a pretty neat deal when you get to see someone who’s doing what they love to do for a living.”

The first part of this series featured Sean Cunningham of ABC10.