From Small Forward to Filmmaker: Bobby Jones' Long Journey to Rome and Back
In a new documentary, journeyman forward Bobby Jones chronicles the life of American basketball players in Europe
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The adolescent dream, the basketball career, and the full-length feature film all begin the same way: 3.2% of high school basketball players play collegiately. 1.2% of those play in the NBA.
Meanwhile, only one person has played collegiately, in the NBA, and in Italy for six seasons, and spontaneously decided to make a documentary about the international third act, spending tens of thousands of dollars, countless hours and two years, to create a 90-minute testimonial about the 2,000 "job openings" filled by ex-pat American ballers overseas every year.
Such is the ballad of Bobby Jones, and his film, Basketball Jones: The Overseas Journey, released officially in late July. The film was forged out of his experience living in Rome, and playing for Virtus Roma (a storied club whose alumni include Brandon Jennings, Gigi Datome and a 1990's roster starring Brian Shaw, Dino Radja, Danny Ferry and Rick Mahorn) from 2012 to 2015 .
Yet long before the 31-year-old Compton native ever set foot on Italian soil or set forth to make a movie, Jones was a typical, on-the-brink NBA player, amassing atypical experiences, doing anything he could to stick in The League between his rookie season in 2006 and 2009, and writing for himself to maintain his sanity along the way.
He set an NBA record for most teams (five) in a single season. He received news of Erik Spoelstra's head coaching career long before the Heat head coach won two titles. He flew on private jets from Denver to Miami for a 30-hour, all expenses paid, New Year's Eve birthday party for Kenyon Martin, funded by Kenyon Martin. And, perhaps most strikingly, he even momentarily resuscitated his NBA career by outshining a future NBA MVP in Kevin Durant.
For much of that time, though, playing abroad, never mind making movies, was a far away improbability for him: "I felt invincible," said Jones of his early NBA mindset, from his parents' living room couch on a warm morning in Compton.
Of course, those were also the days when plodding centers were the lynchpins of NBA rosters making the skillset of a versatile, inside-outside 6'7'' grinder like Jones superfluous. Or maybe just ahead of its time.
"Timing is everything," Jones said. Indeed, for basketball, and movies, alike.
In 2006, the professional whirlwind began in earnest, shortly after Jones' 22nd birthday.
In four months, Jones graduated with a B.A. from Washington, was drafted 37th overall by the Timberwolves (then immediately traded to the Sixers), and welcomed his first child, Aaliyah, into the world.
Jones spent the next few years bouncing around the NBA. In 2007-08 season, he set a league record by playing for five different teams, bouncing all the while back and forth from the D-League. After his stint with Miami in March of 2008, Jones began to have second thoughts about pursuing a career in the NBA.
"That's when I had the moment: from South Beach to South Dakota," Jones said. "That made me want to quit basketball. I was so mentally broke down, it was horrible, probably one of the worst points in my life."
He endured the entire 2008-09 season in South Dakota. He signed with Portland's Summer League team after that, but to no avail. By then, he knew.
And Italy beckoned.
Jones' first three years abroad, from 2009 to 2012, split between four Italian teams, were what you might expect. An American fish in Mediterranean waters for nine months at a time.
He signed with Teramo Basket in the summer of 2009. His coach, Campo Bianco, didn't speak English. His American teammates Drake Diener (DePaul), Ryan Hoover (Notre Dame) and James Thomas (Texas) helped him acclimate to the steep European life learning curve.
Among the need-to-know's: understand the eccentricities of living in Italy; don't expect to be paid on time; the domestic and European season schedule is bizarre; fans can be a little nuts; and coaches and practices can feel absurdly demanding—especially if you're only playing one game a week. All lessons Jones would eventually get to explore and impart in his film.
There was plenty of upside, though. Namely an apartment and car fully paid for by the team (and five comped roundtrip plane tickets to dole out). His contract, too: Jones' estimated his rookie Italian deal paid him $150,000 net, or about what he would've made on a rookie minimum deal in the NBA. Not bad, especially compared to the $13,000-to-25,000 NBDL salary range.
Another perk: ample time to write. In his second year there, Jones created his Bobby's World blog on Yardbarker.
In his third year, he wrote a post called The Overseas Basketball Life: Part 1, which detailed the reality of his experience. He wrote about optimistic friends stateside ("Man, I'm trying to go play overseas, can you hook me up?"), and an urban legend about Shawn Kemp lasting only a few days in Italy before bailing on his contract and flying back home.
Weeks later, friends started asking when would he publish part two. But, he had too much to say. So he procrastinated. And then it hit him.
"Boom!" Jones said of his lightbulb moment. "The best way to explain the experience is to actually have people see it, so let's do it. I'm gonna make a movie."
Some months after that, general manager Nicola Alberani, who signed Jones to Fulgor Libertas Forli in 2011 (and is also featured in the film), took the same job for Virtus, and recruited Jones to the capital.
"Perfect," Jones thought. "What better place to shoot a movie than Rome?"
There was a slight hiccup at first. Jones had recruited a UW friend Anthony Rose to shoot. Flew him out to Rome. Twice. Only to discover after shooting enough for a film that Rose was not, in fact, an editor. So Jones scrapped everything, and started over. And he embarked on making a whole new movie. (Rose is credited in the film.)
Washington teammate Justin Dentmon eventually put Jones in touch with a friend, Will Harris, who had produced A Hunger For More, a docu-series on the 2012 NBDL MVP Dentmon's own playing experiences.
Jones pitched Harris in 2013. He loved the idea. And the two never looked back. They captured Jones' 30th birthday party in the Trastevere neighborhood for the film's first scene (with a hat-tip of inspiration to Martin's 30th). They later shot a Roma home game. They shot in L.A. And finally, they chopped everything over a long weekend in Seattle. Mission accomplished.
The film's opening sequence—a gorgeous sequence of moonlight Roman streets and landmarks, juxtaposed by voicemails from family and eight-year-old daughter Aaliyah on Jones' birthday—sums up the solitude. The end-credits dedication—to Chauncey Hardy and Tony Harris, both killed while playing abroad in Romania and Brazil, respectively—foretell the possible, unlikely dangers.
And the informative space in between unveils everyday living. Interviews with Josh Childress, and current players Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota, signed this summer for Maccabi Tel Aviv), Phil Goss (Drexel, and a semifinalist in The Basketball Tournament), Jimmy Baron (Rhode Island, all time Atlantic-10 leader in made three-pointers), Leemire Goldwire (UNC Charlotte), Quinton Hosley (Fresno State) and Jones, with women's players Darxia Morris (UCLA) and Aishah Sutherland (Kansas), expand on the first-hand experiences that Jones, his peers and the thousands like them encounter.
"It was excruciating," Jones said. "I put papers all over my walls, all over my house: Did you work on the film today? Did you do something? I had to punish myself, that was the only way I was going to get through it. But we made it work. It was a helluva process."
Meanwhile, Jones' career—or careers—continue evolving. He recently signed with Juvecaserta in Italy for this season. Virtus Roma, meanwhile, voluntarily relegated itself to Italy's second division, after Roma's owner refused to pay sponsorship fees, according to Jones.
As for filmmaking, Jones screened Basketball Jones at his alma mater Long Beach Poly, in Rome, and in Seattle this July. The film is currently available through Vimeo On Demand (with or without Italian subtitles). A Basketball Jones memoir chronicling his NBA days is on the way. And a career writing TV pilots and scripts after basketball is calling his name.
"I can control my own destiny more now," Jones said. "At first, I didn't know anything, and had a totally different mindset. Then, I started to accept, embrace and use [my situation] to help myself. Basketball uses me, so why shouldn't I use basketball just as much?"