This, right here, might be the pinnacle of the gangsta life the teenage boy dreamed about as he was growing up hard on Atlanta's Washington Road: A stage full of mostly naked beauties at a Las Vegas strip club, hip-hop banging out of the speakers, and dollar bills floating through the charged early-morning air like confetti at the end of the Super Bowl.
It's Feb. 19 in Vegas and, two miles from The Strip at a club called Minxx, the three-day party that is the NBA All-Star Weekend is about to end.
According to witnesses, Adam Bernard "Pacman" Jones sits in a VIP booth with seven acquaintances, six of them women, the other his bodyguard. They're drinking Dom Perignon champagne and Patron tequila, which goes for $600 a bottle. Pacman watches as Cornell Haynes Jr. -- America knows him as the rapper Nelly -- and music producer Jermaine Dupri (whose girlfriend is Janet Jackson) "make it rain" dollar bills for several songs. Jones, the Tennessee Titans cornerback who considers himself a major player, wants a piece of their action. Pacman asks an employee to convert $3,400 in larger bills into smaller denominations and approaches the stage. Wide-eyed, almost childlike, he showers fists full of dollars on the dancers.
What happened next, in the context of the law, might not be determined for months, if ever. But when the gunshots ended, a security guard, a former WWF wrestler named Tommy Urbanski, was on the ground with his spinal cord shattered by a bullet. Two others, another bouncer and a female patron, were also shot.
The club's co-owner, Robert Susnar, quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, blamed the melee on Jones, claiming that Pacman knew the shooter and had threatened to kill one of the bouncers. Susnar wasn't at the club at the time of the incident, but made those claims after he interviewed his employees and watched surveillance video.
"What does [Urbanski] get for a hard day's work?" Susnar told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "A bullet in the spine because of a jackass athlete. It's the most tragic thing I can imagine … all because of some athlete acting like a spoiled child in our club."
Jones was interviewed twice by Vegas police, who consider him a witness, not a person of interest in the case, and allowed him to return to his home in Atlanta. Jones, through a publicist and two attorneys, maintains he doesn't know the shooter, who is still at large. Jones, who hasn't been quoted since the incident, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Even though he hasn't been charged, Jones hired an attorney, Manny Arora, from the same Atlanta-based law firm that defended Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on charges of murder and aggravated assault in 2000. Misfortune is something that has touched Jones early, and often. His father, Adam, was shot in the back of the head and died when Pacman was 5. His mother, Deborah, spent three years in prison. An uncle died from a knife wound. He's seen some of his peers die. He was raised chiefly by his grandmother, Christine Jones, and she died of cancer after he graduated from high school.
Maybe that's why he could never walk away from a confrontation. Maybe that's why he calls himself "The Chosen One." His is the face of defiance: head held high, angled slightly back, framed by shoulder-length dreadlocks, a strong nose, a modest moustache and dark, smoldering eyes.
At 23 -- the age of some college seniors -- Jones lives two very different lives. Today, say some who know him well, he must choose: the thug life in Atlanta, The A-T-L, or the more mundane rich-and-famous lifestyle of an established NFL star in Nashville.
It's less than a five-hour car ride from Atlanta to Nashville, the two places where he owns homes and spends most of his time, but the psychic distance between them is immeasurable.
"Pac -- he's young and old at the same time," explained Titans teammate Keith Bulluck. "But he has to realize: As much as he would like to keep it real and stay true to himself and where he comes from, you've got to be careful what you do.
"Sure, he has a very short fuse. Yeah, he's a target. But he allows himself to be a target, too."
His nickname -- a nod to the relentless yellow video game character and young Adam's tendency to suck down his bottles of formula with gusto -- sounds cartoonish. And yet, it suits him. Through talent and tenacity, he played well enough at West Virginia to sign a five-year contract with the Titans in 2005 that guaranteed him $13.5 million.
He was, Jones once told his first agent, Gary Wichard, the first male of his generation on his father's side to make it to the age of 21.
His father died at 26, an age Pacman's surviving grandmother prays he'll reach. That, said Wichard, is a pretty heavy place to come from.
"Everywhere he's been, good people have covered up for him," said Wichard, who is based in Los Angeles. "Everything has been bought and paid for. Well, that's not doing justice for him as a player -- or a person.
"But even if you live on the edge and people say it's OK, you've still got to be accountable. There's been none of that in his life. No one has ever said 'no' to Pacman."
On the field, he is a supremely gifted athlete, one of the best cover corners in the league. Jones -- not the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester -- had the league's best punt return average last season. He is searingly fast, uncommonly fearless. Off the field, that fearlessness, under duress, can translate to recklessness. Sometimes, he is the spoiled child described by Wichard, just as easily moved to joy as he is to anger.
In the 23 months since he was drafted by the Titans, Jones has drawn the scrutiny of the police at least 10 times and has been charged with assault, felony vandalism and felony obstruction. And now, the events in Las Vegas are threatening his NFL career after just two seasons in the league.
The NFL has begun its own investigation into the incident and Jones could face harsh penalties under the league's personal conduct policy. Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt has said that this could cost Jones his job.
"I don't know if he'll ever be on the football field again," Wichard said. "But I do know he needs the right people around him. Is it going to be tough for him? Yeah. He's got to break a lot of the habits that have him where he is.
"There's things in life that you've just got to do."
Where he comes from
On Feb. 20, the day after the Las Vegas incident, there was a murder southwest of downtown Atlanta. An unidentified man was shot and killed just after midnight in the parking lot of the Highland Brooke apartments on Washington Road.
The apartment complex was known as Xavier Manor when Pacman Jones and his grandmother Christine moved there during his high school years. An only child, Jones arrived at Washington Road after his previous home, a public housing project in Boat Rock, was torn down.
He was, by his own admission, one serious badass growing up.
"He's young and old at the same time. But he has to realize: As much as he would like to keep it real and stay true to himself and where he comes from, you've got to be careful what you do."
Keith Bulluck, Tennessee Titans linebacker, on teammate Pacman Jones
"Anything you can name, I have done it," Jones said in a 2005 Titans Online story. "When I walked around, everybody in the neighborhood would tell their children to stay away from me. I have been in the worst situation that there could be."
He was barely 11 years old, but quite serious, when he told his uncle, Robert, he was going to play professional football. He flunked out of two junior high schools and walked into Westlake High School with a chip on his shoulder.
Head football coach Dallas Allen had already coached five players who went on to the NFL when the cocky freshman walked into his office and told him, right there, that he was going to start. Then, on the first day of school, Jones got into a fight and was suspended for the first three games.
Allen, a cantankerous 6-foot-2, 250-pound disciplinarian, wasn't afraid to poke a finger in Pacman's face.
"My pet peeve is being late for practice," Allen said last week from Westlake. "I challenged him on it. Football is something he loves. When it was taken away and he was sitting on the sidelines, watching other kids play, it just killed him. Bottom line: I said what I meant and I meant what I said. He learned to deal with it."
Jones was part of two Georgia 4A state championship teams at Westlake. As a senior, he produced 120 tackles and six interceptions on defense and rushed for 1,850 yards on offense. West Virginia saw him as a 5-10, 185-pound cornerback and kick returner, positions that demand a keen sense of self-confidence and the ability to forget -- almost instantly -- the bad things that happen to you.
Like Allen, West Virginia strength coach Mike Barwis is an old-school guy. When Jones rolled into weightlifting sessions a few minutes late at the beginning of his sophomore year, Barwis scowled and shoved a 40-pound sandbag at him. A few minutes later, Jones, already breathing hard, found himself running alone around Mountaineer Field.
"If you're late for your job in real life, you get fired," Barwis said. "He thought it was OK to be late, so I always made him pay tenfold. After awhile, you get disciplined."
Jones and Barwis, who took an aggressive approach with him, grew close. Barwis, perhaps, was the most effective male role model in Jones' life. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that Jones' biggest misstep at West Virginia occurred before Barwis joined Rich Rodriguez's staff in Morgantown. During his freshman year, Jones allegedly beat another student with a pool cue in a bar fight; in October 2003, he was was sentenced to one year in jail. Eventually, the malicious assault charge, a felony, was reduced to a misdemeanor, the sentence was suspended and Jones was placed on two years' probation. For 60 days, he wore an electronic monitoring bracelet. Late in 2005, the state claimed he had violated the probation, and it was extended by 90 days.
In what would become a familiar pattern, Jones' off-field behavior at West Virginia was leavened by his spectacular on-field exploits. As a junior, he accounted for eight interceptions and 22 pass deflections and was one of the country's best kick returners. On advice that he would be a top-10 pick, he left West Virginia to enter the 2005 NFL draft. In April that year, the Titans made him the sixth player taken overall and the first on the defensive side.
"We do not feel like character is an issue here," said Titans head coach Jeff Fisher at the time. "We think he's exceptional from that standpoint."
But in the world of professional athletics, Jones wasn't afforded the kind of hand-holding he experienced in high school and college.
"Getting to that prestigious position in the NFL," Allen said, "there are no boundaries anymore. There's no Coach Allen or Coach Rodriguez keeping an eye on you. I'm not blaming the Titans. But when you suddenly make that kind of money, things can get out of hand."
'Who is Adam?'
Every year, some 250 college players are drafted and matriculate to NFL training camps. A number of them come from disadvantaged and difficult backgrounds. When Jones arrived at the Titans' facility in Nashville, Keith Bulluck saw elements of himself. Pacman was withdrawn and very, very defensive, and Bulluck could relate.
"That's just from growing up in that environment," he explained.
Bulluck grew up in New City, N.Y., about 20 miles north of New York City. His father was never a factor in his life; and when Bulluck was 12, his mother abandoned him and his two brothers, Kelvin and Brian. A friend, Linda Welch, stepped up. His stay at her modest house was supposed to last two weeks, but it turned out to be for six years.
"Looking back, it's one of the best things that could have happened," Bulluck said. "Any other situation could have been bleak for me. Miss Welch probably saved me because I was exposed, more or less, to mainstream America.
"I learned how things worked and how to adapt."
Bulluck, an outside linebacker, was the Titans' best defensive player when Jones was drafted, the team's leading tackler for four seasons running. When Jones held out of training camp, Bulluck called him out, asking reporters, "Who is Adam?"
Eventually, they became friends. Today, he affectionately calls Jones his "little homey." Sometimes after practice, he goes to Jones' home to hang out. Bulluck's inner circle consists of only a brother and a friend, but Jones' posse sometimes numbers a half dozen or more. Jones, an only child, likes a crowd around him. Cousin Lewis Kuffour and Marcus Bowens, a childhood friend, have always been part of his group.
"It's hard being where we're from," Bulluck said. "He had to kind of bring his self up. I did, too. He has his boys in the street, and I might have friends in the street. But I had brothers that if it went too far, they were definitely there to check me. Pac didn't have those checks -- checks and balances."
In the two years Jones has played professional football, a pattern has developed. Pacman and his crew, it seems, like to be where the action is, in places named the Sweetwater Saloon, Club Blaze, Club Mystic and, of course, Minxx. The record suggests a systematic disregard for authority and a potentially fatal attraction to danger. On at least two occasions, he has been present when gunfire erupted.
Jones has been arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, public intoxication and marijuana possession, among other things. The possession charge against him was dismissed last year. In January, a judge ordered Jones to stay out of trouble until July 5 if he wants the disorderly conduct and public intoxication charges cleared from his record. He is facing pending charges in only one incident -- two counts of felony obstruction stemming from a Feb. 6, 2006, traffic stop -- and is scheduled to be in court later this month. If he's found guilty, he could spend two years in jail.
"How," asked NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, "is it possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time so many times?"
Upshaw has an answer for his rhetorical question: Jones is feeling guilty about leaving where he comes from.
"It seems like there's always another incident -- like the one in Georgia that we just heard about -- that's the problem," Upshaw said. "It is awfully hard to come from that type of background and instantly be thrown into a situation where you have a lot of money, you have a lot of notoriety and you have in many ways a lot of guilt about where you are [now].
"I'm telling you: I just know in that situation, talking to so many of these guys, that they do feel guilty. That's a big factor."
Damola Idowu is the publisher of Owners Illustrated, which bills itself as an "urban business magazine" and features the achievements and lifestyles of enterprising CEOs, entertainers and athletes. Photos of Idowu with successful people such as Magic Johnson, Russell Simmons, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne decorate his Web site.
Idowu recently spent time with Jones preparing an upcoming story. He stresses the loyalty that Pacman feels toward his friends from the Washington Road days.
"These people are hanging on to you because you're the only source of dollars they have," Idowu said from his office in Washington, D.C. "Pacman, he's a very caring person. If they're the only people who cared about him, hung with him when he was dirt-poor, how can you expect him to walk away from them now?"
Reconciling the realities
Back on Nov. 5, the Titans played at Jacksonville without Jones, who'd been suspended for one game by Fisher after an incident at a Nashville nightclub in which he allegedly spit in the face of a female college student. Fisher called the episode "very disturbing." Tennessee lost to the Jaguars, 37-7. The assault charge against Jones was later dismissed by a Nashville judge, who cited inconsistencies in the alleged victim's testimony.
On Dec. 17, with Jones starting at right cornerback, the Titans beat Jacksonville 24-17 at home for their fifth straight victory. Jones scored the game's first touchdown, intercepting a David Garrard pass and returning it 83 yards. Later, he returned a kickoff 70 yards to set up a field goal. Late in the second half, he broke up Garrard's fourth-down pass to Matt Jones in the end zone.
This is the yin and yang, the dark and light, of Adam "Pacman" Jones. When he is good, he is very, very good. When he is bad, well …
Cheryl Moss has the challenging task of serving as Jones' publicist. Based in Los Angeles, she was part of Jones' entourage at Minxx in Vegas. Her version of the events of Feb. 19, published in The Tennessean, is in direct conflict with the one told by Susnar, the club's co-owner. She claims that Pacman was robbed and beaten without provocation. She says the hate mail she has been receiving for the past two weeks is out of control.
It's her job to paint a positive picture of her client. Here is the portrait she would have America see of Jones: a hands-on father, pushing his tiny daughter, Zaniyah, in a stroller around the grounds of his large home on the west side of Atlanta and celebrating her first birthday with a family party three days after the incident in Las Vegas; a man with a stable full of horses that come running when he visits them; a dog lover with an affectionate Presa Canario named Sassie.
Almost everyone interviewed for this story made the point in one form or another that Jones is a good kid with a big heart. But that isn't the version of Pacman seen by the world outside of his inner circle.
Last spring, Nashville police seized nearly a ton of marijuana and cocaine in one of their biggest drug busts in recent years. Darryl Moore, a convicted drug dealer, was the target of the investigation. He's the same Darryl Moore that Jones counts as a friend. Earlier, Moore had the front seats of a 2004 Cadillac XLT embroidered with "Pac-Man." Police seized the vehicle as part of the drug bust, and Jones eventually bought it at auction.
In phone conversations wiretapped by local police, and later obtained by WTVF News Channel 5 in Nashville, Moore's concern for Jones is reflected in a conversation with a third party.
"We gotta slow down, man," Moore said in the taped phone call. "We gotta get him focused on football, man. He's focused on too much other s---."
Transcripts of phone calls between Moore and Jones revealed that the two had partied together on several occasions, that Moore had slept at Jones' home and that there was possible evidence that Moore had made drugs deals from that home. There are references in the taped calls to a "cutie pie" (street slang for 9 ounces of cocaine) and "dro" (a nickname for marijuana). In one taped conversation, Moore said Jones had spent thousands of dollars gambling on college athletics and worried that his habits might jeopardize his football career.
"You know, I was talking to him the other day about smoking," Moore said in that phone call, "and he was like, 'Man, if I didn't smoke, I couldn't take all the stress that I'm dealing with right now.' "
Aware that Jones' sprawling rap sheet is one of the reasons some NFL players have pushed recently to start talking about a stricter three-strikes-and-you're-out code of behavior, Upshaw preaches patience.
"The last thing we want to do is give up on him," Upshaw said. "But he's also got to realize the stage he's on, and I think he does. He just doesn't know how to deal with that. Just punishing the guy for every time he does something wrong? If that doesn't change his behavior, then you have to deal with some of the psychological issues that may or may not be there. So, from that standpoint, maybe he needs to be in counseling."
Catalyst or crescendo?
On about 10 Fridays during the 2006 regular season, a group of a dozen or so Titans teammates gathered at the local Dave & Buster's after practice to hang out. They bowled, had a few drinks and enjoyed each other's company. Bulluck, Jones and rookie quarterback Vince Young were among the regulars.
"In that environment," Bulluck said, "when he's around people with direction, he's cool. But when he has to take control, nobody is going to tell him what to do."
He and Jones frequent the same places in Nashville, Bulluck said. They even crossed paths several times in South Beach during the week of Super Bowl XLI. At the end of the season, Bulluck told Jones that if he needed to get away, he could come to New York anytime and "get low." The call hasn't come.
"I would love for him to hang with me," Bulluck said, "but I believe he's set in his ways. People are trying to bury him. It's sad to see, because I know Pac as a person. At the same time, I'm not saying he puts himself in right situations. A guy like Pac, you can talk until you're blue in the face."
Will Jones shift his course? Will the Las Vegas episode serve as a catalyst to make some fundamental changes in his life?
"He's going to have to do some rearranging. He's got to start doing something else with his time."
Dallas Allen, Jones' high school football coach
"I think it could," said Dallas Allen, his high school coach. "But he's going to have to do some rearranging. He's got to start doing something else with his time. The guy's got to back away and spend some quality time with Pacman [himself], quality time with Pacman."
West Virginia's Barwis said Jones should be a little more selfish, and put his career ahead of the interests of his entourage.
"Yeah," said Barwis. "It's not their life. It's Pacman Jones' life. … He needs to be surrounded by people who care about him, instead of people who just want something from him. Pac never had that [role-model] guy. That's the reality. When you ask how and why did this happen and how can we fix this, the reality is you have to really care.
"I think going back to Atlanta isn't helping. It's the same self-perpetuating situation. If you knock a pit bull around every day, it's probably going to bite. If it is groomed and fed and cared for, it's probably not going to bite. It's the same thing with humans. The longer you're in that environment, the harder it is to break old habits."
If anyone around Jones might have an ax to grind, it's Wichard. He served as Jones' agent for four months, through the 2005 draft, but was replaced with Michael Huyghue, who negotiated the contract with the Titans. Now, Huyghue is out and Wichard is among the contenders to replace him. Two months ago, Wichard visited with Jones in Nashville.
Part of Wichard's plan, if he is hired back to represent him, is to pair Jones with a former player -- probably Aeneas Williams, an eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback who grew up in New Orleans and mentored a number of young teammates during a stellar career with the Cardinals and Rams from 1991 to 2004.
"Underneath what we read about, there's a guy who can totally be successful," Wichard said. "I hope for his sake, it happens sooner rather than later."
On Oct. 5, 2005, three weeks before the state of West Virginia claimed that he had violated the terms of his probation, a Titans Online story documented Jones' visit with members of Nashville's Pearl Cohn High School football team.
"I am a witness because I have been through it all," Jones told the players. "No one thought I would make it out of that situation. I stayed to myself and believed in myself. I have paid my dues to get where I am at, and I want to be the best in this sport, and I think I will be.
"Of course you are going to get into things that are going to slow you down here and there. But for the most part, everything will be all right."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.