Throwback Thursday: K.C. Jones

(Getty Images Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

The sudden revival of basketball in the city of Boston has taken many of it’s fans back to the glory days -when their beloved Celtics were the class of the NBA. Personally, it takes me back to a time where I hated to see the Sixers’ arch rivals from the north coming, whether it was in mid-season or the playoffs. As my knowledge of sports has grown, so has my respect for the adversaries of my youth; Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish.  Respect for the Dallas Cowboys? That day is still afar off.

Celtics coach K.C. Jones was the driving force behind the Celtics last two title teams. In researching Jones’ career, I discovered that he was a groundbreaking player in college, and played an intergral role on eight Celtics’ title teams before winning two more as a coach. To my embarrassment I also discovered that I should have been more focused on the color and not the colors.

I remember K.C. Jones as a stern presence walking the baseline, whether in the Boston Garden or on the road. Jones always seemed to be into the game, either working an official or barking out instructions. One of the top defenders in his day, Jones was always in the mix but seemed focused on the greater good. Even as today’s coaches carry the marquee more than some of the players they coach, Jones was content with being a cog in the wheel, who just happened to be a head coach.

Jones was born in Taylor, Tx. in 1932, as a youngster his short flirtation with hoops was interrupted by a move to San Francisco with his mother after his father abondoned. At San Francisco’s Commerce High School, Jones would become a two sport star (basketball and football) earning All-City honors. Despite his prowess as an athlete Jones ambitions did not include a college education. “I had only one scholarship offer. I didn’t know it at the time but my history teacher, Mildred Smith arranged it,” Jones said. “Being from the ghetto, college was not very familiar to me.”

Jones would enroll at the University of San Francisco, his roommate was a young man that he would become linked to for the remainder of his collegiate and professional career; that man was named Bill Russell.

Jones and Russell were starters under coach Phil Woolpert, this was a rarity, for most teams didn’t start any Black players -the penalty was that was a harassing crowd and possibly worse. This was a result of the fallout of the Earl Warren Supreme Court decision that declared that seperate schools were inherently unequal.

The Dons rivals during this time were the UCLA Bruins coached by John Wooden. In their first meeting the Bruins won by seven points. After the game Jones would admit that the team was “scared” but gained confidence from their performance -so much so that a player would make an unselfish assist that would change history.

There was a week in between meetings with UCLA, prior to their second meeting Bill Bush made an announcement after practice, ‘Teammates, I have an announcement,” he would continue, “I am first string. But I believe that if you put Hal Perry in my spot we will be a better team.”

Bush’s announcement to the team was as much historical as it was stunning. No predominantly white college in the United States had three Black starters. In the rematch with the Bruins the Dons would win the game as Russell, Jones and Perry would go on to account for more than 60 percent of the teams points.

Quite naturally, not many outside of the Dons locker room were as pleased.

After knocking off the sixth-ranked Bruins, racial problems began to surface. At the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City, the school learned that their Black players could not stay in the downtown hotels. Perry in a team meeting suggested that ALL team players stay in the vacant college dorms and win the tournament. The team agreed and they bunked in the empty dorms. Even as the team practiced there were distractions; Jones would recall an incident that all during practice, spectators were throwing coins at the players and Russell was picking up all of the loose change.

                                                                                (Courtesy of Pagesperso-Orange)

The Dons would go on to defeat LaSalle in the 1955 NCAA Championship. Jones was penciled in to guard All-American Tom Gola, one of the great college players ever on one of the great college teams ever. Jones would score 24 points as he held Gola to 16. This would be the first of many meetings between these two men as Gola would star with the Philadelphia Warriors and Jones with the Celtics.

In 1956, the Dons would win 55 straight games climaxing with their 1956 NCAA Championship victory over Iowa, completing an undefeated season and becoming only the third team at the time to win back to back titles. K.C. Jones would team up with Bill Russell on the 1956 Olympic Basketball team, winning a gold medal in Melbourne, Australia.

Jones would go on to play eight seasons for the Boston Celtics in an era of severe racial tension in Beantown, the atrocities that teammate Bill Russell faced are well documented and should never be forgotten – I’m sure that Jones and other Black players on the Celtics roster dealt with racial issues at some point while in the Green and White. Jones was a defensive stopper on eight championship teams and would retire at the end of the 1967 season. Jones’ eight titles ranks second behind Russell and Sam Jones for titles won by a player.

  Jones’ coaching career began in 1972 as coach of the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA, it was a short-lived stay. In 1973, he would move onto the Capital Bullets (later the Washington Bullets) in his three seasons he would compile a record of 155-91 and leading the Bullets to the 1975 NBA Finals.

Jones was a trailblazer at the University of San Francisco, as a player with the Celtics he was a member of the one of the greatest sports dynasties in history. And in his first four seasons as coach of the Celtics, he be a part of their resurrection to the top of the NBA.

The Celtics would see-saw championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in the mid-1980’s. But it was Boston’s 1985-86 title team coached by Jones, that prompted owner Red Auerbach to say that this was probably the greatest of all the Celtics teams. Jones coached the greatest frontcourt ever assembled in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. He brought in Dennis Johnson and allowed him to jell with the Big Three – becoming an invaluable floor general. He gave Bill Russell a chance to go out a winner as backup to Robert Parrish in 1986. The taste of championship bliss would soon sour as he would have to cope with the death of Len Bias which accelerated the retirements of McHale and Bird and the Celtics have never recovered from that regardless of how things look now.

(Photo Courtesy of Baltimore Sun)

What Could’ve Been

Looking back on those times – I can’t say that I saw Jones celebrated that much as a coach in the media. He is the only Black coach in NBA history to win multiple titles as a coach only. The Celtics were Larry Bird’s team and no coach or owner for that matter was going to change that. His teams embodied a defensive style reminiscent of his days as a player. I wonder how was Jones received in the Black community as head coach of the Celtics? I know I didn’t have much love for them growing up and as much as I hate to admit it I totally ignored Jones as a coach. All I knew was that he coached the Celtics and that was enough to put him on my bad side, Black or white, as a fan that was ignorant of myself and as a young Black man it was irresponsible.

If I knew then what I know now – I might have even pulled for the Celtics…


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