K.C. Jones gave up about three years ago. He says he was tired of waiting, tired of chasing a dream.
"I came to the realization that I would never get another head coaching job in professional basketball, and once I accepted that, I was at peace," he said. "I enjoyed my job as an assistant coach and made do."
He doesn't have to make do any more. Jones, an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics the past five seasons, was named head coach Tuesday.
"Up until three years ago, I waited, hoped and dreamed about being a head coach again," said Jones, "and then one day I just said to myself, 'Hey, Jones, there are people lined up from here to China for an NBA coaching job and you just aren't going to get one of them.' So I just set out to enjoy life and not think about it any more."
He settled in as Bill Fitch's assistant and, typically, never complained. He did his job and went about his life. Then, a rapid sequence of events changed everything.
Owner Harry Mangurian, angered over difficulty with a new lease with the Boston Garden, said he was selling the Celtics. Then Fitch resigned and, immediately, Jones was mentioned as a successor.
"I hadn't even thought about the job, yet I was on a high," he said. "I would walk down the street and cab drivers and truck drivers would stop their vehicles and yell out to me that they hoped I got the job. And people who didn't look like basketball fans at all would stop me and touch me and wish me well. It was some fantastic therapy."
Finally, Red Auerbach, the Celtics' president and general manager, stopped by to ask Jones, "You interested?"
"When Red was talking, it was so subdued I almost went to sleep," Jones said.
He went with Auerbach to Chicago for a three-day NBA tryout camp. On the way back to Boston, he said he read in a newspaper that he was going to be the Celtics' coach.
"That's the way Red does things sometimes," he said.
The Celtics won 56 games this season. Only the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers won more. But Boston struggled in the miniseries against the Atlanta Hawks and was ousted from the playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Milwaukee Bucks in a four-game sweep.
Finger-pointing started and it was difficult to find anyone backing Fitch. The players didn't particularly like him and, on occasion, some of them made it known. But no one ever had a harsh word for Jones.
Jones was head coach of the Bullets from 1973 to '76 and compiled a 155-91 record. After the Bullets lost to Golden State in four straight games in the 1975 championship series, he was fired by owner Abe Pollin, who said only that the team needed a change.
Jones has never said anything negative about the Bullets, then or now. "Abe Pollin gave me a fantastic opportunity which I've never forgotten," he said the other day. That is all Jones will say about Pollin, and the Bullets' owner has never fully explained why he fired Jones. He praised him then, and still does.
Jones also never criticized Fitch or any of his players publicly. "The fact that K.C. was given another chance restores your faith in that good guys are rewarded," said Bullets assistant Bernie Bickerstaff, a longtime friend of Jones. Jones hired Bickerstaff as his assistant when he came to the Bullets in 1973.
"K.C. just hung tough," said Bickerstaff. "He showed the patience most of us don't have and was in the right place at the right time. That seems to be the story of his life. Just when it looked like he would never get a chance, Red came through. He showed his fidelity."
"K.C.'s a Celtic," said Auerbach. "He's the best man for the job. We got the guy we wanted."
Jones said he has no qualms about Auerbach's possibly looking over his shoulder.
"He's one of the greatest minds basketball has ever had," said Jones. "I can't be very smart if I don't use him. He's the one who created this legend up here. He should have a hand in things. I welcome it. All I want to do is win. I'm here today and, as far as I know, forever."
Fitch drove his players hard in practice and didn't believe in being their friend. Jones is more low-key. He works players hard, but believes in giving them freedom. He is a players' coach.
Jones also isn't one to let problems smolder. Whenever he had a run-in with Elvin Hayes, for instance, he cleared the air right away.
He says he isn't sure yet what approach he'll use with the Celtics, although he did say he expects to re-sign free agent Kevin McHale and retain Larry Bird when he becomes a free agent next year.
"I'm not sure how I'll coach," he said. "This team isn't the old Bullets. I'll get across what I have to get across, though. We have all we need here. It's just a few little behind-the-scenes things that need to be changed.
"I'm going to be cool for a while, go through the draft and then take off July and then come back and start putting things down on paper and get started. It seems like I've never been away."