If you read Sam Jones’s Wikipedia page, you will learn that his nickname during his 12-year career with the Boston Celtics was “The Shooter.”
That’s because no one — before or since — made the bank shot into an art form the way Jones did. Of course, almost no one ever called him “Jones” because he wasn’t the only Jones in a backcourt that won 10 NBA titles in 12 seasons. K.C. Jones was his running mate for nine of those 12 seasons. Red Auerbach, their coach, called them “The Jones boys.”
Sam Jones died Thursday night in Boca Raton, Fla., at age 88. He’d been in poor health this year, finally being forced to give up golf, a game he loved playing — and playing well — into his mid-80s.
A wiry 6-foot-4, Jones scored 15,411 regular season points in his career — 17.7 per game. Given his ability as a shooter, one wonders how many points he would have scored had the three-point shot existed while he was playing. He was even better in the playoffs, averaging 18.9 points in 154 playoff games.
His story was one that could have been made into a Disney movie. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, playing high school ball in a tiny gym that was heated by stoves at each end of the court. He was recruited almost exclusively by Historically Black Colleges and Universities because the so-called big-time schools in the South weren’t recruiting Black athletes when he graduated from high school in 1951. He went to play for John McLendon at what was then the North Carolina College at Durham — it is now North Carolina Central University. Midway through college, Jones enlisted in the Army; he spent two years there and returned to complete his degree.
When he graduated in 1957, the Celtics had just won their first championship under Auerbach, led by a rookie center named Bill Russell. There were no scouts or even assistant coaches back then, so Auerbach relied on friends to advise him on college players.
Wake Forest Coach Bones McKinney, who had played for Auerbach when Auerbach coached the Washington Caps of the Basketball Association of America, told Auerbach about Jones, whom he’d seen play during his college career.
The Celtics had the last pick of the first round. Sight unseen — as had been the case a year earlier with Russell — Auerbach drafted Jones.
“I’d been drafted by the Lakers while I was in the Army, and I figured that’s where I was going,” he told me last year. “When I heard the Celtics had taken me, I wasn’t that happy about it. They were the world champions and had everybody back from that team. No one left as a free agent back then.”
Jones was the only rookie on that team, beating out three-year veteran Dickie Hemric for the last spot on the roster. Hemric had played at Wake Forest — for McKinney.
Jones played limited minutes as a rookie but blossomed in his second season. It was then that Johnny Most, the Celtics’ legendary radio voice, began routinely referring to him as “Banksie” whenever he made a bank shot.
Jones was almost flawless when he shot it and also had a knack for getting his shot off just before defenders would get to him. “Too late!” he would cry in his high-pitched voice. The player he enjoyed screaming that at most was Wilt Chamberlain.
One night, Jones did his “too late” routine once too often, at least as far as Chamberlain was concerned. He chased Jones down the court, screaming, “I’m going to kill you if I catch you!” Jones grabbed an empty chair on the baseline, turned and faced Chamberlain.
“It’s possible if I’d hit him on the head with it, all I’d have done was break the chair,” Jones said years later. “He was that strong. Fortunately, Russell got there in time. I was only going to hit him in the knees if Bill hadn’t gotten there.”
Jones, Russell and Chamberlain were all friends. In the 1950s and ’60s, Black players often couldn’t stay in the team hotels, so they would stay at one another’s houses when they traveled. In 1963, when the Celtics had five Black players, they checked into a Louisville hotel the day before an exhibition game with the Cincinnati Royals.
When Jones and roommate Satch Sanders went downstairs to the hotel restaurant to eat, they were told, “Sorry, no Blacks eat in here.”
“We told them we were guests in the hotel,” Jones remembered. “They said it didn’t matter.”
Jones and Sanders found Russell, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls and went to Auerbach’s room. Auerbach called the hotel manager, who backed down and said the players could eat in the restaurant.
“Not good enough,” Jones told his coach. “We’ve been insulted. And tomorrow, after we’re gone, they won’t serve Blacks in that restaurant.”
Auerbach understood. He drove the five of them back to the airport and they flew home without staying in the hotel or playing in the game. A little more than a year later, those five players became the first all-Black starting lineup in NBA history.
Jones retired in 1969 — the same year as Russell — having won 10 NBA titles, one fewer than Russell. He coached at Federal City College in downtown Washington for five years before returning to North Carolina Central, intending to get the school into the ACC. NCCU ended up joining the Mid-Eastern Athletic Association, and Jones went to work for D.C. Public Schools for five years and for Nike for 10 years.
I met and got to know him thanks to the Tuesday lunches Auerbach hosted in D.C. He was a regular while living in D.C. and a semiregular after moving to Florida because he and his wife, Gladys, returned often to visit their son Aubre — who has worked for 32 years in the athletic department at George Washington — and their grandchildren.
Jones was just about the only one in the lunch group who dared engage Auerbach in a basketball argument. Or, more accurately, he was the only one in the group allowed to engage Auerbach in a basketball argument.
Like his coach, Jones was a great storyteller. He talked about how Russell would block every shot in practice until Auerbach would throw him out because he was so disruptive. “Which is exactly what Russell wanted,” he said, laughing. “Russell didn’t need to practice. Red knew that.”
My favorite Sam Jones moment came at a charity golf tournament here in Washington. Jones played every year. One of the other regular celebrities was Mike “Fluff” Cowan, who caddied for Tiger Woods when he won the Masters by 12 shots and for Jim Furyk when he won the U.S. Open. Cowan has one of the great poker-faces of all time in victory or defeat.
But when I introduced him to Jones, Cowan, who grew up in New England, lost it. “Sam!” he screamed. “My God, it really is you! This is an honor. You just made my whole day — my whole month!”
Jones smiled, turned to me and said, “I just wish Red was here to see this.” He did not tell Fluff he was “too late.”