NBA mourns Caldwell Jones, a Bull in 1984
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Rod Thorn, then the general manager of the Bulls, knew he had problems with a dysfunctional team that had played below .500 six of the previous seven seasons. He knew it was time for a culture change—even though they didn’t call it that then—with his rookie, Michael Jordan.
Thorn in the first rebuilding around Jordan, whose 30th anniversary of starting in the NBA is this season, knew he needed to add high character, team oriented veterans to a roster loaded with talented and often selfish high draft picks. So Thorn traded shooting guard Mitchell Wiggins (that position now looked solid) and a second round draft pick that was eventually used to select DePaul’s Tyrone Corbin for Caldwell Jones.
“Really low key, nice guy,” Thorn recalled in an interview Monday. “Never a problem. A guy who never was involved in any drama, who came and played, just went about his business, a guy who always was about the team. The kind of player we wanted to have with Michael.”
Jones, one of four brothers who played in the NBA, died Sunday on an Atlanta golf course, apparently of a heart attack. He was 64. Jones is the third member of that 1984-85 Bulls team to die in the last four years. Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey were the others.
Jones played 17 seasons in the NBA in a remarkable career that included playing with rookie Jordan, Ralph Sampson and David Robinson as Jones earned a reputation as a role model and mentor for many young players with his work ethic and good nature.
"Caldwell Jones was put here for a purpose," Spurs coach Larry Brown said about Caldwell in Robinson’s rookie year. "I was afraid David was coming into the league under pressure and there would be nobody around to take some of the pressure off him. Caldwell showed him the league."
It was vital, similarly, for Jordan with that young Bulls team that was wracked with players who had personal and substance abuse issues that had the team failing to win 30 games the previous two seasons despite a half dozen high draft picks on the roster.
So the addition of a player like Jones, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers’ in the 1977, 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals and was an ABA All-Star, was crucial to changing the environment around the Bulls and providing the beginning of a team for Jordan to grow and develop.
“Caldwell was the kind of teammate who always tried to do what was asked of him, whatever he could to help the team,” said Sidney Green, a teammate on that 1984-85 team and currently a Bulls ambassador. “He brought the experience of being in winning situations. But the lesson I learned most from Caldwell was being positive. Not to be negative, to support the team.
“Caldwell always said you play the season for all you can and once it’s over whether you win the title or no, all he wanted to do was go back home, do some fishing, spend time with his family, go back to his hometown,” said Green. “That’s the kind of man he was.”
Jones was one of the more visible invisible players in the NBA, a role model of sorts for having a long career. He was a scorer early in his career starting out playing for Wilt Chamberlain with San Diego of the ABA, averaging 19.5 points and 14.1 rebounds in his second ABA season. But he would sacrifice personal achievement for the greater good once he had better teammates with the late 1970’s 76ers of the NBA. So he was votes first team all-defense twice with the 76ers.
“CJ was a really, really good person,” recalled Artis Gilmore, a longtime ABA rival and friend against whom Jones once scored 39 points in a game. “He was a really great basketball player. He was kind of between size as far as being a full-fledged center or power forward. But he still was very successful as a center.
“We lost such a great person and great guy,” said Gilmore, the former Bulls center and Hall of Famer. “He had great skills and could raise up on the floor so well (Jones led the ABA in blocks as a rookie). It allowed him to be a great equalizer. He was very competitive and made me work pretty hard whenever we played. But mostly everyone loved him. There wasn’t a negative vibe around him.”
After his San Diego ABA team folded, Caldwell, known as CJ, played for Kentucky and St. Louis in the ABA and then the 76ers for six seasons. He went to Houston in the trade that brought Moses Malone, who remained a longtime friend, to the 76ers for their 1983 title. When Houston drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984, they traded Jones to the Bulls, who were searching for a center and some stability.
“I had CJ in St. Louis,” said Thorn, who coached the Spirits. “He was always a very solid defender, fundamentally very sound. Not that strong so he could get overpowered at times by bigger guys. But he was the kind of teammate players loved. He didn’t want the ball, didn’t care if he scored or not. He could with a little jump hook, but it didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to be a good teammate.”
Obviously, the excitement that season in what was effectively the beginning of the modern era for these Bulls was about the coming of Jordan. Jones started at center and the Bulls had their best start in seven years at 13-9 and were still at .500 when Jones fractured his hand in January and missed about two months. The Bulls let him go after that season and Jones played for Portland and San Antonio before retiring. Jones was active with former players and recently was at the retired players’ conference in Mexico, seemingly in good condition and as upbeat as always. Thus the shock from so many former teammates and opponents about the passing of one of the great men and teammates in NBA annals.
August 11, 1984: Bulls acquire Caldwell Jones from Rockets