10-Time Champ Sam Jones was ‘A Winner,’ ‘A Gentleman,’ & ‘Mr. Clutch’

The Boston Celtics won 11 championships in a span of 13 years from 1957 to 1969, and while much of their success was driven by defensive anchor Bill Russell, equally important was the offensive prowess of the man known as “The Shooter” – Sam Jones.

Jones was present for 10 of those first 11 championships, making him just the second player in NBA history that could place a ring on all 10 digits of his hands. The only reason why Russell was able to snag one more ring than Jones was simply a matter of timing – the Celtics drafted Jones four days after winning their first title in April of 1957.

Although they dominated the 1960s, the Celtics still found themselves in many tight contests leading up to their glory. They mostly relied on Jones’ shooting ability – often coming in the form of a bank shot – to get them over the hump. If they needed a game-winner, he was the man who they could always count on to make the shot, to beat the buzzer.

On Jan. 31, just before the final buzzer of 2021 sounded, Jones passed away at the age of 88.

Russell mourned the loss of his friend on Twitter, posting a heartfelt message along with a video from the past, in which he elaborated upon how vital Jones was to helping Boston achieve an unparalleled level of success.

“In terms of basketball skills, in total, Sam Jones was the most skillful player that I played with,” Russell said in the video. “Six times during that run, we won eight straight championships, and six times in that run, we asked Sam to take the shot that meant the season. If he missed it, we were finished for the season. He never missed, and he never hesitated to take the shot."

Jones was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on June 24, 1933. He attended North Carolina Central University where he amassed 1,745 points in four seasons before having his No. 41 retired by the program. Jones was inducted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame in 1962 and seven years later, became the first Black athlete to be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

The 6-foot-4 guard was initially drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in the eighth round (59th overall) of the 1956 NBA Draft, but he chose to go back to school for one more year. The following spring, he was drafted by the team that would soon become the Lakers’ archrival, as Red Auerbach selected him with the eighth overall pick to play for the Celtics.

Jones played a minimal role during his rookie season and Boston fell to the St. Louis Hawks in the 1958 Finals. However, his career began to take off in 1958-59, as did the Celtics dynasty, which would win its first of eight consecutive titles that season.

Throughout 12 seasons, Jones averaged 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 871 regular-season games. He tallied more than 20 PPG in four consecutive campaigns from 1965-68 and was named to the All-Star team five times.

Jones finished his career with 15,411 points in the regular season, making him one of just seven players in franchise history to surpass the 15,000 mark along with John Havlicek (26,395), Paul Pierce (24,021), Larry Bird (21,791), Robert Parish (18,245), Kevin McHale (17,335), and Bob Cousy (16,955).

Jones was even more productive during the playoffs, producing 18.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game across 154 contests. The postseason is also when he made some of his biggest shots, earning him the nickname, “Mr. Clutch.”

One of Jones’ most renowned shots was a game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals, which gave the Celtics a 109-107 victory over the Philadelphia Warriors and sent them to the Finals where they would beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

Another was the off-balance game-winner he hit against the Lakers during Game 4 of the 1969 Finals, which allowed the Celtics to avoid facing a 3-1 series deficit and instead enabled them to tie it up at two games apiece. Boston would go on to win the series and capture its 11th championship, allowing Jones and Russell to end their careers that spring on a high note.

Russell wrote glowingly about Jones in his autobiography, “Second Wind,” noting how poised Jones was in high-pressure situations and how he would choose Jones over any player if a shot had to be made with a game on the line.

“Whenever the pressure was greatest, Sam was eager for the ball,” Russell wrote. “To me, that’s one sign of a champion. Even with all the talent, the mental sharpness, the fun, the confidence and your focus being honed down to winning, there’ll be a level of competition where it all evens out. Then the pressure builds, and for a champion it is a test of heart…. Heart in champions has to do with the depth of your motivation, and how well your mind and body react to pressure. IT’s concentration –– that is, being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress. Sam Jones has a champion’s heart. On the court he always had something in reserve. You could think he’d been squeezed out of his last drop of strength and cunning, but if you looked closely, you’d see him coming with something else he’d tucked away out of sight. Though sometimes he’d do things that made me want to break him in two, his presence gave me great comfort in key games. In Los Angeles, Jerry West was called “Mr. Clutch,” and he was, but in the seventh game of a championship series, I’ll take Sam over any player who’s ever walked on a court.”

On March 9, 1969, nearly two months before Jones hung up his sneakers for good, the Celtics retired his No. 24 jersey to TD Garden rafters. Fifteen years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the 1984 class. He was also named to the NBA’s 25th Anniversary Team, its 50th Anniversary Team, and its 75th Anniversary Team, which was revealed shortly before his death.

Before heading off to college, Jones had intended to become a teacher and, after his playing days were over, he finally got to achieve that goal. He moved to Maryland, where he served as a substitute teacher in the Montgomery County public school system throughout his 30-year residency in the city of Silver Spring.

Jones eventually retired to St. Augustine, Florida, where he remained active, playing golf, tennis, and gardening.

The path Jones took through life, and the way in which he carried himself with such humility amidst incomparable success, was admired deeply by his peers. Cedric Maxwell, a fellow North Carolina native and lifelong friend of Jones, held the Hall-of-Famer in the highest regard.

“A winner. Just an absolute winner,” Maxwell described of Jones in an interview with NBC Sports Boston shortly after Jones’ passing. “A gentleman. Did it the right way. When he left the game, an ambassador to the game. I want to be like him because here’s a guy in his 70s, 80s who was playing golf and tennis, was so active. And for him to leave us now at the end of this year, is really just a tragedy.”


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