A day that was meant for celebration and cheer turned into a day of mourning for the Boston Celtics, who lost a legend in K.C. Jones at the age of 88 Friday prior to Boston’s Christmas matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.
One of the most successful players and coaches in the history of the franchise, Jones won a remarkable 11 championships with the Celtics – eight as a player in the 1950s and 1960s, and three as a coach in the 1980s. However, he was even more successful as a role model and a friend to those who had the privilege of playing with him and for him.
While reflecting upon their legendary 1986 championship run five years ago, Larry Bird wholeheartedly called Jones “the nicest human being I ever met in my life. He was a gracious man, not just to his players, but to all.”
Current Celtics head coach Brad Stevens never had the pleasure of meeting Jones, but he fully comprehended the influence that the Hall-of-Famer had upon the storied franchise. Stevens felt that impact enough that he had to pull over to the side of the road while en route to TD Garden Friday afternoon to gather his thoughts and emotions after hearing the news of Jones’ passing.
“I hadn’t spent time with him, but I had to stop for a minute,” Stevens recollected prior to his team’s 123-95 loss to the Nets. “I just think the way he was revered by the players he played with, the people he worked with, other players who played for him – he was special.”
Jones is the second Celtics Legend who has died in the past month and a half. His former teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Tommy Heinsohn passed away Nov. 9.
Just two days prior to Jones’ death, the team held a pre-game memorial for Heinsohn, who, like Jones, won a plethora of championships with the Celtics both as a player and as a head coach.
“We’ve had this too much lately with some of our greatest winners and greatest people that have been part of this organization,” Stevens said. “On a day that people always value their time with family and friends, obviously hampered by the year we’ve all had, it’s a real tough blow. Our condolences are with his family.”
Condolences poured in all afternoon and evening via Twitter from Jones’ old colleagues. Among those who expressed such sympathy were Jones’ former college roommate/teammate and Celtics teammate Bill Russell, and former pupil Cedric Maxwell, who earned a ring under Jones’ tutelage in 1984.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge also expressed his thoughts on Jones with great emotion from inside the arena just prior to tip-off against Brooklyn.
“K.C. was a great coach to play for,” said Ainge, who played under Jones throughout his entire five-year tenure as head coach. “He was a class act, and everybody knew that. And yet he had a competitive edge that was fierce. And so you wanted to do all you could to please K.C. as a coach, but he had this gentleness and a kindness that at the right time he knew what to say. But he was a great leader of men.”
Jones also built a great camaraderie among his players, enabling himself to fit right in with their playful personalities. For example, Ainge shared one brief story about a time when Bird pulled a prank on Jones prior to a road game against the New Jersey Nets. And Jones, rather than being scornful, just rolled with the punches in a loving manner.
“[Jones] was standing by the wall with (assistant coach) Jimmy Rogers drawing on the player's scouting report up on the chalkboard,” Ainge recalled. “Larry was down underneath the table tying K.C.'s shoestrings together. And after the chalkboard was done, K.C. stumbled out into the middle of the floor and he just received it so well. I mean he just took it on and how it was intended and didn't get mad or angry and the whole team laughed and we went out and played the game.
“He was just a real guy. He knew what to say. He’d been through it all as a player and as a coach, playing on a team at high expectations. And so that's what we were in his four years of coaching – we were in the finals every year. He did a fantastic job of coaching. But more than that, he was a friend and a mentor, and he cared deeply about us as people."
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