Legends profile: K.C. Jones

K.C. Jones keyed several championship runs in Boston, both as one of its players and later as its coach.

K.C. Jones was both a successful coach and player during his lengthy NBA career.

Few NBA players have won distinction by scoring 7.4 points per game. Few have survived more than a season or two with career percentages of .387 from the floor and .632 from the free-throw line. But K.C. Jones not only survived, he thrived for nine seasons as a key member of so many winning Boston Celtics teams that a sportswriter once suggested the initial “C” in his name stood for “championships.”

Jones, whose initials “K.C.” are his given name, was a defensive standout with the fabled Celtics dynasty of the late 1950s and 1960s. Overshadowed by more glamorous teammates, the quiet, modest Jones was rarely in the spotlight, but he was the personification of success. Serving first as a reserve and then as the heir to Bob Cousy at point guard, Jones won championships in the first eight seasons of his nine-year career. He contributed mightily to the Celtics by running the offense, ball-hawking and wallpapering himself to opposing teams’ star guards.

When his playing days ended, Jones continued his winning ways as a coach, employing a low-key, laissez-faire approach that won seven division titles, five Eastern Conference titles and two championships. In recognition of a career that produced more championship rings than Jones had fingers, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.

Named after his father, who had been named for the legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones, K.C. grew up in a poor family in Texas during the Depression. When he was 9 years old, his parents separated and he went with his mother and siblings to San Francisco. There he learned to play basketball on a patch of gravel in an impoverished neighborhood.

Celtics legend K.C. Jones left a legacy that was synonymous with winning.

In a classic rags-to-riches story, Jones starred in football and basketball at San Francisco’s Commerce High School and then won a scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where coach Phil Woolpert had also recruited an unknown, gawky kid named Bill Russell.

Jones and Russell entered into a lifetime friendship while rooming together at the university. The sociable, outgoing Russell was a stark contrast to Jones, who was so shy when he first appeared on campus that people wondered whether he ever spoke at all. In his book Second Wind, Russell once recalled that Jones didn’t say a word to him for the first month.

“He’d slap my bunk on the way out of the room in the mornings, and he’d nod at the salt or sugar during the silent meals we ate in the school cafeteria. That was the extent of our communication, until one day when he started talking like a normal person.”

The soft-spoken guard showed plenty of spark on the court. Like Russell, Jones excelled at defense. A quick 6-foot-1 guard, he made his mark with sticky man-to-man pressure and a knack for steals. Neither Russell nor Jones shot well, but they led the Dons to 56 consecutive wins and back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 (although Jones did not play in the 1956 NCAA Tournament because his eligibility had expired late in the regular season). Jones averaged 8.8 points during his college career. He also played on the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team that won a gold medal at Melbourne, Australia.

While scouting Russell, sharp-eyed Celtics coach Red Auerbach took notice of Jones and selected him in the second round of the 1956 NBA Draft. Instead of going to camp with the Celtics, however, Jones joined the Army and served for almost two years. He later said that he thought he wouldn’t have made the 1956-57 Celtics team because the squad had such a deep bench.

When his hitch with the Army was finished in 1958, he again sidestepped professional basketball. Although Jones hadn’t played college football, Pete Rozelle, a former University of San Francisco public relations official and future NFL commissioner who had seen him excel in high school, brought him to the attention of the Los Angeles Rams, who made him a late draft pick. After playing several exhibition games as a defensive back for the Rams, Jones suffered a leg injury and quit the sport.

With the welcome mat from the Celtics still out, Jones headed for the Boston training camp, where Auerbach had assembled a powerhouse club. Like baseball’s New York Yankees, the Celtics were setting a new standard for excellence. They were about to begin winning championships routinely, revolutionizing basketball by emphasizing defense and shotblocking as the trigger for a high-scoring, fast-break attack.

During his playing days, K.C. Jones was a key cog in the Celtics’ machine of the 1960s.

When Jones arrived in 1958 Boston’s backcourt boasted two All-NBA guards in Cousy and Bill Sharman. Not surprisingly, Jones saw limited playing time as a reserve during his rookie year. Spelling Cousy for 12 to 13 minutes per game, he averaged 3.5 points. The Celtics trounced an overmatched Minneapolis Lakers squad in the 1959 NBA Finals, capturing the championship in a four-game sweep.

The title marked the beginning of an extraordinary run of success for the Celtics. They went on to record eight consecutive NBA championships, a record unparalleled in professional sports. The centerpiece of the team was Russell, whose rebounding, defense, and deft outlet passing keyed the Celtics’ fast break. Boston’s frontcourt featured hotshot forwards Tom Heinsohn and Frank Ramsey. Cousy, the passing wizard and court general, and sharp-shooting Sharman rounded out one of the greatest starting lineups ever assembled.

During Jones’ second season his playing time increased to 17.2 minutes per contest. He posted a 6.3 scoring average for the Celtics, whose high-flying offense averaged 124.5 points. Boston defeated the St. Louis Hawks for the title, then repeated with a victory over the Hawks in the Finals the next year. The following two years, 1962 and 1963, Boston triumphed over the Lakers for the championship.

Jones and another new face, a young guard named Sam Jones, broke in as important reserves for Cousy and Sharman. The two Joneses complemented one another. Sam, a pure shooter, provided offense, while K.C. delivered defense. With the Jones duo shuttling in off the bench, the Celtics added the necessary depth to play fast-paced, pressure basketball for 48 minutes.

Sharman left the Celtics after the 1960-61 campaign to coach the Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League. Cousy’s retirement two years later gave K.C. Jones a chance to step up to full-time duty. For five years he had been a patient reserve, soaking up basketball knowledge.

“I played for Red Auerbach. I watched him, listened to him, saw what he did,” Jones recalled. “Cousy was the quarterback of our team and I watched him. I was a bench guy and I hated being on the bench, but while I was there I watched and absorbed, and when I got out there on the court I was in heaven.”

K.C. Jones coached the Washington Bullets from 1973-76.

Jones proved to be a talented, if unspectacular, floor leader. He directed the offense and distributed the ball well, placing among the league leaders in assists. (He ranks seventh among the Celtics’ career leaders in assists with 2,908.) Most importantly, his defense regularly shackled stars such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry West and the Cincinnati Royals’ Oscar Robertson.

Even without Cousy and Sharman, the Celtics continued to roll during the mid-1960s. With K.C. Jones quarterbacking the offense, the team downed the San Francisco Warriors and Chamberlain in the 1964 NBA Finals. Jones averaged 8.2 points for the season and ranked third in the league in assists with 5.1 per game.

The Celtics won championships again in 1965 and 1966. Jones made the 1966-67 season his final campaign. His career came to a close when the Philadelphia 76ers ended the Celtics’ reign in the playoffs. It was the first and only season in which Jones didn’t wind up with a championship ring. His uniform No. 25 was retired by the Celtics and raised to the rafters.

When his playing days were over Jones swapped his player’s uniform for a coach’s sports coat. From 1967-70  he served as coach at Brandeis University near Boston.

In the early 1970s Jones returned to professional basketball. Under former Sharman, he served as an assistant coach for the Lakers during the 1971-72 season. That team posted a 69-13 regular-season record and earned Jones another championship ring. The American Basketball Association’s San Diego Conquistadors hired him away to serve as coach in 1972-73, and Jones guided the team to a 30-54 record. He then returned to the NBA to coach the 1973-74 Capital Bullets. (The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Washington and would be called the Washington Bullets one year later.)

K.C. Jones oversaw the Celtics during their successful runs of the 1980s.

With the Bullets, Jones won 47 games in his first year and then 60 games in his second campaign. He took Washington to the 1975 NBA Finals, but the Bullets were swept in four games by an underdog Golden State Warriors team. Jones posted a 48-34 record in 1975-76 but was fired at season’s end. Jones spent six of the next seven seasons as an NBA assistant coach, first with the Milwaukee Bucks and then with the Celtics under Bill Fitch. When Fitch left after the 1982-83 season, Jones inherited the coaching position.

Although some observers suggested that he had been selected only because he was a sentimental favorite of Auerbach’s, Jones was a popular choice among players. With his warm smile and easygoing demeanor, Jones was the antithesis of the hard-driving, volatile Fitch. Calm and cool, he rarely yelled at players or tried to motivate his team through intimidation. He welcomed the ideas of intelligent veterans such as Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. “He’s got our respect as a coach and as a person,” Bird told USA Today.

Three weeks after he was named coach the Celtics made a key trade, sending center Rick Robey to the Phoenix Suns for guard Dennis Johnson. With a nucleus of All-Stars, Jones had a veteran cast that needed little direction. The result was immediate success. During the 1983-84 season the Celtics posted a 62-20 record and then beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games for the NBA championship. Jones was credited by many Celtics players for his leadership.

Jones downplayed his nice-guy image. “I listen to the players. My job is to give them direction and a base to operate from, but you have to let them use their own creativity and imaginations. It’s their game, they have to be allowed to play it.” Critics claimed his laid-back style of coaching was successful merely because players such as Bird, Parish, McHale, and Johnson practically coached themselves.

In any case, Jones had his first NBA crown as a coach. “Coming from where I was, with all the turmoil and rough seas, it was wonderful,” he told Inside Sports after the season. “I knew a lot of people doubted my ability. I had grown bitter all those years, but that night when it was over, I said to myself, ‘Look where you are.’”

Jones spent four more years coaching the Celtics. Following up his first season with a 63-19 record, his team then went 67-15 and won the title again in 1986. He closed in on another NBA title the following year, posting a record of 59-23, but he had to settle for a runner-up finish to the Lakers. During the final year of his tenure the Celtics went 57-25.

After the 1987-88 season, Jones moved upstairs to serve as a vice president with the Celtics. He returned to coaching in 1989 as an assistant, then coach, with the Seattle SuperSonics, but he was replaced by George Karl midway through the 1991-92 campaign. In 1994-95 he returned to the sidelines once again as an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons, and later rejoined the Celtics organization as an assistant under M.L. Carr during the 1995-96 and 96-97 seasons.

As coach of the Bullets, Celtics, and Sonics, Jones won 522 regular-season games, never had a losing season, and finished with a .674 winning percentage, which still stands as one of the best coaching marks of all time. He won eight championship rings as a player, one as an assistant coach with the Lakers, one as an assistant with Boston, and two as coach of the Celtics. Few have matched Jones’ lifetime record of NBA success.

When Jones was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989, he brought with him a legacy of personal respect. As Bird once cracked, “He’s the kind of person I’d like to be, but I don’t have the time to work at it.”

On Christmas Day in 2020, the Celtics and NBA announced that Jones had died. He was 88 years old and had been at an assisted living facility in Connecticut, where he had been receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease for the past several years.

At the time of his death, Jones was one of seven players in history to have won an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship and an NBA title. Only Russell and Sam Jones won more NBA championships as players.