Called “Mr. Clutch” by many of his peers, Sam Jones was one of the linchpins of the fabulous Boston juggernaut of the 1950s and 1960s. His uncannily accurate bank shots, lightning quickness, and cool demeanor helped the Celtics win 10 NBA Championships in the 12 years he played with the team.
During his career Jones racked up 15,411 points at a 17.7 points per game clip, and shot .803 from the free-throw line. Selected to the All-NBA Second Team three times and an All-Star five times, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.
His longtime coach, Red Auerbach, was one of his greatest fans. Jones’ special attributes as a player, Auerbach once explained, were his speed, touch, reflexes, and attitude. But there was another quality that made him a standout: dedication. “He’ll do anything you ask him,” said Auerbach. “He’s always in shape and ready to play, and nobody works any harder at basketball than he does.”
The story goes that no college players in the 1957 rookie crop thrilled Auerbach. But needing to make a choice before the draft meeting, he relied on the judgment of a college coach who had seen Jones play. (Auerbach usually considered only players that he had personally scouted twice.) Auerbach surprised everyone by selecting North Carolina Central’s Jones, an unknown player from an unknown college, as his No. 1 draft pick (the eighth pick overall).
Jones, oddly enough, was devastated. Although he was willing to give pro basketball a try, he didn’t think he had a prayer of making the Celtics, who had just finished a championship season and had 11 returning veterans — another team, perhaps, but not Boston.
“I never felt so miserable in my life when I got the news,” Jones said at the time. “I really thought it was the end of my basketball career. Sure, I was thrilled with the honor … I never thought I’d be able to break into the game, let alone the lineup.”
He was already torn between two desires: to play professional basketball or to teach high school. In fact, he had a pending offer from a high school at the time the Celtics chose him. Jones was so apprehensive about the prospect of trying out with Boston that he decided to ask the high school for a $500 pay increase. If that came through, he told himself, he would forsake basketball. The school turned him down, so he traveled to Boston to meet a skeptical Auerbach and four seasoned, world-beating guards, including Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman.
Auerbach recalled that as soon as he saw Jones sprint up and down the court a few times without breathing hard, he knew the kid had a chance. “When he arrived,” Auerbach said, “there were other kids almost just like Sam. The difference was the other three just thought about shooting. After a couple of days, Sam started handing out some nice passes and blocking so other guys could shoot.”
Forced to cut a veteran to make room for Jones, Auerbach may have wondered during the rookie’s first season if he had made a wise choice. Jones averaged only 4.6 points in the 1957-58 campaign, playing a little more than 10 minutes per contest. His playing time more than doubled the next year, however, and so did his point production, to 10.7 ppg.
For the next several seasons Jones improved his shooting and playmaking skills, although he still felt overshadowed by the Celtics’ legendary backcourt duo of Sharman and Cousy. After a while it became evident that Auerbach was slowly grooming Jones to take over Sharman’s position when he retired.
With Jones in the lineup, Auerbach had the luxury of experimenting with one of his other guards, Frank Ramsey, at forward. In the swingman position, Ramsey could often outmaneuver taller opponents. “It started the use of smaller, fast forwards,” Auerbach told Pro Sports Weekly, “and because this put a smaller team on the floor we had to go to the press more often.”
It wasn’t until early in the 1960-61 season that Jones made his breakthrough into the starting lineup. Injuries had sidelined Sharman, so Auerbach called on Jones to assume the off-guard position. Although Jones publicly announced his discomfort with a starter’s role, he performed brilliantly that year, averaging 14.8 ppg. For the next three seasons as a starting guard he kept improving.
His reputation as a great clutch player began to form as well. After averaging 18.2 ppg during the 1961-62 regular season — and earning his first All-Star selection — he pumped that up to 20.6 in the playoffs. Boston faced the Philadelphia Warriors and Wilt Chamberlain in the Eastern Division finals, and they stretched the Celtics to the limit.
In the seventh-game showdown, with the score tied at 107 and two seconds left, Jones hit a jump shot over the outstretched arms of Chamberlain to seal the win. After the game Chamberlain hailed Jones as the Celtics’ best player. In the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Jones again came through, scoring five of the Celtics’ 10 overtime points in Game 7 to propel Boston to a fourth straight NBA crown.
In 1962-63 Jones’ field-goal percentage peaked at a career-high .476 when he contributed 19.7 ppg. He performed even better in the playoffs, averaging 23.8 ppg and helping the Celtics to yet another championship.
More than any other offensive move, Jones owned the bank shot. He was deadly with it from either side or anywhere around the key. Jones had developed it while he was in high school because he couldn’t make a layup. He had spent hours perfecting the shot by aiming at the strips on the backboard until it became instinctive. In the latter part of his career, while most of the top players preferred to hit only net with their shots, Jones continued to use the backboard, drawing smiles from fans but not from opponents.
Another of Jones’ distinguishing characteristics was his ability to move without the ball. It was almost routine to have Bill Russell pull down an offensive rebound, turn, and fire a pass to Jones, who, standing alone, would send another bank shot through the hoop.
“You can’t stand still,” he explained. “When the ball is shot, the defensive man has to turn his head to see where the rebound is going. When I see we have the rebound, I go to another position. The man who is guarding me has his back to me now and he doesn’t know I’ve moved. He has to turn around and look for me. You only need a second to get a shot off.”
He also possessed a supreme confidence in his ability to play against the league’s best, even the mountainous Chamberlain. “Look, I know Chamberlain is going to block some shots on me,” Jones once told The Sporting News. “But I also know he isn’t going to do it enough times a game to make any real difference. If I can get to the spot I like on the floor before the man who is guarding me, I’m going to score.”
That kind of confidence bloomed during the 1964-65 season, when Jones finished fourth in the NBA in scoring with 25.9 ppg. He made his third All-Star appearance and earned the first of three consecutive selections to the All-NBA Second Team. Jones said later that he never thought about missing, only about the ball going into the hoop.
Jones was self-effacing about his scoring prowess in 1964-65. “That doesn’t mean a thing,” he said about his career-high average. “Every guy on this team has the ability to score 2,000 points if that’s what he’s asked to do. There’s a lot of unselfishness by others in those 2,000 points I scored.” It helped that Jones’s backcourt counterpart was K. C. Jones, who ranked third in the league in assists, followed in fifth place by Russell, who also led the NBA in rebounds with 24.1 rpg.
Boston finished the 1964-65 season with a league-leading 62-18 record. Jones then had his best postseason ever, averaging 28.6 ppg as Boston rolled to its seventh straight NBA Championship. Auerbach said that this was the year Jones became a superstar. “I wouldn’t put him in quite the same class as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, who do more things well,” Auerbach told The Sporting News. “But, as a shooter, he’s every bit as tough to guard.”
The next few years were the zenith of Jones’s career. He was an All-Star again in 1966 and 1968, and he was named to the All-NBA Second Team in 1966 and 1967. The Celtics wrestled their way to NBA titles again in 1966, 1968, and 1969. Another of Jones’s golden moments came in the fourth game of the 1969 NBA Finals against Boston’s old nemesis, Los Angeles. The Lakers, loaded with talent in the form of superstars Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Chamberlain, were favored to beat an aging, tired Celtics squad that had finished fourth in the Eastern Division. Behind by one point with seven seconds remaining in Game 4, the Celtics called a timeout.
Much was riding on the game. If the Lakers won, Boston would trail by two games with the series moving to Los Angeles. Player-coach Bill Russell called a play for Jones. Jones remembered the shot vividly. “I knew it was good from the time it left my hand,” he told The New York Times. “It rolled right over the cylinder. We won the game and went on to win the championship.”
Russell later told Jones that he almost called the play for somebody else, because he knew that Jones was about to retire and fans would forever remember a missed shot. But Russell also knew there was no one better suited to pressure than Jones.
Both Jones and Russell retired from playing that year, and their importance to the team was underscored the next season when Boston’s near invincibility came to a screeching halt. The team managed only a sixth-place finish in its division and a dismal 34-48 record.
Retiring was difficult for Jones, but at age 36 he knew that his body couldn’t take much more punishment. At the time he departed, Jones held 11 Celtics records. He had led the team in scoring for three seasons and owned the Celtics’ single-game scoring record of 51 points (since broken by Larry Bird). All in all, it was a pretty good career for a man who barely made the team his rookie year and who, if a certain high school had met his request of a $500 salary increase, would have become a retired schoolteacher instead of a retired NBA legend.
Perhaps the greatest compliment anyone paid to Jones was supplied by Auerbach at a special ceremony at Boston Garden. “I would like to thank Sam Jones,” he said, “for making me a helluva coach.”
Shortly after leaving the NBA, Jones became the athletic director and coach at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. (which became the University of the District of Columbia). He later coached at his alma mater, North Carolina Central, and then worked as an assistant for the New Orleans Jazz.
Further honors awaited him. In 1970 he was named to the NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team and in 1983 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. In his speech at the ceremony he gave credit where he felt it was due, with his typical humility: “It would have made me very happy,” he said, “if the Celtics had gone in as a team, because that’s what we were, a great team, not great individuals.” The honors did not stop with the Hall of Fame, because in 1996 he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary Team and in 2021 he was named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Jones died in 2021 at the age of 88 in Florida, where he had been hospitalized in failing health.