Bobby Jones: A Hall of Fame Story
On Friday, September 6th, Robert Clyde Jones will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He'll become the 17th player in franchise history to receive the honor -- one that at 67 years old, some might say is long overdue.
Jones was a four-time All-Star. He was the first player to ever to be named NBA Sixth Man of the Year, which happened the same season the Sixers won the championship.
Jones was First-Team All-Defense -- not just eight times, but eight years in a row.
“I mean, who does that? I mean, he's one of the few,” said Bob McAdoo, Hall of Famer and Jones’ former teammate. “You know, usually guys that get in the Hall of Fame are offensive guys. But I think it's great, you know, he was a defensive guy who took pride in that craft, and got a championship. I mean, he's deserving.”
Selfless, humble, sacrifice, the ultimate teammate. These are how some of the people who know Jones best describe him.
But for as much of a gentleman as he was on the court, he was fiercely competitive. Determination defined his game.
All these are qualities that made it that much easier to win over the hearts of the Delaware Valley.
. . . .
Who knew that back in the 1980s, Julius Erving had his own TV show? It was called Julius Erving's Sports Focus, and it ran on ESPN.
With Jones on the cusp of entering the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the sentiment that Erving expressed in the monologue of this particular episode of his show still rings so very true.
Fast forward three decades later, and the people interviewed for this piece, almost to a man, said the exact same or similar things: Jones in every way was a team player, and arguably the best defender of his era.
Listen to the 'Bobby Jones, A Hall of Fame Story' podcast:
“He didn't care if he scored a point, 20 points -- it was insignificant,” Billy Cunningham said of Jones. “He had one common goal that he brought to the team, and that was: How can I help you win?”
And winning was something Jones’ teams did a whole heck of a lot of.
In his 12 seasons as a professional basketball player, Jones was part of 595 wins between the Denver Nuggets and the 76ers. That's almost twice the number of games he lost.
Jones also qualified for the playoffs every year of his career: four times with Denver, in both the ABA and NBA, then eight times with the Sixers.
“When you watch Bobby play, he’s probably the ultimate teammate, the most selfless and unselfish player you can ever be around in your life,” said Larry Brown, who was Jones’ first coach as a pro. “Probably as good a defender that we’ve ever had in our game, I think.”
In his early days playing the game, Jones learned the value of effort on both ends of the court.
“I was not a very talented offensive player… I always played just the organized basketball and so I never really created an offensive move or a style of play for myself,” Jones said. I was taller than most kids so I learned -- I blocked shots, I could be effective on the court playing defense.”
There is little doubt, particularly in Jones' mind, that defense was his ticket to the Hall of Fame. The chairman of the Hall, Jerry Colangelo, essentially told him as much when the announcement was officially made at this year's Final Four.
“Having heard Mr. Colangelo, he gave a talk to the incoming class in Minnesota at the Final Four. He shared with the class, you know that they decided, they made a determination to add value and weight to defensive awards, defensive categories. And so according to him, [that] moved myself and others up the ladder of potential candidates for the Hall [of Fame],” Jones said.
As a player, Jones was several things. A winner, for sure, and yes -- he was highly dependable on the offensive end. Jones ranks 18th in NBA history in field goal shooting at 55.0%, and by the measure of today's popular advanced stats, he grades out among the most efficient of all time.
But defense -- disruptive, relentless, exhausting defense -- that, without question, was Jones' calling card.
“He was disruptive. I mean, if he guarded you, first of all, he probably couldn't get the ball, and if he got the ball, no matter what you did, you could not get an athletic advantage on him,” said Mitch Kupchak.
Kupchak had plenty of battles with Jones over the years, from their days as teammates at North Carolina, to the NBA, where Kupchak played for the Washington Bullets and Los Angeles Lakers.
Kupchak is now the General Manager of the Charlotte Hornets.
“The only advantage that a player could get on [Jones] was with size and strength,” Kupchak said. “It was not athleticism. No matter who you are in the NBA -- you could've been a 6-foot-2 guard, or a 6-foot-7 or a 6-foot-8 small forward, and the best athlete in the NBA, you could not get an athletic advantage on him.”
There are certainly numbers you can point to that quantify just how good of a defender Jones was.
But for some of the people who lived through that time with him, either as his coach, teammate, or opponent, it was all about the lasting holistic impression Jones defense left.
Take it from Billy Cunningham.
“He enjoyed playing [defense]. He took the challenge,” Cunningham said. “He knew who he was playing against -- their strengths and weaknesses. His whole concept was not only, how was he going to help stop the player he's playing, but how can he help and support his teammates on the court as well?”
As elite as Jones’ intangibles were, his statistical performance should never be undersold.
The numbers were really good. His first season in the NBA in 1976-77 as a member of the Nuggets, he posted the best defensive rating in the league (89.9) -- it was one of six times he finished in the top 20 of that category.
There were also those 100-steal, 100-block seasons that Jones coveted so much, which he discussed in an interview last year.
“Every year, I tried to get 100 steals, and 100 blocked shots, because I felt like those were unselfish stats,” Jones said. “I felt like those were something that helped the team, helped us get possessions, kept the other team from scoring.”
After a little extra auditing on Jones’ behalf, it turns out that according to Basketball - Reference.com, he had six 100-steal, 100-block seasons in his career. Only six players have done it more times -- Dr. J and Hakeem Olajuwon are tied for the all-time record of 12.
How was it that Jones got to become so good on the defensive end? His evolution began with an epiphany of sorts.
“Going to [University of] North Carolina, their emphasis on giving weak-side help, taking a charge, diving on the floor for loose balls, those kinds of things just sort of, you know, set in my soul, basketball soul I guess,” Jones said. “The idea that you can affect the game on the defensive end as much as you can on the offensive end.”
That mindset made an impression on his teammates.
Just take it from Kupchak:
“I think what North Carolina gave him was structure. I know he had good coaching in high school, but at North Carolina, Coach Smith took his competitive nature and his natural talent, and turned him into not only a great one-on-one defender, or on-ball defender, but really a great team defender. Bobby never advanced his game offensively. He just wasn't selfish.”
Jones attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill from 1970 through 1974. His first year on campus was Dean Smith's 10th season at the school, and the program was just on the cusp of really taking off.
Jones couldn't play as a freshman -- those were the rules -- but his sophomore season, the Tar Heels climbed as high as no. 2 in the national rankings, and reached the Final Four.
Bobby credited the Hall of Famer Smith for teaching him how to play sound helpside defense, when he could cheat a bit for steals, and get out on the break. His season playing for Bill Guthridge on the UNC freshman team was also important to his development.
“We spent so much time learning how to play defense. To me, the biggest thing that most people are afraid of is, if you leave your man to go help somebody else and your man scores, then it’s on you,” Jones said. “Well, Coach Guthridge taught us that it’s all five of us. And if they score on somebody else, then it’s still on me, because I could’ve helped.”
Jones’ teammates would appreciate that skill for years to come.
“What stood out with Bobby, to me, that I can remember, was his defensive play,” McAdoo said. “His defensive play, because of his quickness, was off the charts.”
Brown echoed McAdoo’s admiration of Jones’ defense.
“In order to defend like he did, you have to be a great athlete,” McAdoo said. “But you have to have this mindset that you’re willing to do things that maybe not everybody is willing to do.”
Bobby Jones had the mindset to play defense alright: He wasn't just a willing defender, he was someone who relished that side of the floor.
When Jones was in the prime of his career during the ‘70s and ‘80s, he encountered plenty of formidable matchups. Back in the ABA days, future fellow 76er Julius Erving was one of them.
Another one was George McGinnis, whom the Sixers traded for Jones. Of course, there was Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson, Larry Keenan, Marcus Johnson, and fellow Class of 2019 inductee Syndey Moncrief.
Our @SixersHistory content curator Curtis Harris offers some context:
“Bobby usually played power forward, so that means on offense, he’d be a power forward. Sometimes, on defense, he might guard the other team’s small forward. Top flight offensive players that he would have to guard. And really, when you get into the ‘80s, the small forward, especially, was really one of the toughest spots to guard.”
Fellow 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Sidney Moncrief knew that, although he didn’t play with Jones himself, those who did play with Jones couldn’t find a bad word to say.
“[Jones] didn’t complain very much, he just went out there and did his job. He was a great teammate. It would be hard to find anybody that played with Bobby Jones that would say anything negative about him as a person, and also as a teammate,” Moncrief said.
When speaking to Jones for this piece, there was a particular memory that made him chuckle: watching his opponents get frustrated while playing against him.
“First of all, I noticed that guys hated to have their shot blocked. So I didn’t have to block their shot. I just had to get close enough to where they thought I had a chance of blocking their shot. And so I learned quickly, don’t put my hand in their face, put my hand over their face towards the ball and they can’t tell. They’re looking at the basket. They can’t tell if I’m close to the ball or not. And so many times guys would change their shot -- shoot it high in the air, or shoot it quickly, and it would just be a terrible shot. You know it was just as effective as blocking a shot. I remember so many times also, if I was named to an All-Star team, I would kinda rue the next week or so because everyone I was playing against was thinking, ‘Oh, how’d this guy get on the team?’ I’m gonna show him that I can score on him. And so that was always a tough time for me to work the game.”
More often than not, Jones prevailed, and he did so with an athleticism that was perhaps equal parts underrated, under appreciated, and unsuspecting.
In talking to former teammates and coaches about Jones, athleticism very well could have been the most prominent quality they used to define him right behind his gentlemanly nature and defensive prowess.
Once you experienced Jones’ athleticism up close -- as Bob McAdoo did way back when he and Jones competed against each other in high school in both basketball and track -- you knew never to underestimate it.
“You've got to understand the time period that I came from, ok?” McAdoo said. “Remember, integration started when me and Bobby were in school. So you didn't run into white boys that could jump like that. When you see a white guy that could jump like that, that's when you go, 'Wow.’ He didn't just wow me with his game, but he wowed me with his athleticism. He could run like a deer, and I saw that.”
Kirby Jones, Bobby's older brother by one and a half years, had an inside track on Bobby's athletic gifts long before anyone else.
“I don’t know how people look at him, but he wasn’t that filled out -- not like the guys today -- and he didn’t look that physically strong, but he was,” Kirby said. “I don’t think he was given enough credit for his athletic ability.”
Kirby Jones was a fine athlete in his own right. He played Pop Warner Football, baseball, was a state champion in tennis in high school, and went on to play basketball at the University of Oklahoma.
The Joneses were very much a family of athletes, starting from the top.
Bobby's dad, Bob, was drafted into the army to serve in Japan during World War II after first getting a scholarship to Indiana State. When he returned, he landed at Oklahoma and was a runner-up for the NCAA title. Later in life, he was a nationally ranked tennis player on senior circuits.
Then, there was Bobby's mom, Hazel.
“She was probably the best athlete of all of us,” Kirby said. “She was a basketball player… she scored 58 points in one game. She got into tennis as well, and her record was probably the equal of my father’s. She dominated state tournaments and regional tournaments in her age group. It’s easy to see where Bobby got the athletic genes from.”
And Jones, his teammates, and the teams he played for reaped the rewards of those genes. Cunningham remembers it well:
“I think his athleticism sometimes is understated. He was just a great athlete, and I think people tend to forget that, People talk so much about the athleticism of the players today, well, I look at Bobby Jones and Julius Erving when they were playing forward together with the Sixers -- I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more athletic forwards on the court at the same time.”
If you were alive back then, there's a good chance you'd still probably rank those teams to be among the best ever, even if you weren't a Philadelphia sports fan.
But had it not been for an unsettling twist of fate, there's a good chance Bobby Jones might not have ever ended up a 76er at all.
. . . .
In the amount of time you'd need to pop open a can of soda, fill a glass, and enjoy a couple swigs, that's how long it took Jones to suffer his first epileptic seizure.
“The first seizure that I had was in college, after an intramural volleyball game in the springtime,” Jones said. “I came home, and I had a big soda in my dorm, and it triggered a seizure. They took me to the hospital, and they diagnosed my ailment as a virus of the heart called pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart sac.”
Let's cut right to the right to the chase. This was a condition that Jones didn't just play with the rest of that season at UNC. He dealt with it his entire career.
The idea that any person -- because let's start at the most basic level before contextualizing Bobby Jones as a world class, play-your-heart-out professional athlete -- that any person would elect to be involved in any sort of strenuous physical activity whatsoever while trying to manage a heart problem is a heavy load to bear.
But this is Bobby Jones we're talking about, an exceptional basketball player, who left just about everything he had on the floor.
“We were 18 and 19 years old, and you certainly, there were no restrictions on him in practice. So it's not like he ever sat out and you were wondering why he was sitting out. My two years with him, he never had a setback. However, I was aware that as a sophomore he had this irregular heartbeat. But... I mean, the way the guy competed, that's the last thing you'd think about.” Kupchak said.
Kupchak was two years behind Jones at UNC, and kind of looked up to Jones -- who had played on the 1972 Olympic team -- with a sense of awe. They ultimately formed a friendship that remains strong to this day.
Now that Kupchak lives in Charlotte, he and Jones live not-so-far from one another once again.
“It was known that he had a heart irregular beat. I remember talking to him about it... he talked about how it was a soft drink that kind of triggered it. I don't know if he was making a joke or not. It was that soft drink, and it was kind of like, 'Well, I'll never drink that again.' And to be honest with you, that's all I know about it,” Kupchak said.
Dr. Neel Chokshi, Medical Director of Sports Cardiology and Fitness for Penn Medicine, explains pericarditis, and the risks it poses:
“Pericarditis has a pretty broad range of manifestations for patients. Probably the one we worry about often in athletic individuals is, this inflammation which is generally contained in the sac, or in the surface around the heart, can spread into the heart tissue itself, causing a condition called myocarditis,” Chokshi said.
When Jones got to Denver for his rookie season in the ABA, his seizures were under control. Still, there were signs that he wasn't in the clear.
“As soon as I would start the games, after about three or four minutes, my arms would tingle and my legs would get kind of weak. And I had to sit down, and my heart was racing too fast. So they gave me a medication which controlled my heart rate. And I took that for the four years that I was at Denver,” Jones said.
In 1976, Jones' second seizure struck.
“I had a seizure early in Denver. And my wife was with me -- that was the first one she’d ever seen -- and it terrified her of course. We got in the ambulance, and I was conscious by the time I was in the ambulance. And the first thing that we did together, we just prayed. And my prayer was, ‘Lord, thank you for this. I don’t know why you’ve given this to me, but you say in your Word that you do everything for a reason,’” Jones said.
To understand Jones and his outlook on life is to understand that he is a man of deep faith. By placing his faith in a higher power, he was able to find calm amidst a turbulent and potentially frightening situation.
Jones grew up in a Baptist church. He always identified as a Christian. But it wasn't until he met his college sweetheart Tess on a blind date that he really began to take religion seriously, especially when he proposed to her shortly before his senior year. They've been married for 45 years.
“Right before my senior year in college… I asked her if we could get engaged to get married and she made the statement, ‘Bobby, I don’t know if I can marry someone if I don’t know if they’re a committed Christian’. And it kind of embarrassed me. I just sort of stammered and said we’ll talk about it later. So I left and went home and started thinking, ‘Where am I with my faith?’” Jones said.
He pondered the question, and acknowledged he wasn't where he needed to be. Jones’ change in mindset was immediate. He started reading more scripture, and developed a new appreciation for everyday things - trees, flowers, stuff like that.
At first, Jones had a hard time reconciling being both an athlete and religious. To him, the two lifestyles seemed opposite.
“It was a growth experience for me as a believer. Just to curve my tongue and to try to edify, try to be a positive example to other people. One thing I learned quickly was that... two things. One, in the NBA or the ABA, if you’re unaggressive you’re not gonna last long. I learned to be aggressive as I could. Not to be dirty, but physically what I had to win a game or to get a steal or whatever it may be. And then two, people don’t want to, they don’t want to hear a sermon, they want to see a sermon,” Jones said.
Brown said Jones’ religion lived as a less talk, more action part of his life.
“There’s a lot of guys that talk about their faith, and let everybody know about it. But he never did. It’s the way he lived his life,” Brown said.
In 1978, Jones had to once again lean on his faith as he suffered his third seizure. It was also the third straight year he was an All-Star for Denver.
“My last year in Denver I had another seizure, and they said, ‘You’ve got to take something.’ So when I started taking the phenobarbital, that combination of the phenobarbital and the inderal for the heart really spaced me out. It just made me very ineffective on the court… That really was the low point for me physically I think. And because of that, that’s what caused me to be traded to Philly,” Jones said.
Brown remembers watching Jones go through that difficult time.
“I happened to be there when he had one of his seizures, and it was a really difficult thing to experience. But you never heard Bobby ever complain about anything, he was the same person every day. Nothing changed. I mean that in a great way,” Brown said.
The view of the Denver front office, however, did change. 1978 would end up being Jones' fourth and final season with the Nuggets. They traded him, Ralph Simpson, and a future first-round pick to the 76ers in August of that year in exchange for George McGinnis and a future first-rounder.
Denver was worried about Jones’ health. He got it, but was still surprised when he found out the Nuggets wanted to move on.
“I was on vacation,” Jones said. “It was in the offseason, early offseason. I got a call from my agent saying ‘hey they want to trade you. Then the complexity of it was that I had a no-trade clause from my ABA days and George had a no-trade clause from his ABA days. It drug out for about two and a half months I think. They said it was the longest trade in history.”
But once Jones relocated to the City of Brotherly Love, something happened:
“When I got to Philly, the heart thing left. I think it’s possibly the altitude or something, not what it was, but I didn’t have to take the heart medicine anymore and was able to tolerate the phenobarbital to point where I could play. Maybe not as long as I wanted to, but with the same intensity that I needed. And that was all I needed to do anyways so it worked out well.”
When you're down at The Center for a 76ers game, look up, and you'll see Jones' retired no. 24 hanging in the rafters, where it keeps company with numbers worn by the other past greats in franchise history, like some of Bobby's former teammates Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, and Moses Malone -- all Hall of Famers themselves.
Jones' crowning achievement as a professional basketball player will forever be his role on the 1982-83 76ers. Based on record, they were the best team in the NBA, and famously lost just one of their 13 games en route to the club's second ever title.
Moses Malone was selected regular season and Finals MVP, Julius Erving was the All-Star Game MVP and First-Team All-NBA. Malone, Cheeks, and Jones all got nods to the All-Defensive First-Team.
As smooth as the Sixers made it look for most of that 1983 title season, the path to the Larry O'Brien Trophy was by no means linear.
In fact, going all the way back to Jones' first season with the club, there were some kinks that had to be worked out, and hurdles to overcome.
Here, Jones talks about what it was like for him when he initially joined the Sixers in 1978-79:
“I think it was a little bit of a transitional year. I’ve always been big on chemistry and I think you have to have a certain amount of time to develop that chemistry. That first year was kinda a growing experience for all of us I think. It didn’t go as well as we would have liked I think, but it was a good year… It was just getting used to everything.”
While that may have been true, Jones managed to stand out individually. He averaged 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. He was also named First-Team All-Defense.
And even though Jones wasn't thrilled with that that 47-win 1978-79 season, he seemed confident he was in the right place, both geographically and professionally:
“I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia. I ended up living in New Jersey, West Berlin. I lived in the same neighborhood Doug Collins lived in. It was harder for my wife I think. She had more of a Southern accent than I do, so they’d make fun of her with her Southern accent. So for me, it was really good because the Philly fans were a blue-collar, working-class group and they appreciated the effort that I gave. And that was from the very start. Even if I didn’t score many points or whatever, they understood the hustle that I was providing.”
For as much as Philadelphia was a good fit for Jones, so too was his new head coach. Jones and Cunningham were both standouts under Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina.
“We went to the same universities, played for the same coach, so we knew quite a bit about each other before working together,” Cunningham said. “I think that it was just mutual respect for each other as men, and what we expected from each other. And hopefully I gave what he expected from me as a coach, and I know he did that for me as a player.”
Being a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers during the late 1970s and early 1980s was a relentless exercise in patience. Season after season, it seemed, began with promise -- only to finish in frustration.
There was the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 Finals that ended Jones’ second season with the Sixers…
The agonizing one-point loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals…
Then, in 1982, a dramatic seven-game series win over the C's to get back to the Finals -- only to fall again in six games to L.A.
It's not that the Sixers, as talented as they were, weren't working, they just weren't able to get over that last hump.
“I think they started to see who’s effective, who fits well with others,” Jones said of that team. “It’s not to say that guys they let go, you know like Doug Collins or World B. Free or Darryl or Caldwell, they weren’t effective. They were. But as far as the context as far as the way the team was structured, you know a guy like Cheeks, who was strong on both ends of the court. Didn’t need the ball to be successful. Same with me, allowed other guys like Andrew, Julius and Moses to be the focal point on what’s happening on the offensive end.”
But the Sixers needed an extra boost.
So, late in the summer of 1982, the team made a series of franchise-changing moves.
First, they signed Marc Iavoroni as a free agent.
Darryl Dawkins was traded to the New Jersey Nets.
Then, six weeks before the start of the season, a seismic domino dropped. The Sixers managed to acquire Moses Malone from the Houston Rockets in exchange for Caldwell Jones and a future first-round pick.
Malone was already a two-time league MVP and six-time All-Star. The deal was finalized two days before his 27th birthday.
Moses Malone was in the prime of his career, and, with the likes of Erving, Cheeks, Toney, Iavoroni, and Jones by his side, he would eventually put the 76ers over the top.
Consensus opinion about the Sixers 1982-83 season was that Malone was the missing link. Based on results, it's a claim that's hard to dispute.
But in a way, his individual success, and the subsequent collective success of the Sixers, was intrinsically linked to Jones' team-first attitude.
Let's go back to the season before the title campaign, 1981-82, when Cunningham was preparing to pitch Jones, previously a starter, about a new role:
“I felt that one of the things we were missing was somebody to bring something off the bench to inspire the team. And, the first day of practice, I was going to have a meeting with Bobby and explain to him that I thought that he would help us be a better team if he came off the bench. And before I opened my mouth, Bobby was telling me that he thought this would be better for the team if he came off the bench,” Cunningham said.
This is how Jones remembered the exchange:
“[Cunningham’s] explanation to me was, ‘We don’t have enough off the bench to continue what we’re doing as we start the game. And you coming off the bench would help that. And I said, ‘That’s fine. No problem.’”
So how did Jones do in his first season as a reserve?
He posted 14.4 points per game, which ended up being the highest average of his Sixers' career.
Jones was also selected to his second straight All-Star Game. He called it one of his greatest honors, because it was the coaches who voted him in.
Jones and Cunningham were on the same page.
“I’ve always been a laid-back guy,” Jones said. “If he wants me to sit the whole game, I’m going to sit the whole game. I learned from Coach Smith -- you’re part of the team, and you do whatever the head guy wants. And he’s the head guy.”
Fast forward to the fall of 1982, and Bobby was ready to reprise his duties off the bench for a second year in a row. Only this time, with the added muscle of Malone.
The Sixers' started off strong that season, but behind the scenes, it did take a bit of time for everyone to get used to each other. When Christmas and New Years rolled around, the group was in the midst of a 14-game winning streak.
“He fit in, because they had a bunch of superstars,” McAdoo remembers. “He fit in, and he was the lunch pail guy. He did the dirty work. The other guys had the glam and everything, but Bobby was quietly doing the dirty work. He guarded the other team's best forward. He would quietly get 12-16 points, and after the game, you're like, ‘What the hell happened? What? Bobby Jones!?’ And he'd shoot 5-of-7, 5-of-8, and stuff like that, because people weren't paying attention to him because they had the superstar guys on the team."
After playing with Jones for a season at UNC, McAdoo went on to have an MVP career. He was with the Lakers when they drew the Sixers in the Finals in 1982, and again in ‘83.
“[Jones] was the one that was doing a lot of damage in major games,” McAdoo said. “In big games, everything -- Championship, Eastern Conference Championship, he was doing some damage, serious damage. And guarding, like I said, the best player on the other team.”
The amount of damage the Sixers did in 1982-83 was considerable. Their 65 wins were by far the most in the NBA that regular season. And they rolled through the playoffs, as Moses Malone famously forecasted they would.
Throw in Jones and a dangerous bench, and the Sixers had all bases covered.
The New York Knicks were the first victim: Swept in four games.
Up next: Sidney Moncrief and the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I still think the ‘83 team of the 76ers is one of the top five all-time teams ever. Anything I’ve seen, or played… that team was just so deep,” Moncrief said.
Moncrief was one of Milwaukee's stars, a 22.5 point per game scorer. The Bucks dealt the Sixers their lone loss of the 1983 postseason, Game 4 of the series in Milwaukee that helped Moncrief and the Bucks avoid a sweep.
To this day, he speaks about that year's Sixers with a great deal of respect.
“It was just a team that was so well balanced. It was one of the greatest teams, I thought, ever to grace an NBA court. And Bobby fit right in because he played his role, he knew what the team needed for him to do, and he took on that responsibility,” Moncrief said.
With the Bucks in the rearview mirror, the Sixers squared off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals for the third time in four years. This round, the Sixers left nothing to chance. They tamed the short-handed Lakers in four games, winning each game by an average of 10.0 points.
Jones scored in double-figures each of the last three games of the Finals. Through the Sixers' first two series of the postseason, he posted double-digits in scoring just once.
Inside the visitors locker room at the Great Western Forum following the Sixers' Game 4 victory, he shared hugs and warm moments with coaches and fellow players.
Jones remembers those moments, and the days that followed, well:
“I remember after the last game, I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired as I was then. I’ve never given as much effort I think for anything as I and the other guys on our team did to win that series. You know, I think it didn’t really hit us until the parade. And then when we go down Broad Street I guess it was, the number of people, it was just, you can’t comprehend it, how many people are out there. Every side street is full of people. It was just unbelievable to me in my mind that people were so excited and thrilled that this happened.”
The Sixers' triumph in 1983 came at the expense of two of Bobby's UNC teammates, Kupchak and McAdoo, both were members of the Lakers that season, but battled injuries.
“Looking back on it, I'm glad he got it, but you know, I was a part of that team at the time, and I didn't want to listen to him brag, for the next whatever, you know, how they beat us,” Kupchak said. “And he's not a bragger, but if I brought it up, and then we start going back and forth, and he's got a memory like an elephant -- he'll say something to get right back at me. I gotta be on my toes.”
Perhaps the last word about Jones' spectacular 1982-83 season should be this: He was named Sixth Man of the Year in the first year of the award's existence, befitting of a guy who was more than willing to continue ceding his starting spot in order to serve as an inspiring sparkplug off the bench.
“It was really special, really special. My wife keeps telling me that they made the award because I had such a good year off the bench. I don’t believe that, but I do think that it was such a great honor that I was the first one… Individual honors really hasn’t meant a lot to me, but that was really something that I didn’t expect,” Jones said.
Following the 76ers' championship, Jones would play three more seasons. He still had two All-Defensive honors left in him, but after the 1985-86 campaign, Jones sensed his time was coming. A couple things were weighing on his mind.
“Two things happened near the end of my career.” Jones said. “One, my son who was in kindergarten, was at school one day, one night, and he was in the spelling bee. He won the spelling bee by spelling duck. And I missed that and I was fairly upset about that, that I missed my son’s spelling bee performance. So I thought, how long could this go on, you know, missing things with my family. And the second thing would be this. As a player, I felt like for the first eleven years I was a predator on the court. And I felt like the last year, I was more of the prey.”
At that point, Cunningham was no longer the head coach of the Sixers. He was involved with the front office of the recently-created expansion Miami Heat. The Kangaroo Kid had an offer to make.
“I realized when Bobby retired, there was still some gas in the tank,” Cunningham said. “And I flew up, at this time he had retired from the Sixers, he was working at a Christian School, and I asked him if he had any interest, and he set up a scrimmage. And I'm up there, and I'm watching Bobby play, and he finishes playing. And now we're talking about a lot of money is sitting there -- not the money today -- but Bobby finished for about a half an hour, running up and down, came over to me and explained that, 'You know what, I just can't play at the level I need to play at to help the team.' And that was it.”
So that was it.
After 12 at times understated yet always significant seasons between the ABA and NBA with the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, Jones was ready to call it. For someone who never defined himself exclusively by the sport he impacted so much, Jones was a man at peace.
In what should have come as no surprise, perspective prevailed.
He had always had a way of compartmentalizing his world as a professional athlete, and knew that even once his career was over, life would have plenty to offer.
“I think a lot of that came from the way I grew up,” Jones said. “I didn’t play sports a lot. It wasn’t a big part of my life until, probably until high school. I think the emotional connection with me and my identity as a basketball player was probably not as strong as some other guys. I married my wife Tess and we started to have a family. I’ve always been a kind of a, I don’t know, quieter, home-bound type person and I just love that. And I think that helped me as a basketball player. As soon as the game’s over I’m home.”
In order to more fully paint a picture of Jones -- to make up for the memories lost between that 1985-86 season and today -- guests were asked if there had been anyone in the last generation or two of the NBA who reminds them of Jones, or anyone who makes a fair player comp.
The sentiment of the answers was essentially unanimous.
Let's start with McAdoo, who now scouts for the Miami Heat:
“I'd have to see the rosters of all the teams. Because, it's like, you don't see guys like that. You know, everybody is offensive-minded, everybody is a 3-point shooter. But getting up and down the court, you don't see guys his size doing that on a regular basis. You might see somebody go one or two times, but Bobby was every time. He was down the court. I mean he was like a Ferrari running out there.”
Brown, who coached in Italy last season, gave a similar response:
“He was probably one of the greatest athletes at his position… You can’t even look in the NBA and say, ‘That guy’s like Bobby Jones,’ because there’s nobody like him. He ran like a deer, he could finish in traffic, he never cared about shooting the ball, he defended everybody, he was a tremendous rebounder, unselfish as any player you’ll ever see. He’s going in the Hall of Fame, so that in itself tells you how good he was.”
Here's Moncrief, one of Jones' old nemeses who will also be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.
“His quickness was very surprising... When you’re on the court, and he catches the basketball, really anywhere on the court, his ability to first step -- his ability to explode and make something happen -- was, I thought, very unique for a player his size. Really, you talk about rarity as it relates to basketball players, you can talk about: There will never be another Oscar, there will never be another Magic, never be another Michael, LeBron, Kobe… There will never be another Bobby Jones.”
These days, you'll find Jones in and around Charlotte, NC. He lives down there on a couple acres of land, close to his children. Five of his grandkids live within a mile and a half of him. He's built a zipline course for them in his backyard.
Bobby plays tennis, reads, does some speaking, and has stayed connected to the game -- on his own terms.
“I still volunteer… I help coach a team,” Jones said. “There’s a homeschool boys high school team here that I help coach. They practice near my house so I’ll go over there work with them and I may do that again this year. The season hasn’t started yet but I’m going to talk with them about doing it again so… I’ve enjoyed my coaching over the years with different schools and organizations.”
Nearly three-and-a-half decades after his career drew to an end, Jones will have the chance to share his wisdom about basketball and life on the sport's most decorated stage, inside the Symphony Hall in Springfield, MA.
If you think Jones’ had to wait a while, don't tell that to the man himself. He's the type of person who when he says you he's never been concerned about getting a call from the Hall, you know he means it.
“I never did desire it. As we talked about separating life… basketball from life. My three oldest grandkids, they don’t even play, they barely play sports. I certainly watch [the Sixers] and I follow them as much as I can and I love the organization and all they’ve done for me, but for my descendants, that’s never been that big a deal. Except now, I’ve got a four year old grandson, that’s all he thinks about is the Sixers. He knows the theme song, he has to play it everyday on a video as he dunks on his Nerf basketball kind of thing. So no, it was not, certainly wasn’t expected,” Jones said.
Those close to him, however, have long hoped to see this day come.
His brother, Kirby:
“He’s just a real success story. I take my hat off to him. His greatest attribute was self-discipline. He never went astray in any way. He was not a drinker, he was not a smoker, he was not a carouser, that was the antithesis of what he was. If he hadn’t done that, he would not have been nearly as successful. That’s kind of a rarity in my book.”
Or Cunningham, who, along with former Denver Nugget David Thompson, will present Jones onstage for his Hall of Fame speech.
“When I think of Bobby Jones, I think of sacrifice. I think of where your priorities are. Do you need to be in the limelight, are you willing to sacrifice for your teammates, how important is winning to you? And Bobby enhanced all those things. Because it absolutely did not mean a thing to him personally, what he achieved, but what the team achieved,” Cunningham said.
“He was like family to me. He was a big part of my life. When you get to coach a kid like him, who embodies everything that you had thought that’s good in the game, he’s never going to be out of your mind and your thoughts. I remained a huge fan of his, I stayed a huge fan of his.”
Here’s Kupchak, who sees Jones a decent amount these days, now that they're both based in Charlotte:
“I've been to his house probably seven, eight times, he invites me every two weeks. He's always asking me to go play frisbee golf, which I won't do -- I'm not even sure I know what it is. He loves it. You know, he's got an extended family with grandchildren, and they're always over at the house. He's always working in the yard, cutting down trees and and raking, and building stuff. he's as competitive as ever. He really has not changed one bit since I met him as a sophomore. Not one bit. He's to be envied for sure.”
Kupchak -- he's to be envied for sure.
And the irony is, that's probably the last way Jones would want anyone to feel. But there's no denying it, Jones -- in basketball and everything else -- has lived life the proverbial right way. The celebration of his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is certainly worth its due.