Sam Jones, sharpshooting Celtics star of the 1960s, dies at 88
By Richard Goldstein
Sam Jones, a Boston Celtics sharpshooting Hall of Fame guard who played on 10 NBA championship teams, a milestone exceeded only by his teammate Bill Russell, died last Thursday in Florida. He was 88.
His death was announced by a Celtics spokesperson, who did not specify a cause but said that Jones had been in failing health. He also did not say where in Florida he died, but Jones had been living in the Orlando area.
When Jones was selected by the Celtics out of the historically Black North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University) in the first round of the 1957 draft — he was the eighth player chosen overall — he was more astonished and apprehensive than thrilled. Since players at Black colleges had gained little national notice at the time, he viewed himself as a potential pioneer, although he questioned his chances of making a Celtics lineup brimming with stars.
“I had a lot of pressure put on me,” Jones told The Boston Globe in 2009. “We didn’t have scouts coming in to see what the Black colleges were doing. If I make good, they’re going to start looking into the Black colleges.”
Despite his doubts, Jones quickly impressed coach Red Auerbach. He went on to team with K.C. Jones (no relation), a tenacious defender, in a backcourt pairing that eventually replaced that of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, two of the NBA’s greatest players of the 1950s. The Joneses became part of a record-setting run alongside Russell, who transformed the center position with his rebounding and defense, forwards Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek and Satch Sanders, and Cousy and Sharman in their final seasons.
Sam Jones played on Celtics teams that won eight consecutive NBA championships (1959-1966) and an additional two in 1968-1969. A five-time All-Star, he was called Mr. Clutch for the many baskets he scored in the final seconds of playoff games. His total of 10 championship rings has been exceeded only by Russell’s 11.
Jones was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1984 and was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history when the league celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996. He once held the Celtics’ single-game scoring record, with 51 points against the Detroit Pistons in October 1965. When he retired after 12 seasons, he was the team’s career scoring leader, with 15,411 points. Larry Bird is the current single-game record-holder, with 60 points, and Havlicek holds the career scoring record, with 26,395.
Jones was renowned for using the backboard when most players were shooting directly at the hoop.
“Sam showed them how to use the bank shot,” Auerbach once told United Press International. “He made it popular, and he made it an art.”
Jones had supreme confidence in that shot. As he put it, “I felt it was like making a layup.”
Samuel Jones was born June 24, 1933, in Wilmington, North Carolina. At North Carolina College, playing for Hall of Fame coach John B. McLendon in a Division II program, he was a fine shooter, scoring a total of 1,170 points, and an outstanding rebounder.
Auerbach had never seen Jones play in college. But he drafted him when Bones McKinney, a North Carolinian and one of Auerbach’s former players, raved about him. Jones had planned to become a teacher but tried his luck at the Celtics’ training camp.
He was a reserve for several seasons before taking over for Sharman. Although he was 6-foot-4, tall for a guard at the time, he was quicker than many smaller guards.
When he saw Russell about to snare an offensive rebound, Jones would move away from the man defending him, who was watching the ball, and get ready to receive a pass from Russell and convert it into a bank shot. As he told NBA.com, “You only need a second to get a shot off.”
Jones retired from the Celtics in 1969 and was later head coach at Federal City College in Washington (now the University of the District of Columbia) and at North Carolina Central. He was an assistant coach for the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz.
Jones and his wife, Gladys, had five children. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Jones averaged 17.7 points a game in the regular season for the Celtics, but he was particularly dangerous in the playoffs. He hit a jump shot over the Philadelphia Warriors’ Wilt Chamberlain in the final seconds of Game 7 in the 1962 Eastern Division playoff final, giving Boston a 109-107 victory. He had five of the Celtics’ 10 overtime points against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the league finals, helping to propel Boston to a fourth consecutive championship.
Jones relished getting the best of the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain.
“I never challenged him by trying to drive right on him — he’d just block your shot,” he told Terry Pluto for the NBA oral history “Tall Tales” (1992). “I’d stop in front of him and shoot over him. Then I talked to him. I talked to everybody on the court, but it was a lot of fun to say things to Wilt because he’d react to them.”
In a fight-filled fourth quarter of Game 5 in that Celtics-Warriors series, Jones collided with Chamberlain, who outweighed him by nearly 50 pounds, and they exchanged unpleasantries. When Chamberlain grabbed at Jones’ wrist — perhaps in a peace gesture — Jones ran off the court.
“He saw Wilt still coming after him, so Sam picked up one of the photographers’ chairs and held it out at Wilt as if Sam were a lion tamer,” referee Norm Drucker recalled.
“He was about to go up into the stands — he didn’t want to fight,” recalled Chamberlain, the strongest man in pro basketball. “So I said, ‘Ah, forget it.’”