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Honoring a big shot

Celtics legend Sam Jones was there when it counted

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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It’s one of those stories that’s instantly infamous: Sam Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, and the stool.

For what it’s worth, Jones says, he and Chamberlain were the best of friends.

“Except when we were on the floor,’’ Jones said.

On the court, Jones would make it a point to torture Chamberlain. They’d be alone in the open court, and if Jones had the ball, he just couldn’t help himself.

C’mon, big guy, you can get it.

Jones would wait for Chamberlain to come out and guard him, then he’d launch one of the smoothest jumpers the NBA has ever seen - over Chamberlain’s arms - and shriek, “Too late.’’

The lip service was all fun and games. The stool, which came into play during Game 5 of the 1962 Eastern finals, was self-defense.

“For some reason,’’ Jones recalls, “I hit Wilt exceptionally hard, and I knew I had made a mistake.’’

Chamberlain, 7 feet 1 inch and 275 pounds, started chasing Jones.

Jones, 6-4, 205, started running.

“Wilt was coming over to try to shake Sam’s hand,’’ said K.C. Jones, Sam Jones’s backcourt partner. “But Sam thought he was coming after him.’’

“I had to get something to help me fight off this big person,’’ Sam Jones said. “I knocked a photographer off his stool, then I picked up the stool and he stopped in his tracks.’’

By that time, the court had turned into a mob scene.

“I did regret it,’’ Jones said. “But I probably would have hit him in his knees and took off again.’’

Two days later, the teams played in Philadelphia, and Chamberlain took Jones out for dinner before the game. They laughed about the whole thing.

The Celtics went on to win the NBA title that year. In Game 7 against Philly, Jones hit the game-winner with two seconds left to push the Celtics into the Finals against the Lakers. Of course, he hit it over Chamberlain.

“He loved picking on Wilt,’’ said Bob Cousy. “There’s not too many guys that would taunt Wilt. But Sam had that kind of confidence in his shot.’’

When the Sports Museum honors Jones Wednesday at TD Banknorth Garden as part of the eighth annual Tradition, it recognizes a player who made his name in Celtics history by taking big shots regardless of the situation or who was in front of him.

He finished his 12-year career with 10 NBA titles. The only player with more was his teammate and friend Bill Russell, who left the game with 11.

He is a five-time All-Star, a Hall of Famer, one of the league’s top 50 players, and his game-winning shot in the 1969 Finals against the Lakers - taken off the wrong foot with seven seconds left, bouncing around the rim and in - is one of the greatest in playoff history.

But if you call Sam Jones “the forgotten Celtic,’’ no one would really argue.

“Sam probably never got quite the attention he deserved,’’ Cousy said. “That’s one of the difficulties of playing with six or seven Hall of Famers. Somebody’s going to get overlooked.

“The way I looked at it, Sam and Bill Sharman are probably most responsible for me getting into the Hall of Fame, because whenever I’d throw them the ball, they’d put it in the damn hole.’’

Jones himself wouldn’t tell you any different. For someone who left his stamp on some of the most important moments of the most important games, it’s almost as if he wasn’t there.

“That’s why I like to be called the 13th man,’’ he said. “There were only 12 on the team.’’

Under the radar
From the start of his career, Jones never needed the name recognition.

Seven players were taken before him in the 1957 NBA draft. Not necessarily because they were better players, but because they had more exposure.

Hot Rod Hundley, the first pick, had been to three straight NCAA Tournaments with West Virginia. Lennie Rosenbluth, picked two spots ahead of Jones, had just laid the foundation for North Carolina basketball, leading the Tar Heels to a 32-0 record and guiding them past Chamberlain’s Kansas team to their first national championship.

They were in the national eye.

Jones was at North Carolina Central.

He had averaged 17.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in four seasons, and if he were a tree falling in the woods, only Red Auerbach had ears.

One of Auerbach’s former players, Bones McKinney, was coaching at Wake Forest, and Auerbach asked him who the best player in North Carolina was; McKinney told him it was Jones. Auerbach trusted his word and drafted Jones, sight unseen.

Jones never doubted he had the skills to play professionally. A year earlier, the Minneapolis Lakers had drafted him in the eighth round. But he had just completed a two-year stint in the Army and was heading back to school.

It was in the Army where he realized he could play professional ball. A lot of the faces he would see in the NBA - Frank Ramsey, Al Bianchi, Frank Selvy, Bobby Leonard - were faces he had seen playing in the service. Leonard actually wrote to Lakers coach John Kundla, telling him about Jones’s pro potential.

“I held my own against them and didn’t even know they were in the NBA,’’ Jones said. “Not until they told me later on.’’

Added pressure
But when the Celtics drafted Jones in 1957, he knew that he was the first black player they had taken with a first-round pick. He was also the first player to be taken from a historically black college.

“I had a lot of pressure put on me,’’ he said. “N.C. Central was a Division 2 school. You don’t get on TV and you don’t get all the recognition that you should get because they’re not looking at Division 2 basketball. 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.’’

Four years after Jones was drafted, the St. Louis Hawks mined the roster at Winston-Salem State, another historically black college, for Cleo Hill, making him their first-round pick. In 1967, the Baltimore Bullets took Earl Monroe with the second overall pick out of Winston-Salem State.

When Jones arrived in Boston, milestones weren’t as important as simply making the team. He was joining a squad that had just gone 44-28 and beaten the St. Louis Hawks in the Finals.

He was thinking logically.

“Why would a championship team that was not losing any of its players want to draft a Division 2 ballplayer?’’ he wondered.

With the Celtics almost all-white at the time, he joked, “I made the team because Bill Russell needed somebody to talk to that looked like him.’’

But rather than focus on that question, Jones worked and waited. He and K.C. Jones played behind Cousy and Sharman, learning everything they could.

“It didn’t bother me,’’ Jones said. “They’ve got experienced players that had been there before you, and they had been successful, so you just do the best you can.’’

He waited four seasons before earning a spot beside Cousy. For Cousy, it was like getting a new toy.

“From my standpoint he was great to play with,’’ Cousy said. “He was the ideal 2-guard to get the ball to. Sam was easy to feed in that all you had to do was throw it to where you knew he should be because you knew he had the speed and quickness to get there, where the opponent didn’t.

“And then his shooting ability was outstanding. He had the patented backboard shot, which was his trademark, but he could penetrate, he could put it on the floor, so offensively he touched every base.’’

A part of history
By 1964-65, Jones was averaging 25.9 points a game. Midway through that season, on Dec. 26, 1964, Auerbach put Jones on the floor with Russell, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, and Willie Naulls and thought nothing much of it. Naulls was in for an injured Tom Heinsohn.

But what they had that night against St. Louis was the league’s first all-black starting lineup.

“We sort of in our own minds knew that we were the best team on the floor,’’ Jones said.

They coasted to a 97-84 win, and didn’t stop winning for another 13 games. But making history was not Auerbach’s priority.

“He just started who he thought was best,’’ Jones said. “He never even thought about it. He never talked to us about it. All of a sudden he just said this is who’s starting. He was different. He didn’t try to emulate anybody else.’’

The last time Jones was in Boston was for the closing of the old Garden, upon Auerbach’s invitation. He had great respect for the Celtics patriarch. “The utmost,’’ Jones said.

He had moved from Boston to Silver Spring, Md., not far from Auerbach in Washington, D.C., and he and his oldest son Aubre were regulars at Auerbach’s Tuesday lunches at the China Doll.

Aubre, who now is recreational sports director at Auerbach’s alma mater, George Washington, grew up in Boston, calling the Celtics and Auerbach family.

“Coach Auerbach was almost like a grandfather to me,’’ he said. “He was a big part of my life.’’

Asked recently why it’s been so long since he’s been in Boston, Jones said he doesn’t go where he’s not invited.

This time, he got his invitation from the Sports Museum, and he’ll be one of seven local figures honored for their contributions to Boston sports. He’ll bring his wife Gladys, and their five children and several grandchildren. Aubre will introduce him. And it will feel a little like a homecoming.

Thinking back to the Boston he remembers from 40 years ago - a city divided by ethnicity - he said, “I hope it’s changed for the better.’’

Jones recently celebrated his 52d wedding anniversary, and his 76th birthday will fall on the same day as the ceremony.

“We’re hoping the TD Banknorth Garden sings a little happy birthday for him Wednesday night,’’ Aubre said. “That would be goose bumps for him.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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