From now until February 11, Red’s Army will be posting stories about the players behind the Celtics’ 22 retired numbers and that one retired nickname. Stories will be posted in the order that the numbers were retired.
Marcus Smart’s number is already retired.
The concept of a fierce, bullish defender with a suspect jumper but nice passing ability is not new to the Boston Celtics. Smart isn’t the first guy like that to “impact winning” on the parquet. In fact, most of those banners under which Smart plays hang there thanks to the contribution of his first iteration, K.C. Jones.
When most people talk about defense on those old Celtics teams, the conversation usually begins and ends with Bill Russell. He was so dominant that people tend to get lost in stories of his brilliance and the discussion sort of ends. Jones, though, was Russell’s partner in crime from back in his Bay Area days. Jones and Russell were part of two championship teams at San Francisco before teaming up in the NBA. But they didn’t both take the exact same path.
Jones took a detour to put his defensive acumen to work and revolutionize another sport.
Before Jones was a Celtic, he was a defensive back for the L.A. Rams. Like he did on the basketball court, Jones was tenacious in coverage, plastering himself to receivers and creating what would eventually become bump-and-run defense.
In a one-on-one drill during practice, Jones used a technique that gave the L.A. receivers fits. He lined up in front of them with no cushion between the receiver and himself. At the snap he hand-checked them off the line and did so again while running with them stride for stride. Jones was defending with the same tenacity as he did on hardwood. He maintained contact with the receivers throughout their routes, which caused them to complain this technique was against the rules.
It wasn’t. Jones created a new style of defending. He might have taken that style to NFL games and become a legend there had he not gotten hurt. With a knee injury essentially ending his NFL career, Jones gave Red Auerbach, who drafted him in the second round of the draft, a call to see if there was still a spot for him in Boston.
Of course, there was. But it was on the bench. But that didn’t mean he disappeared into the background. He made sure everyone knew what he was about.
“I felt as though I had to make an impression. So the first scrimmage, I picked up (guard Bob) Cousy full-court. When Cousy sat down, I picked up (guard Bill) Sharman full court. Everywhere they went, I went. And they started hitting me and banging me and trying to run me into picks, but that was good. Because Red started to notice me.”
Red did, but Jones still had to spend five years as a key reserve as the Celtics racked up championships. After Bob Cousy retired, the defensive-minded Jones became the team’s floor general, and he responded by finishing third in the league for total assists for three straight years (and eighth in his final year).
In all, Jones was part of eight championship teams in Boston and though there were no All-Defense teams back then, a modern accounting of his time in the league shows he was in the top 10 in the NBA in defensive win shares six times. He was never much of a scorer (his highest scoring average was 9.2 ppg in 1962) but he was vital to the Celtics success and it earned him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989. And that’s only half of his story.
Most of us remember KC Jones as the Celtics head coach during their mid-80’s dominance, but that was the tail end of his coaching career.
After his playing days in Boston were over, he spent three years coaching at Brandeis before joining former teammate Bill Sharman’s staff and winning a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’d coach briefly in the ABA before joining the Washington Bullets. Jones’ crew of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Phil Chenier (all All Stars that season) got to the NBA Finals, but were swept by the Golden State Warriors.
He was fired after the next season and then came back to Boston where he spent six seasons as an assistant coach before taking over for the 1983-84 season. His calm demeanor was a welcome relief for some players after Bill Fitch’s more abrasive style. He was a big reason Dennis Johnson, seen as a malcontent before coming to Boston, was able to settle into his role as a Celtic. Larry Bird said of Jones,
“K.C. Jones was the nicest man I ever met in my life, and I was fortunate to have him coach me for five or six years.”
The Celtics went to the NBA Finals for four straight seasons after Jones took over, winning twice. He left the sidelines to take a front office role after the 1987 season but went back to coaching for a couple of seasons in Seattle and as an assistant in Detroit before leaving the NBA in 1995.
Jones had a uniquely amazing impact on the NBA, yet he’s rarely brought up in any All-Time discussions. Red Auerbach summed it up nicely.
“Over the years, he`s always been overshadowed,” Auerbach said. “In college, he was overshadowed by Russell. On the Celtics, he was overshadowed by (Bob) Cousy, (Bill) Sharman and Sam (Jones). He always had a great work ethic. He`d never complain. He`d play hurt, and he`d always play the best he could. I always noticed that.”
His overall win total only ranks him 30th among NBA coaches, but he’s seventh in winning percentage… third if you only count coaches with 10 or more years on the sideline.
Jones spent his entire NBA life as a quiet grinder who did anything he had to do to win. If he cared about being a self-aggrandizing spotlight hog, he might move closer to the front of our minds when discussing the Celtics greats. Instead he is content to let his accomplishments do the talking for him.
All official documentation says Jones’ number 25 was retired on February 12, 1967, however the Celtics were finishing up Jones’ final season on that date (he played 31 minutes in a win over Philly that night). However, the Associated Press reported on a ceremony on Wednesday, October 23, 1968
Celtics Retire K. C. Jones’ Jersey Tonight
BOSTON (AP) ~ The Boston Celtics will raise their 10th National Basketball Association flag in 12 years and retire the number of ex-backcourt ace K. C. Jones tonight in ceremonies before their home opener against the Cincinnati Royals. General Manager Red Auerbach, player-coach Bill Russell, and the team’s new owners, Dick Griebel and Jack Waldron, will participate in the ceremony.
Regardless, there was no debate for the Boston Celtics and his number was almost immediately retired. His impact was, indeed, noticed by Red Auerbach just like Jones had hoped as a rookie.
The retired numbers project: