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.
Red Auerbach never saw Sam Jones play in college.
Not very many people did.
Sam Jones went to North Carolina Central College at Durham.
He was an outstanding basketball player at a university three miles from Duke, on North Carolina’s Tobacco Road. He was also black. And that meant he attended an all-black university required by law to compete only against other all-black universities in the still strictly segregated south.
Red Auerbach drafted three guys in ’56: Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Russell and KC Jones. All three of them are in the Hall of Fame, and Red had a pretty good idea what he was getting with each of them.
In 1957 it was a little different. Reportedly, Red wasn’t impressed by anyone in the draft (in fact, Sam is the only player from that class in the Hall of Fame). Auerbach had taken a trip to North Carolina with the intent of scouting a few Tar Heels in ’57. When he got down there he caught up with Bones McKinney, an ex-Celtic in line to take over the head coaching job at Wake Forest.
Bones told Red that the best basketball player in North Carolina didn’t play for the Tar Heels–he played for North Carolina Central. Red took his word for it, and used the Celtics’ first round pick on Jones.
Sam was not the first player to be drafted from a historically black college. But he was the first player to be drafted using a first round pick, and he was the first player from a historically black college to play in the NBA.
So, while Red had no clear idea what he was getting, it was his willingness to ignore stupid and pointless prejudices that made Sam Jones a Celtic.
Sam retired with ten championship rings. The only player in the league to win more rings as a player was Bill Russell–and while some will say that Sam rode on Bill’s coattails, Russ doesn’t see it that way at all:
Sam had the most basketball skills of any player I’ve ever seen. We won eight straight championships, and six times during that run, Sam was asked to take the shot that meant the season. If he missed it, that meant we were done. He never missed.
Branch Rickey once said that luck is the residue of design. And there’s certainly a measure of luck in all of those clutch baskets that Sam Jones hit over the course of his career, but that luck benefited the Celtics because Red was willing to do things that other people in the NBA were too scared, too stupid, or too stubborn to do.
When Sam found out the Celtics had drafted him, he was not exactly happy about it.
I never felt so miserable in my life when I got the news. 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.
Sam was sure he could play pro ball–but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play well enough to earn time on the best team in the league.
He did alright.
He played basketball so quickly that he didn’t seem to be moving at all–by the time you knew where he was, he already had the ball, and he was already taking his shot. He had a dancer’s skill and an incredibly light touch. The ball came off the very tips of his fingers, at the top of a jump that seems to last half a beat longer than it’s possible to stay in the air. If you’re inclined to think that players from the 60s couldn’t make it in today’s game, just try to imagine what Sam Jones could have done with a three point line.
Red respected his work ethic–and his shot–and he started grooming Sam to fill Bill Sharman’s role on the team. Like Sharman, Sam’s job was to put the ball in the basket, and just like Sharman, he didn’t think his ability to score was that big of a deal. After he led the team in scoring in ’65, he had this to say, “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.”
But make no mistake: Sam’s job was scoring because he was very very good at it, especially when the game–or the season–was on the line.
In his first full year as a starter, against Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors, Jones hit the game winner in game 7 of the semifinals. It would be the first of a streak of nine consecutive game 7 victories for Sam Jones. He would average 27 points per game in those contests, more than nine points higher than his career average.
In an era of brutal travel schedules (and travel accommodations), high work loads, and ‘rub some dirt on it’ style physical therapy, Jones only lasted a dozen years in the league. He announced his retirement before the 1968/69 season started. Because the team knew that Sam was calling it quits that summer, his number was actually retired during the season, before a game on March 9 against the San Francisco Warriors. Jones subsequently went out and put up 16 points in a laugher the Celtics won by dang near 50 (138-89).
It took the mandarins in charge of the Hall of Fame fifteen years to give Jones the recognition he deserved; he was elected in 1984–only three years after the HOF had inducted Ferenc Hepp, known, of course, to one and all as the “Father of Hungarian basketball.”
When Red was asked about Sam’s induction, he said, tartly, “they’ve elected guys before him who couldn’t carry Sam’s pants.”
Sam’s stats at Basketball Reference
HOF trivia from Rise and Fire
The retired numbers project: