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 are being posted in the order that the numbers were retired – except today, where we honor the legendary No. 10, who passed away yesterday at age 71.
In the early 1970s, the Celtics and the Knicks had a white-hot rivalry. They battled almost every year for supremacy of the Eastern Conference, and both franchises won two championships between 1970 and 1976. The duel between point guards Jo Jo White and Walt Frazier epitomized that rivalry.
Frazier was a silky smooth scorer and top-notch defender who was known as the coolest dude and sharpest dresser in the NBA. He had an all-time nickname, “Clyde,” and could be seen around New York wearing a feathered hat and flamboyant fur coat with a couple of ladies on his arm. (It was the ‘70s, after all.)
Take it from someone who saw them match up countless times, Jo Jo was every bit Clyde’s equal on the court – but unlike Frazier, White did not play in the media capital of the world. Jo Jo also dressed to the nines, but never got the attention of his Knicks counterpart. Jo Jo didn’t even have a nickname.
Both of them ended up in the Hall of Fame, but Walt was inducted in 1987 while Jo Jo had to wait until 2015. There’s no doubt: perception had something to do with the disparity. This was especially unfortunate when, in 2010, Jo Jo underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Fortunately, he was still with us to take part in his Hall of Fame induction.
In the many tributes that have come out since Jo Jo’s passing, everyone has emphasized that he was not just a great player, but an outstanding person. A gentleman, kind to all, classy, gracious, humble … and cool. As Cedric Maxwell observed to The Undefeated in an article published today:
“With Jo Jo White, if you were a Celtic, that personified cool,” said Maxwell, who was teammates in Boston with White from 1977-79. “He did everything so cool. He walked cool. He talked cool. He was just the ultimate during the ’70s. I would say he was, ‘K-O-O-L, not ‘C,’ but ‘K-O-O-L.’
“The first time I saw Jo Jo he was in a pinstriped blue suit, and ‘Damn’ was the only thing that came out of my mouth.”
Jo Jo was born in St. Louis, and his career began at the University of Kansas, where he was a two-time All-America selection. He teamed with Spencer Haywood to lead the 1968 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal, and was drafted ninth overall by the Celtics in 1969. A tremendous all-around athlete (check out his physique in the photo at right), Jo Jo was also drafted by baseball’s Cincinnati Reds and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
Speaking of being drafted, Jo Jo fulfilled a mandatory military commitment by serving in the Marine Corps after college. He was supposed to be on active duty for two years, but Red Auerbach used his connections to shorten that and enable Jo Jo to serve in the reserves for the last part of his enlistment (and be in a Celtics uniform when not on duty).
With Boston, the 6’3” White became known for his deadly mid-range jump shot and his ironman stamina. He played all 82 games for five consecutive seasons, and was an NBA All-Star seven straight years (1971-77). Jo Jo averaged 17.2 points and 4.9 assists over his 10-year NBA career. He also made the All-Rookie team, was twice All-NBA, and raised two championship banners.
Jo Jo was a key member of the Celtics’ 1974 title team, but the pinnacle of his career came in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, the epic triple overtime battle that is still considered the best game in NBA history. Certainly, it was the wildest, with a huge Phoenix Suns comeback in regulation; multiple moments when it appeared that one team or the other had the game put away, only to see it snatched back; incredible clutch shots by both sides; a fight between fans and referee Richie Powers; and the Celtics being called back from the locker room after thinking the game was won, only to see it extend into a third OT.
Jo Jo White rose above all that chaos with the most clutch performance of his life before a raucous Boston Garden crowd and an incredulous national TV audience. Jo Jo played 60 of 63 minutes, shot 15 of 29 for a game-high 33 points, and added nine assists, six rebounds and two steals. He hit a key free throw that prevented the Suns from winning in the second OT, and closed out the game by dodging defenders and dribbling out the clock to preserve a two-point lead. He did all this despite being so exhausted that he literally had to sit down on the court during a break in play. Two days later, the Celts closed out the series to win another championship, and Jo Jo was named as the Finals Most Valuable Player.
Here are Jo Jo’s highlights from that unforgettable Game 5:
In recent years, Jo Jo remained with the Celtics franchise as director of special projects, active in community relations. His life story is told in the book, Make It Count. Besides all his career accomplishments, Jo Jo had a beautiful family: five daughters and a son, Brian, an actor who has appeared on television and in the movies.
Here are a few more videos of the greatness of No. 10, Jo Jo White.
The retired numbers project: