K.C. Jones, Celtics Standout as Player and Coach, Dies at 88

K.C. Jones, Celtics Standout as Player and Coach, Dies at 88

December 25, 2020

K.C. Jones, the quietly tenacious Hall of Fame guard who played on eight consecutive N.B.A. championship teams with the Boston Celtics and later coached the team to two league titles, has died. He was 88.

His death was announced by the Celtics. According to The Associated Press, the team said Jones’s family confirmed that he died at an assisted living facility in Connecticut, where he had been receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease for the past several years. The team did not say what day he died.

Jones wasn’t much of a scorer, and he was often overshadowed by flashier teammates. But he was renowned for his defensive play — the work that doesn’t necessarily show up in box scores — in frustrating many an opposing backcourt star.

He was an All-American at the University of San Francisco, teaming up with Bill Russell on teams that won 55 consecutive games and captured two N.C.A.A. championships. He joined with Russell on the United States Olympic basketball squad that won the gold medal at Melbourne, Australia, in 1956 and then played alongside him as the Celtics forged a dynasty in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Jones, Russell (at center) and Tom Sanders (at forward) played key roles in a ferocious Celtic defense on teams coached by Red Auerbach.

“K.C. stuck to you like glue,” Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame guard and coach, told Terry Pluto for his N.B.A. oral history, “Tall Tales” (1993). “He was with you, right on you, every step. He’d bump you, hold you, get in your way.”

Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1965, when the Celtics were embarking on what would be their eighth straight championship season, Russell said: “K.C. Jones does not have a bagful of defensive moves. He has a whole truckload of defensive moves. He will pester a guy so much that the guy will start to look for K.C. even when he’s not there.”

K.C. Jones — who according the N.B.A.’s website was named for his father, K.C., an oil field worker, who in turn was named for Casey Jones, the legendary railroad engineer — was born on May 25, 1932, in Taylor, Texas. When he was 9, his parents separated and his mother moved the family to San Francisco.

After starring in basketball and football in high school, Jones was recruited by the University of San Francisco. A 6-foot-1-inch guard, he played with the 6-foot-10 Russell on teams that won the N.C.A.A. championship in 1955 and 1956.

Auerbach’s Celtics obtained Russell in the first round of the 1956 N.B.A. draft in a trade with the St. Louis Hawks and selected Jones in the second round. Jones joined the Celtics in 1958 after Army service and a preseason football tryout with the Los Angeles Rams at defensive back.

After playing as a reserve on five Celtic championship teams, Jones became a regular in 1963 when Bob Cousy retired. That season, he was part of the first all-Black starting lineup in N.B.A. history: K.C. and Sam Jones (no relation) at guard, Russell at center and Sanders and Willie Naulls at forward.

Jones ran the offense while continuing to play dogged defense for the last three championship teams in the Celtics’ title run. He retired after the 1966-67 season, when the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Celtics retired Jones’s No. 25 during his final season. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1989. He averaged 7.4 points a game for nine pro seasons and ranked No. 3 in the league in assists per game for three consecutive seasons.

After retiring as a player, Jones coached basketball at Brandeis University for three seasons and then became an assistant coach under Cousy’s former backcourt partner, Bill Sharman, on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 1972 N.B.A. championship team. He was later head coach of the Washington Bullets team that reached the 1975 N.B.A. finals.

Jones was named the Celtics’ head coach in 1983 and took the team to championships in 1984 and 1986. He left the bench after the 1987-88 season, having brought the Celtics to the N.B.A. finals in four of his five seasons with lineups featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. He was the Celtics’ vice president for basketball operations for one season after his coaching stint and coached the Seattle SuperSonics in the early 1990s.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Whether playing for the Celtics or coaching them, Jones was decidedly low-key.

“People want to see a coach who has a whip in one hand and a chair in the other,” he told Knight-Ridder Newspapers in May 1986, while en route to his second Celtics championship as a coach. “I don’t fit that mold. I prefer not to embarrass my players in front of 15,000 people just to impress the world.”

He certainly impressed Auerbach, who once remarked, “The biggest thing you can say about K.C. is that he’s a winner.”

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