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K.C. Jones, a Celtics legend and 12-time NBA champion, dies at 88

K.C. Jones played nine seasons for the Celtics, and then became their coach in the 1980s.
K.C. Jones played nine seasons for the Celtics, and then became their coach in the 1980s.CHIN, Barry GLOBE STAFF

His resume boasts championships at the college, Olympic, and professional levels. His Boston Celtics jersey number — 25 — hangs in the TD Garden rafters. He played with or coached Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale, among other NBA hall of famers.

K.C. Jones was never the flashiest ball handler or most prolific scorer during his playing days. When he turned to coaching, his laid-back, player-friendly style was the antithesis of how most modern NBA coaches operate.

What he was, consistently and unequivocally, was a winner. Twelve NBA championships, including eight straight as a member of the 1958-66 Celtics, are evidence of that.

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Then the head coach of the Celtics, Mr. Jones relaxed after a 1988 practice.
Then the head coach of the Celtics, Mr. Jones relaxed after a 1988 practice.Frank O'Brien, Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“Winning followed K.C. wherever he went,” said Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan, who covered Mr. Jones’s career for decades. “He knew how to win, and he appealed to other winners like him.”

A 1989 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Mr. Jones died on Friday of Alzheimer’s disease, Celtics spokesman Jeff Twiss confirmed to the Globe. He was 88.

“K.C. was the nicest man I ever met, he always went out of his way to make people feel good, it was such an honor to play for him,” Celtics legend Larry Bird said in a statement shared with the Globe. “K.C. and I had so many wins together, including two Championships, which remain highlights of my life. His accomplishments are too many to list, but, to me, his greatest accomplishment was being such an outstanding person to all who had the privilege of knowing him.”

Mr. Jones benefited enormously from his long association with Russell, who set the gold standard for winning. The two played together on the University of San Francisco team that captured two NCAA titles, at one point compiling a 56-game victory streak, and on the 1956 US men’s basketball team that triumphed at the Melbourne Olympics.

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Reunited in Boston, the pair continued their winning ways as Russell became the league’s dominant defensive force. Mr. Jones accepted a lesser role at first, serving as backup point guard to Cousy for five years before stepping into a starting role.

Mr. Jones, driving past Chet Walker in 1965, won eight titles as a player for the Celtics.
Mr. Jones, driving past Chet Walker in 1965, won eight titles as a player for the Celtics.Goshtigien, Danny Globe files/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Skeptics wondered whether he could run the Celtics nearly as effectively as Cousy had. He answered the challenge by becoming an integral part of three more championship teams.

A rugged, relentless defender, the 6-foot-1-inch Jones often guarded the opponent’s leading backcourt player. Night after night he matched up against such superstars as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, and night after night he gave his team a strong chance to win.

“K.C. stuck to you like glue,” Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Fame guard and coach, said in an oral history. “He was with you, right on you, every step. He’d bump you, hold you, get in your way.”

That tenacity combined with a strong sense of the game served Mr. Jones well when, in 1983, the Celtics promoted him from assistant to head coach. The team was packed with top-notch players and would soon add more, building a roster that included Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Bill Walton. The Celtics won titles in ’84 and ’86, and Mr. Jones won praise for allowing his veterans to play with minimal interference.

“K.C. also demonstrated that one could be both a fierce competitor and a gentleman in every sense of the word,” the Celtics said in a team statement. “He made his teammates better, and he got the most out of the players he coached. Never one to seek credit, his glory was found in the most fundamental of basketball ideals – being part of a winning team.”

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Ainge, now the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, said Mr. Jones helped ease his transition from college ball to the NBA. “K.C. was a mentor to me as a young player,” he said, “a calming and peaceful man with great leadership skills as a coach and someone I considered a great friend.”

Beneath his usually calm exterior burned an intense competitive fire, Ainge added.

Others who played with or under Mr. Jones felt similarly about the way he comported himself, on and off the court.

Russell once said, “Of all the men I know in life, K.C. is the one I would like one of my sons to be like.” Bird went him one better, perhaps, calling Mr. Jones “the kind of person I’d like to be, but I don’t have the time to work at it.”

Mr. Jones gestured as he talked with Kevin McHale (left) and Danny Ainge during Game 5 of the third round of the 1988 NBA playoffs against the Detroit Pistons.
Mr. Jones gestured as he talked with Kevin McHale (left) and Danny Ainge during Game 5 of the third round of the 1988 NBA playoffs against the Detroit Pistons.Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he never met Jones, but when he received the call about his death Friday morning he had to stop for a minute to gather himself, because Mr. Jones’s impact was so large. He said Ainge was in his office telling stories about Mr. Jones Friday afternoon.

“I just think the way that he was revered by the players he played with, by the people he worked with, by the players that played for him, he was special,” Stevens said. “We’ve had this too much recently with some of our greatest winners and greatest people that have been a part of this organization.

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Tommy Heinsohn, who played alongside Mr. Jones in the 1950s and 60s and coached the Celtics in the 1970s, died in early November.

“K.C. was a great coach to play for,’' Ainge added. “He was a class act, and everybody knew that. And yet he had a competitive edge that was fierce. And so you wanted to do all you could to please K.C. as a coach, but he had this gentleness and a kindness that at the right time he knew what to say.

“He was a great leader of men.’'

K.C. Jones — he inherited his father’s name, initials only — was born May 25, 1932, in Taylor, Texas. The oldest of six children, he grew up during a time of economic deprivation and Jim Crow segregation. His parents divorced when he was 9; his mother, Eula, moved her brood to San Francisco.

There, young K.C. blossomed into an outstanding high school athlete, starring in football and basketball. Shy by nature, he gained confidence through sports, he acknowledged in his 1986 autobiography, “Rebound.”

His football prowess earned him a tryout with the Los Angeles Rams. After serving two years in the Army, Mr. Jones briefly played for them in 1958. Three games into their preseason, however, he left camp and joined the Celtics, who had drafted him in the second round back in 1956.

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For the next nine seasons, Mr. Jones made Boston his home, posting modest career stats (he averaged slightly more than 7 points and 4 assists per game) that understated his impact on the team’s success. Retiring in 1967, he began his coaching career at Brandeis University.

Other stops as head or assistant coach included Harvard University, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association, Capital (now Washington) Bullets, Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle Supersonics, and Detroit Pistons. He also coached a pair of women’s teams, the New England Blizzard of the American Basketball League and the University of Rhode Island.

As head coach for three NBA teams — the Bullets, SuperSonics, and Celtics — Mr. Jones compiled a 522-252 record. None of his teams posted a season-long losing record.

Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers and Mr. Jones celebrated the team's championship in the Garden locker room after Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals.
Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers and Mr. Jones celebrated the team's championship in the Garden locker room after Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals.John Blanding/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“I prefer my players come across as geniuses,” he once said. “Mine is a subtle, quiet approach,” he added, one that best suited his temperament and players’ abilities.

In 1959, Mr. Jones married Beverly Cain, the sister of Carl Cain, one of his Olympic teammates. The couple had five children before divorcing.

Mr. Jones leaves his wife, Ellen (Thomas), whom he married in 1981 and with whom he had a son; four daughters, Leslie, Kelly, Bryna, and Holly; and two sons, K.C. Jr. (Kipper) and Christopher.

Mr. Jones, who began singing in church at a young age, could often be found at a local piano bar after a Celtics contest, crooning standards such as “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You.” Music, he said, was good therapy after coaching an NBA game, win or lose. In addition to singing, he was an avid golfer, tennis player, and cook.

Tom Heinsohn Mr. Jones enjoyed themselves at a postseason gala for the Celtics in 1965. Heinsohn died last month.
Tom Heinsohn Mr. Jones enjoyed themselves at a postseason gala for the Celtics in 1965. Heinsohn died last month.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

A low point in his life occurred after his Bullets team was swept by Golden State in the 1975 NBA finals. During a lopsided loss, TV cameras caught him looking on silently while an assistant drew up a play. Media reports surfaced that Mr. Jones had lost control of the team, a rap that would haunt him after he was fired by the Bullets a year later. If he’d learned anything, he later said, it was never to allow a camera or microphone near his bench. “It’s known around the league as the K.C. Jones syndrome,” he said ruefully.

For years, Mr. Jones feared he would never land another head coaching job, in part because of his race. During this period, his marriage crumbled and he began drinking heavily, as he wrote in his autobiography. He was eventually brought back into the Celtics fold in 1977 by head coach Satch Sanders, his close friend and former teammate. Serving as an assistant under Sanders and his successors, Dave Cowens and Bill Fitch, groomed him to run the team after Fitch left in 1983.

After retiring from coaching, Mr. Jones became a special assistant and TV analyst for the University of Hartford men’s basketball team. He was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Funeral plans were pending.

In a tweet, Russell offered his condolences to Mr. Jones’s family.

“Friends for life,” Russell wrote.

Adam Himmelsbach of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Joseph Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.