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Gary Washburn | On basketball

K.C. Jones avoided the spotlight, which may have cost him greater acclaim

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stands between Kevin McHale and Celtics coach K.C. Jones when Ainge played for the team in 1988. Ainge said Jones, who died on Friday, cared deeply about his players and his players knew that.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stands between Kevin McHale and Celtics coach K.C. Jones when Ainge played for the team in 1988. Ainge said Jones, who died on Friday, cared deeply about his players and his players knew that.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

K.C. Jones made coaching history long before he led the Celtics to two NBA titles in three years during the golden Big Three Era. Jones was part of the first NBA Finals matchup that featured two Black coaches, when he led the Washington Bullets into the 1975 championship series against Al Attles’s Golden State Warriors.

Perhaps it was his quiet demeanor and desire to let his players take full credit for the team success, but Jones never quite got his full respect as a basketball pioneer and the coach who harnessed the talent of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish into a dynasty.

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Jones passed away on Christmas morning at age 88, having battled Alzheimer’s disease for years, an illness that robbed him of the opportunity to truly receive and appreciate the accolades and kudos he deserved for not only helping the Celtics become the preeminent NBA franchise but for helping resurrect that title when the league’s talent base had increased dramatically.

It’s truly bizarre that the Celtics are an organization that’s long been linked with being less than diverse yet the franchise’s last three championships have been won by Black coaches.

Jones was resistant to the pioneer tag. He relished winning more and he had the uncanny ability to deal with a variety of attitudes and egos on those brilliant mid-1980s Celtics teams that reached four consecutive NBA Finals. Jones was one of those rare NBA figures that no one had a bad word to say about.

He stood those heyday games, stoic and stern. He had the appearance of the college professor that you didn’t want to disappoint. After winning eight NBA titles as a Celtics player and retiring after the 1967 season, he coached at Brandeis, Harvard, and in the American Basketball Association before taking that Bullets job in 1973.

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In the 1977-78 season, he became a Celtics assistant, working with Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, Dave Cowens, and then Bill Fitch before taking over as head coach after the 1982-83 season, winning a championship in his first season.

It’s unfortunate that Bird, McHale, Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge have received most, if not all, of the credit for that run. Those players adored Jones, especially Bird.

“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,” Bird said in a text message. “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. I will miss him dearly.”

Jones will receive the appreciation and love today from the league he helped build and it’s well deserved. Unfortunately, Jones was unable to attend the series of reunions and dinners because of his health. In an era where the NBA has ensured its past greats are lauded for their efforts and contributions to the game, Jones at times was overlooked.

But he was never forgotten or disregarded. At a time when Boston struggled with its racial reputation in the 1980s, the leader of its most prominent sports team was a Black man. And Jones was indeed a leader of men, someone who did not need the personal accolades or attention and basked in the glory of anonymity.

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“K.C. was a great coach to play for,” Ainge said. “He was a class act and everybody knew that and yet he had this competitive edge that was fierce. You wanted to do all you could to please K.C. as a coach. At the right time he knew what to say. He was a joy to be around. I looked at him as a mentor, a friend, much more than a coach.”

Jones quietly retired after the 1988 season, joining the Celtics’ front office. He returned to coaching in 1990 with the Seattle SuperSonics, becoming Gary Payton’s first NBA coach. Jones even coached the New England Blizzard in the now defunct women’s American Basketball League.

He lived a Forrest Gump-type NBA life. Jones was a quiet, reserved legend, gold medalist, NCAA champion, NBA champion, and Hall of Famer who preferred to let his resume speak for itself. He was the model of humility, a man among men.

“K.C. was clearly the leader of our team,” Ainge said. “People are always looking for people who are seeking that attention and in front of the camera and K.C. was fine with everybody else getting the attention and not much focused on him.

“There was a genuineness to him, a sincerity. There was no phoniness. We all knew that he cared deeply about us as people. He cared about the Celtics and the traditions but he really didn’t seek that attention and the players appreciated that in him. But he also stood up to some pretty strong personalities. He stood toe to toe with some of the stars on our team.”

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Jones may not have said much but you definitely had to watch what you said to him. His silence exuded strength and confidence. He helped the Celtics return to dominance, using a bruising and physical style to overtake the more talented Los Angeles Lakers in 1984 and then the Houston Rockets in 1986.

And yet, he will be remembered more for his managing of personalities, his ability to put his players in the right place to succeed, for getting the best out of an aging Bill Walton and for receiving limited acclaim compared with his contemporaries.

Well that should change. K.C. Jones was a legend, a pioneer and a superb basketball coach.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.