The 1982-83 Celtics season did not end well. They were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks and it was clear that the players who mattered were tired of Bill Fitch’s abrasive style, Larry Bird being a conspicuous exception.
Fitch was hot. What the Celtics needed next was cool. And the right man was waiting in the wings.
If ever anyone was the polar opposite of Fitch in temperament and coaching style, it was K.C. Jones. Fitch was a 24/7/365 compulsive coach. He knew everything about everyone in basketball. Where players went to high school. Where players went to college. When games were over he either checked in on West Coast games or got on the phone with coaching buddies such as Cotton Fitzsimmons. When the 24-second clock once malfunctioned at Boston Garden, Fitch came running to the scorer’s table brandishing a stopwatch. He always kept one in his pocket, just in case. But along with that came a hard-edged daily approach that simply wore on people.
If Fitch was a blazing inferno, Jones was a cozy, warm blanket. He didn’t sweat the small stuff. I always felt that if you had handed every coach in the league a yellow legal pad and asked them to name as many players as he could in a minute or two, K.C. would have finished last.
It didn’t matter. He knew his basketball, all right, but he didn’t flaunt his knowledge. He understood winning, and winners. He had respect for the players and what they had done to get where they were. He was a completely decent human being and as a result the players would have walked over hot coals from here to the New York border to play for him.
He was head coach of the Celtics for five seasons. His win totals were 62, 63, 67, 59, and 57. He won two championships and lost two Finals. Of course, he had excellent players at his disposal. What he did was create a daily atmosphere enabling them to prosper. Now I am talking about the veterans here. He could have been better with the younger players. Still, you can’t argue with the results.
K.C. Jones was Central Casting’s perfect man to coach what I firmly believe was the best team of all time, the 1985-86 Celtics. He didn’t have to dazzle anyone with his command of X’s and O’s. He knew what he had and he let them do it. He established a coherent rotation. There was no confusion about “roles.” There has seldom been a happier bunch, and much of the credit goes to K.C., who, of course, never asked for it.
Red Auerbach put the K.C. Jones coaching legacy in focus upon K.C.’s 1988 retirement. “You never hear him say, ‘This is my team,’ ” Red said. “It’s always our team.”
Many who have weighed in on K.C. since his death on Christmas Day have focused on his overtly gentle nature. You’ve heard and read a million times how K.C. Jones was such a “nice guy.” That’s certainly true. Do not, however, confuse being “nice” with being “soft.”
Jan Volk was the Celtics’ general manager in those days and he knew K.C. well. Likewise speaking at the time of K.C’s retirement, Volk explained the difference. “K.C. is not so much a nice guy as he is a good guy,” Volk maintained. “Nice sometimes connotes wimpiness, and that’s not K.C. He can be very tough. He comes from as competitive a base as anybody. But he’s not abstractly tough. He doesn’t feel he has to prove how tough he is to anybody. Many other coaches are continually asserting their power and authority. K.C. can be as powerful and authoritative as he wants to be, and everybody around here knows that.”
“K.C. never coached out of fear,” said Auerbach. “He coached out of confidence.”
K.C. had the type of playing career that would be hard to imagine today. It’s not just that he was one of eight people to have won at the collegiate, NBA, and Olympic levels. It’s that he patiently came off the bench for five years after entering the NBA as a 26-year-old rookie. There was this guy Bob Cousy, you see. When the Cooz retired following the 1962-63 season, K.C. took over as the starting point guard and quarterbacked the team to three more titles while firmly establishing himself as the gold standard of defensive guards. Oh, in case a modern fans says, “OK, where are his All-Defensive selections?” you must understand that the award wasn’t instituted until two seasons after his 1967 retirement. There is no doubt he would have been a perennial fixture on any All-Defensive team.
One more thing: The reason he was such a graybeard rookie had to do with four years of college — imagine that — plus time serving Uncle Sam. Throw in a tryout as a defensive back with the Los Angeles Rams, as well.
K.C. was fun to be around. I cherished those beers on the road, particularly when he was Fitch’s assistant coach, where he discoursed on all things basketball. And, of course, nothing could stop him from getting up to sing at a piano bar. His repertoire extended from the Great American Songbook (his showstopper being “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You”) to even The Carpenters (“Close To You”).
He was always about people. I well remember the day during a grueling playoff run when he told the team prior to practice at Hellenic College that if anyone could hit a half-court shot he would give them the day off. So, as my mother would say, three guesses and the first two don’t count: Guess who grabbed the ball and made the shot?
I can assure you Bill Fitch would never have done that.
I feel K.C. died with me owing him one. Back in 1987, I was working on a book with Terry Pluto that became “Forty-Eight Minutes.” It was going to be the thorough examination of one NBA game, and Jan. 16, with the Cavaliers in town, K.C. Jones, aware of our project, asked me if I wanted to be in the locker room for his pregame talk. What? No NBA coach does that.
But K.C. Jones did.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.