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Inside the ‘understated elegance’ of late Celtics great Sam Jones, Hall of Famer and 10-time champion

Sam Jones, shown in 2009, was fondly remembered as a humble teammate with immense talent.Jim Davis

Bryna Jones, the daughter of late Celtics legend K.C. Jones, still refers to her father’s former teammate Sam Jones as “Uncle Sam,” even though they are not related. When Bryna and her siblings were children, their summer vacations sometimes included cross-country trips to spend time with Sam Jones and his family.

K.C. Jones died last year, but Sam had remained one of Bryna’s links to her father. They reconnected last summer and spoke on the phone last week.

Sam told Bryna how he had gotten his COVID-19 booster shot and was eager to see his granddaughter in Hawaii. He discussed helping out with K.C. Jones’s foundation. He even talked about the time in the 1962 Eastern Division finals when he nearly struck Warriors star Wilt Chamberlain with a stool after the two tangled.

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“He fell out laughing,” Bryna recalled Friday afternoon. “He said, ‘Your dad, Wilt, and I were friends. We’d go out and eat like best buddies, but on the court we wanted to kill each other, because that’s how we rolled.’

“He said he was so mad at Wilt that game and if he didn’t pick something up, Wilt would crush him. We laughed about that.”

Sam Jones grabbed a chair to defend himself against buddy Wilt Chamberlain.Paul J. Connell

Bryna said she was thankful to have had that final conversation with Sam Jones, who died of natural causes Thursday night. He was 88.

“Uncle Sam was just so full of love and joy,” she said. “He was joyous and hilarious and fun. Whenever I talked to him, it was like I was a kid again.”

Jones was drafted eighth overall by the Celtics in 1957. The 6-foot-4-inch guard went on to play all of his 12 pro seasons in Boston and was a 10-time NBA champion and a five-time All-Star.

His No. 24 was retired in 1969, and in 1984 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jones was a member of the NBA’s 25th, 50th, and 75th anniversary teams.

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“He had an understated elegance,” Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. “He let his game do the talking and he was always a very gracious gentleman. We’ll have to make sure everybody understands the contributions that he made.”

Jones had an effective bank shot and became known as “Mr. Clutch” following a series of game-winners, none bigger than a buzzer-beater to win the 1962 Eastern finals. He also won Game 4 of the 1969 Finals with a late jump shot.

“But I don’t think he wanted to be a star,” Celtics great Tom “Satch” Sanders said Friday. “He didn’t want the press or people calling him names like Mr. Clutch. He just thought he was capable, and he was a humble guy.”

Sanders said the Celtics’ only criticism of Jones was that he did not shoot more often. He said legendary center Bill Russell, in particular, used to urge Jones to put the team on his back.

“Every game had the potential to be one that was won by Sam,” Sanders said. “Whether he chose to do it or not, or whether we forced him to do it. As a team sometimes we’d give him the ball and he’d have no choice. Everybody would run away from him.”

Former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Friday that when he played for the Sacramento Kings and Russell was his general manager, Russell referred to Jones as the greatest teammate he’d ever played with, and the best clutch player ever.

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Jones remained connected to the Celtics after his retirement, even working briefly as a scout.

“Sam was just a really happy guy, always really positive,” Ainge said. “Very much an encourager and someone that had a countenance of peace and happiness and a smile and a laugh always with him. I always loved being around him.”

Jones played for North Carolina College — now North Carolina Central — and considered becoming a teacher when he graduated. Red Auerbach, who had never seen Jones play in person, drafted him in large part because of a tip from one of his former players, Bones McKinney.

Jones was uneasy at first, because he was joining a Boston team that had just won the NBA title. He played behind Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman before it eventually became clear he was too good to come off the bench.

“It must have been very frustrating, although Sam got a lot of time,” Cousy said Friday. “He was my primary target when he got in there. He would never [expletive] miss.”

Jones kept a low profile even after he became an All-Star who helped the Celtics to championships year after year. Sanders said that his former teammate enjoyed listening to jazz, but he didn’t drink and mostly just enjoyed the company of teammates.

“If he had one beer, he was ready to go to sleep,” Sanders recalled with a chuckle. “His preference was to go back to the hotel right after dinner and just talk.”

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Sanders said he and Jones spoke over the phone a few months ago and Jones told him he wasn’t feeling well, but Sanders thought he was just referring to the aching joints that were the internal scars from a long basketball career. He was living in Florida after working as a substitute teacher in Maryland for many years.

“We mostly talked about grandkids and family members, and he said how smart people should move south and leave New England winters,” said Sanders, who lives in western Massachusetts.

Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren said that Jones and Kevin McHale are probably the two most underappreciated players in franchise history, in large part because they happened to play alongside all-time greats in Russell and Larry Bird.

Sanders agreed that Jones did not receive the attention he deserved, but he added that Jones never cared. He said that if a young person today asked him about Jones, he would compare him to Bulls star DeMar DeRozan. But that would not do him justice.

“Unless I could actually get some black-and-white tapes and really show them,” Sanders said, “I wouldn’t waste my time.”

Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.