Celtics legend Jo Jo White and his wife Debbie received a phone call from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on April 1, and for a fleeting moment, they thought it might be a cruel April Fools’ Day joke.
White, whose NBA career ended in 1981, had been waiting patiently since then, wondering if people might forget him before he could be remembered forever. But when the Whites realized Hall of Fame president and CEO John Doleva was on the line, they knew this was no prank.
“I wanted you to be the first one that I called,” Debbie recalled Doleva saying, “because it is long overdue.”
The family had to keep the big news tucked away for five days, but on Monday it became public: Jo Jo White would be part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015.
“Well, you’ve wanted to hear certain things, and all of a sudden, you know, the right call comes,” White told the Globe by phone from Indianapolis. “I wanted to jump up shouting.”
White’s former Celtics coach, Tommy Heinsohn, will join him in Springfield. Heinsohn is already in the Hall as a player, but in February it was announced that he had been voted in by the Veterans Committee as a coach.
Former Celtics coach Bill Fitch, who was a finalist for the Hall, was not elected.
Other notable Hall of Fame selections include Kentucky coach John Calipari, five-time NBA All-Star Spencer Haywood, shot-blocking center Dikembe Mutombo, and referee Dick Bavetta. The induction ceremony will be held in Springfield this September.
White was a seven-time All-Star and a key part of the Celtics’ 1974 and 1976 NBA championship teams. The 6-foot-3-inch guard was named the MVP of the 1976 Finals and averaged 17.2 points per game over 12 seasons. He was also a member of the gold medal-winning 1968 US Olympic team.
“He was smooth, smart, dependable,” said Hall of Famer Dave Cowens, who was White’s roommate for four seasons with the Celtics. “A hell of a shooter. It was a little bit funny, because he almost shot the ball on his way down. But he was a good defender and he ran the show and knew how to get people open. Really, he was good at everything.”
Debbie White said the couple had received nearly 400 congratulatory text messages as of Monday evening. They heard from Cowens, John Havlicek, Charlie Scott, and Earl Monroe, to name just a few.
The past five years have been a struggle for White, who underwent surgery in 2010 to remove a brain tumor. Debbie White said her husband had to relearn simple tasks, like walking and talking. But he has pressed on. On Monday he spoke deliberately, occasionally pausing to gather his words. But it was clear the moment resonated.
“Whoa,” White said. “This is what we were looking for. Since I’ve been here, the Celtics have helped me get to a certain level. I’m proud of them. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.”
White is eager to see how many Celtics fans attend the induction ceremony in Springfield this September. Debbie White said her husband’s connection to the team has endured long past retirement, particularly as the franchise stood by him as he recovered from surgery.
“One of the biggest joys is being with the Celtics all these years, and how they’ve embraced him,” Debbie White said. “We’re just so blessed and very humbled. Now, it all comes full circle for a game that he loved, a game that he would have played for free.”