Sports

BOB RYAN

‘Jungle Jim’ Loscutoff was fearsome but fun-loving

Celtics great Jim Loscutoff died Tuesday at age 85.
Globe photo/File
Celtics great Jim Loscutoff died Tuesday at age 85.

I think it’s safe to say that Jim Loscutoff was not exactly what you’d call a finesse player.

When your nickname is “Jungle Jim,” that sort of provides a clue.

“But he was a lot better basketball player than people attribute to him,” says Tom Heinsohn, who was not only a Loscutoff teammate for eight seasons but also his roommate. “People think of him as just a ‘go in there and hurt that guy’ player, but before he got injured [a serious back problem], he was a terrific rebounder and a perfect adjunct to what was going on.”

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Jim Loscutoff died Tuesday night at age 85 from complications of pneumonia and Parkinson’s. There is little doubt that when the clan gathers in tribute to the man they all knew as “Loscy,” the stories will still center on his legendary toughness.

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“He was my protector,” confirms Bob Cousy. “That’s how I’ll remember him.”

Red Auerbach loved Loscy; that’s for sure. Red always said he paid people for their team contributions, not their statistics, and that’s why a guy who averaged 6.2 points and 5.6 rebounds a game in a nine-year career wound up with his name amid the retired numbers. (Dave Cowens likewise wore 18, which accounts for the odd circumstance.)

Jim Loscutoff inhabited a very different NBA world from the one we know today. The Celtics’ first-round pick out of the University of Oregon in 1955, he figured out very quickly that he was going to employ his chiseled 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound body in a very specific manner as a pro.

He was always a rebounder — he still holds the Oregon single-game record with 32 — but he also put the ball in the basket, utilizing both inside power moves and a surprisingly accurate one-hand set. Upon arriving in Boston, however, he was informed that Messrs. Cousy, Sharman (Bill), and Macauley (Ed) would take care of the scoring. He would take care of the, er, enforcing.

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Loscy was 25 and a service vet. He knew how to take orders. He also had a natural affinity for, well, mayhem. Thus was born “Jungle Jim.”

“That’s not the way I played in college,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “But in the pros it was different. I quickly got the reputation as a guy not to mess with.”

Loscy was quite happy to elaborate.

“I’ll tell you what type of player I was,” he continued. “If somebody stood in my way, I’d knock them down. Even if they didn’t stand in my way, but if they were bothering another player, they’d have to deal with me.”

And it was all very effective.

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“In those days,” explains Cousy, “if you could instill fear in the mind of the opponent, especially when they were coming into the Garden, just an element of concern would be enough to affect the results.”

Loscy was not the first Celtic player to fulfill that role. Bob Harris and Bob Brannum had preceded him. But neither was in Loscy’s overall class as a player.

“He wasn’t that big of a factor offensively because we had other guys who were better,” submits Cousy. “But he could face up and he had a pretty nice touch for a big, muscle-bound guy. He could put it on the floor without screwing it up.

“He was a reliable option, although not the first option, because, as I said, we simply had others who were better.”

He was a Bay Area guy, born in San Francisco on Feb. 4, 1930. He went to high school in Palo Alto, and was inducted into the Peninsula Hall of Fame in 2011. He enrolled at Oregon in 1950, but was drafted after his freshman year and spent the next three years serving his Uncle Sam.

He returned for his senior year and wound up being drafted in the first round by the Celtics (third overall) after averaging 19 points and 17 rebounds per game. He immediately established himself in the rebounding department, setting a franchise record one evening with 27, a mark he laughingly noted didn’t take Bill Russell very long to eclipse.

Laughing is something Loscy did a lot.

“He was a fun-loving guy,” says Heinsohn.

“Loscy enjoyed life as much as anyone,” agrees The Cooz.

His local reach was extensive. Loscy spent 12 seasons coaching at the old Boston State College prior to its merger into UMass Boston, compiling a record of 219-93. His teams won six Massachusetts State College Conference championships, going into the NCAA regional playoffs twice and the NAIA playoffs once. He ran a slew of basketball camps and was just generally a ubiquitous presence on the local basketball scene.

For all the tough guy memories, his biggest moment came with the basketball in his hands. In Game 7 of the 1957 Finals, it was Jungle Jim Loscutoff who provided the Celtics with the final point of the first of their 17 championships by making a free throw in a win over the St. Louis Hawks.

Still, I can’t get forget the words of Tom Heinsohn: “Somebody would do something to one of us, and Red would say, ‘Go get him!’ ”

Jungle Jim. Toughest man in the room.

“He instilled fear in me,” marvels Cousy. “And I was on his team!”

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.