Jo Jo White was a survivor and fighter, and that was after he played 60 minutes in the Celtics’ thrilling triple-overtime win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals.
White survived brain surgery and was a fixture at TD Garden in recent years. He fought long and hard enough to participate in his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2015, where he greeted the crowd in a prepared speech, speaking clearly and eloquently despite battling health issues.
White passed away Tuesday at age 71 of brain cancer.
He was a prince, always walking with class and dignity, never fully acknowledging his greatness, always directing the attention and adulation of those great 1970s teams to his teammates and coach Tom Heinsohn.
Joseph Henry White played 10 years for the Celtics, bridging the gap between the Russell and Bird eras. It’s a shame that those two NBA champion Celtics teams of the 1970s — ’74 and ’76 — do not receive the attention of the 1960s and 1980s teams.
Those ’70s teams had a Big Three of their own in White, Dave Cowens, and John Havlicek. White was the point guard, the engine who ran the offense. He averaged at least 12 points per game in all of his 10 seasons, including 23.1 in 1971-72. He was named to seven consecutive All-Star teams, was MVP of the 1976 Finals, and was a staple of Celtics greatness.
“He was the guy that if you wanted somebody to shoot a free throw at the end of the game, John Havlicek didn’t shoot it, it was Jo Jo,” Cowens told the Globe last night. “He was a clutch guy and a great teammate.”
White was part of Celtics teams that won 238 regular-season games over four seasons. That was one of the more dominant runs in franchise history, fueled by the trio of White, Cowens, and Havlicek along with an array of veterans who made significant plays.
“We all had a great time, we got along together, we had a good crew,” Cowens said. “The nucleus was there for quite some time. We were a pretty confident group. There was no trash talking on that team. We just took care of business. Different times then.
“Jo Jo was very classy that way. He was somebody you could definitely rely on at the right time to do the right thing for the right reasons. We were a great unit and he was a major part of our success.”
It was a sad evening at the Garden. Many players were informed of the news just prior to game time, and there is sadness every time a Celtics family member passes. White was present at many team events in recent years and had made an impression on the current team.
“Well I didn’t get to know him real well but my times that I spent with him he was always super kind,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He was always certainly really appreciative to have been part of the Boston Celtics, and you just appreciated kind of how he treated everybody. And when he was around, you could tell he had an influence on our guys and impact on our guys. And it’s really sad. You know, our hearts, obviously goes out to the family.”
His post-career battle was indicative of his heart and grit. White never felt sorry for himself. He never shied away from a conversation. He was always smiling. He was always immaculately dressed. Even as he struggled to get around, he walked with grace and class.
For those kids like me who remember the NBA in the 1970s, when just a handful of games were telecast, when shorty-shorts were just considered normal and jump shots were more revered than slam dunks, White’s loss is painful.
White dribbled the ball up the floor, sporting his perfectly shaped afro, and played with a passion and desire that was so reflective of the man. White was Celtics basketball in the 1970s. When the city was going through so much transition and racial tension, Jo Jo White served as a hero for many youths, African American and otherwise, in the city and nationally because of his style.
He played in an era in which point guards were flashy on the floor and off the floor. They represented their franchises. They were the team leader. They handled the ball and ran the offense. They lobbed the ball to the big man. They made the open jumper.
It was an emotional night for the man when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It occurred 35 years after his final NBA game. And by then he was known more to those who weren’t basketball diehards as the father of actor Brian White.
But while the appreciation for White was long overdue, he was still keen and lucid enough to soak in the love. It was a battle for White in his final years, but that didn’t affect his impact. He was still one of the central figures of one of professional sports’ most storied franchises for a decade.
And that will always endure.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.