Quiet greatness: Celtics’ 8-time champion K.C. Jones dies at 88

The conditions were understood by K.C. Jones and Sam Jones when they became Celtics.
“We played behind some great players — (Bill) Russell, (Bob) Cousy, Bill Sharman — and we respected that,” Sam said on Friday. “We could handle the publicity that they got and live with it.”
K.C. Jones evolved as one of the quietest, most self-deprecating champions in the history of the Celtics or any other NBA team.
But news of his death Friday at the age of 88 spoke loudly to those who won championships with him. Russell, who won two NCAA titles with Jones at the University of San Francisco, took to Twitter to memorialize his old friend with the following post:
“I just received a call letting me know my x-roommate/teammate & most of all friend the great KC Jones passed this morning. Prayers to his family. We have been friends for almost 60yrs, this our last photo together. Friends for life #2020Usuck! #RIP @NBA @celtics”
Russell posted the last photo taken of the two old friends, enjoying a laugh together. Jones, who suffered from dementia in recent years, rarely left his home in the Hartford area as his illness worsened. He passed at 4:55 a.m. on Christmas morning.
“I got a call from K.C.’s son Kip,” said Sam. “Before my wife passed we would go up to Hartford to visit K.C. He didn’t know who we were because of his illness, but he also looked so good and so healthy.”
Jones and Russell celebrated the end of their amateur careers by winning an Olympic gold medal together in 1956 in Australia, when they were just getting started. Jones went on to win eight NBA titles as a tough-minded, defense-oriented guard who took over point guard duties from Cousy.
“The thing that helped was that Red (Auerbach) gave you time to get adjusted. They weren’t trading everybody back then,” said Sam Jones. “Cousy did it his way and when K.C. was ready, he did it his way. He came in and adapted to everybody in the game.”
Like many of Auerbach’s prodigies, K.C. caught the coaching bug. He joined the staff of former Celtics assistant Sharman with, of all teams, the Lakers, and was on the bench when that Wilt Chamberlain-led team won the 1972 NBA title.
He coached the Washington Bullets for three seasons, returned to the Celtics as an assistant for the 1981 title, and took over for Bill Fitch, coaching the C’s 1984 and 1986 champions.
Danny Ainge played under Jones on those 1984 and 1986 teams — the latter considered by many the greatest in league history — and experienced firsthand Jones’ unique gift for coaching superstars.
“I think his gift was, there was a genuine-ness to him, a sincerity,” said Ainge. “There was no phoniness and no, he wasn’t seeking that attention. He really wanted the attention on the players. We all knew that he cared deeply about us as people, cared about the Celtics’ traditions. But he really didn’t seek that attention. I think the players appreciated that in him.
“But he also stood up for some pretty strong personalities. We had some moments in our four years with K.C. where he gave a challenge, stood up, toe-to-toe with some of the stars on our team and I think that, you know, he always had that respect because of that. He didn’t have to do it very often. But when it was time to take a stand, K.C. would go toe-to-toe with even the Hall of Fame players on our team.”
Ainge found himself sharing some of those stories with current coach Brad Stevens before the Celtics’ Christmas Day game against Brooklyn.
“You hear about it occasionally,” Stevens deadpanned. “I work with a guy who reminds us about those days, so we hear about it occasionally as you can imagine. More to the important stuff, Danny just left my office telling K.C. Jones stories. Today’s his day to remember all the impact he had. He certainly had an impact on Danny.”
It’s been a hard year for Celtics alumni, with Jones’ former teammate Tom Heinsohn’s death on Nov. 9. Though Jones kept a much lower profile due to his illness in recent years, his legend immediately summoned memories Friday, including for those who didn’t know him.
“I got a call today on my way in. I hadn’t spent time with him, but I had to stop for a minute,” said Stevens. “I just think the way he was revered by the players he played with, the people he worked with, other players who played for him — he was special. We’ve had this too much lately with some of our greatest winners and greatest people that have been part of this organization. On a day that people always value their time with family and friends, obviously hampered by the year we’ve all had, it’s a real tough blow. Our condolences are with his family. From our standpoint, you’re talking about a 12-time champion in the NBA, won a couple at San Francisco. Basketball is basketball, but his legacy and character as a person has been something I have heard constantly about since I’ve been here.”
One of the everlasting memories, of course, was Jones’ vast reserve of good humor. Ainge closed his pregame media Zoom conference with one particularly endearing moment that also revealed the prankster side of Larry Bird.
“We all have different versions of this but as I remember we were in New Jersey for a game, and he was standing by the wall with Jimmy Rodgers drawing on the player’s scouting report up on the chalkboard,” said Ainge. “Larry was down underneath the table tying K.C.’s shoe strings together.
“And after the chalkboard was done, K.C. stumbled out into the middle of the floor and he just received it so well. I mean, he just took it on and how it was intended and didn’t get mad or angry and the whole team laughed and went out and played the game. He was just a real guy, and he knew what to say, he’d been through it all as a player and as a coach, playing on a team at high expectations. So that’s what we were in his four years of coaching in the finals every year.
“Anyway, he did a fantastic job of coaching. More than that, like I said, he was a friend and a mentor, and he cared deeply about us as people.”

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