K.C. Jones, a beloved champion

At just the mention of K.C. Jones, the great Celtics player and coach who died Friday at 88, delightful memories come to mind here.
There was, for instance, that night in the 1987 playoffs when the Shamrocks hosted the Pistons and K.C. ordered Dennis Johnson to intentionally foul Isiah Thomas in the closing seconds, a move that backfired big time.
Before voracious writers could ask what in the world he was thinking, K.C. defused them with a heartfelt mea culpa.
“It was a monumental boo-boo,” he confessed. “A pure, plain-out dumb move by me. See, I took the Red Eye out of San Francisco at 9:30 last night and didn’t get home until 7:30 this morning. I guess my mind was still in the airplane during the game.”
How do you eviscerate a guy who’s so self-effacing?
That was especially so if you’d ever seen him grab a mic at some social function and begin crooning “Misty” as if he were Johnny Mathis. Oh, could he sing.
But history will remember him as one of the game’s finest defensive guards, helping the C’s win championships in each of his first eight seasons before calling it quits in 1967 after Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors finally derailed them.
It led to a poignant scene as Bill Russell rushed to K.C.’s side and wrapped him in an emotional hug.
“I realized it was the last time we’d be on a basketball court together and I just wanted to walk off with him,” Russell said.
They had been teammates and roomies at the University of San Francisco, winning two NCAA championships before collecting a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne.
“At first I didn’t think we’d be friendly,” Russell recalled in “Second Wind,” his magnificent memoir. “He didn’t speak a word to me for a solid month. Not a word. He’d just slap my bunk on his way out of the room. Then one day he started talking; it was as if someone had forgotten to plug him in.
“We’d spend hours exploring the geometry of basketball. Neither of us needed a blackboard to see what the other was describing. He taught me how to scheme to make things happen on the court. We were rocket scientists in sneakers.”
But what touched Russell deepest was the day he found a pair of new shoes under his bed.
K.C. simply saw a need and met it.
Late in his coaching career he went to Roxbury’s Lewis School to speak with several hundred fifth and sixth graders.
“I remember being your age and having no idea of what I wanted to do,” he told them. “Then one day I picked up a ball and started shooting at a net. It was the start of something special in my life because it gave me confidence. I was bashful and shy. It gave me a chance to tell myself, ‘Hey, I can do this well.’
“And that’s what I want for all of you. Whether it’s music, science, whatever; every one of you has something to offer!”
He kidded with them for a few more minutes, then pointed to his face.
“Pretty,” he said, “is out here.”
Then he tapped his heart: “But beauty is in here, and you all look beautiful to me.”
That was K.C. Jones, a truly beautiful man.
Goodbye, good friend, and God bless.

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