K.C. Jones picked to get Celtics steamin' and rollin' again
When K.C. Jones, the new head coach of the Boston Celtics, and Bill Russell were teammates under Red Auerbach, both men used to call K.C. ''The Man with the Square Eyes.'' This referred partly to Jones's intensity as a player and partly to his marathon sessions in front of television screens during road trips.
If Russell was the best defensive center in the history of the National Basketball Association, then K.C. deserves that same rating when discussing guards. Nobody could press his man all over the court the way Jones did; backpedal and change directions with his speed and quickness; or spread-eagle both arms in front of opponents for what seemed like hours.
If K.C. had done on the street what he did on the basketball court, he would have been arrested for harassment. In one playoff series against Cincinnati, Jones won an Oscar (Robertson) by the way he stayed between the Royals' captain and the ball. In fact, no iron ever got closer to a pair of pants.
A background piece on K.C. would not be complete without pointing out that being in charge of an NBA team is not a new undertaking for Jones, who was head coach of the Washington Bullets for three seasons in the mid-1970s. During that period Washington had the best regular-season won-lost record of any team in the league.
The only major disappointment during K.C.'s stay in Washington was a 4-0 sweep of the Bullets by Golden State in the 1975 championship playoffs. But the fact is the Warriors won all four of those games by a total of only 16 points.
While Auerbach has been known to reward loyalty among former Celtic players before (Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, and Dave Cowens have all coached the team), Jones has the most experience of any of them.
Prior to joining the Celtics as an assistant coach in 1978, K.C. had similar NBA jobs with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks. And during his nine years in Boston as a player, the Celtics won eight world titles.
Basically the team he has inherited from Bill Fitch is lacking only in the guard department, where Tiny Archibald hasn't been the playmaker-scorer he once was, Danny Ainge is still learning, and where so far Quinn Buckner has been a disappointment.
But if the Celtics re-sign free-agent Kevin McHale and get themselves an established playmaker who can also shoot, then they go right back into a bracket with the newly crowned NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers. Already there is speculation that Boston will trade backup center Rick Robey and a future first-round draft pick to Los Angeles for guard Norman Nixon.
For any player coming out of college who is not a good shooter but has a flair for defense, Jones is a lesson in opportunity and perseverence. Even though Jones and Russell played on consecutive NCAA champions at the University of San Francisco in 1955 and 1956 as well as on the triumphant US Olympic team the latter year, K.C. was only a third-round draft pick in the NBA.
When Jones finally joined the Celtics as a player in 1958, after two years in the armed forces, Bob Cousy took one look at him in practice and decided he couldn't make it.
''I just didn't see how a man who shot as poorly as K.C. could stay in the NBA,'' Cousy said. ''I really didn't think his other skills would be enough to keep him around. But I was wrong. The man turned out to be amazing on defense and eventually learned to score enough so that rival teams couldn't afford not to guard him.''
In 1964, the year after Cousy retired, there was a lot of speculation that the Celtics might not be able to repeat as world champions with Jones as their playmaker.
''I used to read about this and laugh because I knew something that the papers didn't,'' former Celtics' publicity director Howie McHugh once told me. ''Russell, as much as he respected Cousy, wanted to show the world two things - that he had always been the main reason the Celtics won and that his pal K.C. Jones was as good as any playmaker in the league. That was the year Russell grabbed almost 2,000 rebounds and was so self-motivated you wouldn't believe it.''
Jones wasn't bad either, finishing third in the league in assists (only Oscar Robertson and Guy Rodgers had more), while leading the Celtics over the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA championship finals.