Sam Jones, Celtics Great and 10-Time Champion, Speaks His Mind
Yet despite his legendary career, he can walk through a shopping mall or a downtown hotel lobby today without being recognized, arguably the most under-exposed great in basketball history.
Jones, 76, sat down with FanHouse earlier this week to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from his strange disconnect with the franchise he represented so well, to the racism that drove him out of coaching in the early '70s, to his sometimes unflattering view of today's NBA stars.
His opinions might surprise you.
FanHouse: Can anyone ever again do what your Celtics did, win 10 NBA titles in a 12-year span?
Sam Jones: "No. I don't want to say there's too much money, but today's players just aren't as hungry. In our day, winning games, winning in the playoffs, meant extra money for our families. We had kids to send to college. We needed the money. Winning really meant something. When these players today are making $12-15 million a year, they don't have the incentive. They aren't as hungry. They don't need to be.
FanHouse: Does the money today make your head spin?
Sam Jones: "It boggles my mind to think any player today is worth over $10 million a year, regardless of how good he is -- unless he can win a championship every year. Then they certainly would deserve it. But when you have 3-4 guys on a team making $10 million each, my gosh. ... They hurt a little finger and they have to sit out 4-5 days. It's awful. A lot of players are jealous of each other (because of the money), and that's not a way to have a really good team.''
FanHouse: What kind of team chemistry did your Celtics have?
Sam Jones: "We've always said we had the best team ever to play basketball, including the Michael Jordan teams in Chicago, the David Robinson teams in San Antonio, the Isiah Thomas teams in Detroit. I always felt no one had a better coach than Red Auerbach. We believed in what he was trying to teach us. Evidently it worked. We won year after year after year. Even when we got older, we won. We had a closeness that teams today don't have.
FanHouse: Do you like today's Celtics?
Sam Jones: "I love 'em. The addition of Rasheed Wallace is going to help. If they stay healthy, they'll win another world championship. I thought they would have won last season if Kevin Garnett had not been hurt.''
FanHouse: Who else do you like to watch play?
Sam Jones: "I like the teams that play like teams. I like watching San Antonio. They play great team ball. Detroit used to do that before they broke up that group. Certain teams I like because they're not about individuals. It's about everyone who contributes to that team.''
FanHouse: How much money did you make in the NBA?
Sam Jones: "That's personal. Look it up, if you want, but I made $7,500 that first season (1959-60) with a $1,500 bonus. That was a lot of money back then."
FanHouse: Have you stayed in touch with the Boston franchise?
Sam Jones: "I've stayed in touch with a few people I played with."
FanHouse: You ever go to see the Celtics play?
Sam Jones: "No. It's a new regime, new owners, new management. People ask me why I never go back. I tell them, `I don't go places where I'm not invited to go.' I won't push myself on anyone. It doesn't bother me at all. You work for someone, and when you're finished, you're finished.''
FanHouse: What about when they retired your jersey? You were there then, weren't you?
Sam Jones: "That's different. Red was still involved. I came because Red asked me. Red could get anyone to come back."
FanHouse: When I saw you last spring in Orlando, you came to watch the Celtics play the Magic. Why?
Sam Jones: "I live close by. That was first time I saw them play live since Robert Parish played for them. I had not met a single person on that team until the night of the playoff game, including (coach) Doc Rivers. That was when he invited me to play in his (charity) golf tournament."
FanHouse: It's hard for me to fathom this disconnect between the Celtics and guys like you who made the franchise what it is today. Explain.
Sam Jones: "We don't have reunions, so there is no connection between the old and the new. There is no follow up on history. If you don't want to be bothered, then I don't want to be bothered, either. I have my peace of mind."
FanHouse: You coached only one season in the NBA, as an assistant with the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75. What happened there?
Sam Jones: "There were some things I didn't like. It was a first-year expansion team. They had a chance to chose players from other teams. There was a black kid who we really liked, a good player, a top-15 rebounder, but ownership said we couldn't take him because he was married to a white lady. I thought that was a travesty. It just wasn't in my mode of thinking. We did take a guy from California, Stu Lantz, and he was married to a white girl, too, but the team didn't realize it until it was too late."
FanHouse: What else?
Sam Jones: "They hired a tremendous coach, Scotty Robertson who had some good ideas. One of them reminded me of Red, who used to say if you want to be champions, you had to dress like champions, look professional. Scotty fined some guys for not dressing well, and management wouldn't back him up. After  games, they told me they wanted to fire Scotty. I told them, `He should be Coach of the Year if he wins 20 games with this team.' I asked who would be the next coach, because Elgin Baylor and I were the only assistants, and was told that `New Orleans wasn't ready for a black head coach.' They brought in someone else (Butch van Breda Kolff), who wasn't real professional about some things. So one year of that was enough for me.''
FanHouse: Who's the greatest player you've ever seen?
Sam Jones: "I can't do that. Everyone has their own opinion. Michael Jordan won six NBA titles. Bill Russell won 11, so you tell me who is the greatest? When it comes to getting the job done, Bill Russell got it done. I always say `Russell was the greatest to ever play the game, then and now.' ''
FanHouse: What was it like playing alongside him your whole career? What made him so great?
Sam Jones: "He never, ever wanted to lose. He had so much pride. You'd never believe how tough he was on the court, not only on the other team, but on us, too. You had to bring it every night. If he saw you were not playing the way you were supposed to be playing, he'd have words for you.''
FanHouse: Go back to the racism you saw. What was it like with the Celtics?
Sam Jones: "Red (Auerbach) was so far ahead of his time. People didn't realize how far ahead he was. He hired the first black coach (Russell). He was the first in the league to start five black players. He drafted the first black player (Chuck Cooper). Boston did a lot of things to advance integration into the NBA, even though people say Boston is a racist city. At least the Celtics did something different. I think Walter Brown (the owner) had something to do with it. He wanted the best players, and he didn't care if they was blue, black, brown, white or yellow. He went against the rules of the NBA.''
FanHouse: Now that you're retired, living in Florida, what do you do with your time?
Sam Jones: "Play golf three, four times a week, some of the nicest courses in the country. But I'm still lousy.''
FanHouse: Is that a true story that you almost didn't play in the NBA and nearly turned down the Celtics after they drafted you in the first round (out of North Carolina Central)?
Sam Jones: "I always liked the idea of being an educator, a teacher. And back then, neither profession paid very well. If I could have gotten another $500 from the school system where I wanted to teach, I never would have played professional basketball. And I would have been happy, being a teacher and a high school coach.''
FanHouse: Who else from your Celtic teams do you stay in contact with?
Sam Jones: "K.C. Jones. Well, I really just talk to his wife. She runs that house. K.C. and I always joke we should do a book together about our years, our struggles with the NBA and everything else back in the '50s. They put us in places they never should have put us. We should have sued the league for some of the things that happened to the black players.''
FanHouse: You think today's players appreciate what you went through?
Sam Jones: "What do you think?''
FanHouse: What do you think of LeBron James?
Sam Jones: "He's going to be great. Guys like him, Dwight Howard, they come into the league so young. They have so much to learn. One of the things LeBron has to learn is that every single night, he should be at the free throw line 20 times. With his body, his height, jumping ability, size, he doesn't need to be shooting three's to get back into the game. He should be taking the ball to the basket every time and looking for the open man. Once he learns that, he'll take a lot of the load off his shoulders. He'll learn.
FanHouse: Are players today better than they were in your day?
Sam Jones: "I think they're in better condition. I don't know if their intelligence is better.''