In the hard-running ranks of professional basketball, players are judged by the company they manage to avoid. When they feint their way past their men, or streak down the court on the fast break, or momentarily escape the clutch of pawing hands, their unsociability is regarded as a highly desirable trait. In the National Basketball Association, no players are more adept at these admittedly unfriendly maneuvers than Sam and K.C. Jones.
These two uncommonly swift young athletes play the guard positions for the Boston Celtics, and their speed of foot and sleight of hand usually leave their rivals panting and puzzled—in much the same state as the champion Celtics perennially leave the other NBA teams. What is thoroughly incongruous about this situation, however, is that Sam and K.C. have achieved their pre-eminence in the role of substitutes.
On the Celtics, it would be almost impossible for the Jones boys (they are not related) to be anything but substitutes. Bob Cousy, who has been an NBA All-Star for 10 years, and Bill Sharman, an All-Star for seven, are the first-string guards, and they are not men easily pushed aside. The facts of life, however, are that Cousy and Sharman are in their 30s, and their skills, while just as shiny, are no longer as durable. "Around the second quarter or so," Cousy says, "I actually plan on being taken out of the game, and I pace myself accordingly. That's when Sam and K.C. come in. They not only sustain a lead, they add to it. And on defense, they hound the opposition guards so much that my man's all softened up for me when I come back in."
Aggressive as they are on the courts, Sam and K.C. (the initials stand by themselves; K.C. has no given names) are serious, reserved young men. Sam, whose somewhat elongated features recall the haunting sadness of a Modigliani portrait, is more innately so. "I was raised in Durham, where North Carolina College is," he says, "and by the time I graduated from high school I had scholarship offers from two out-of-town colleges—CCNY and Notre Dame. But I was only 17 and I felt I was too young to go away. I figured the best thing to do was stay at home and go to North Carolina." Sam met his future wife at college; then, part way through school, he went into the service. "Gladys wrote to me for two years," he says, "and when I went back to North Carolina we just naturally got married." He finished college and was drafted by the Celtics. His reaction is typical of the man. "I was a little mad, a little glad," he says somberly. "I knew I would have had a much better chance of making another NBA team, but I felt good about playing with the best."
Originally, it was touch and go as to whether Sam would make the team. Coach Red Auerbach, a skeptical man whose luggage reputedly includes a 10-foot pole for measuring the height of baskets on enemy courts, had to be shown. In 1957, the year Sam joined the club, the Celtics already had four excellent guards. "Frankly," says Auerbach, "he was an unknown boy from an unknown school. But we had last draft choice and I figured, 'Why not? There's nobody else left.' " Sam displayed so much speed ("he's the fastest man in the league") and spirit ("he's strictly a team man") that Auerbach not only kept him, but moved an established star—Guard Frank Ramsey—to the forward position to make room for him.
Sam's earliest impressions of the Celtics revolve around Cousy. In one of his rookie games he took his eyes off Bob for an instant while racing down the court on a fast break. A Cousy pass caught him square in the head, rebounding several rows back among the spectators. "I told myself I'd never take my eyes off Bob in a game again," says Sam, "and I never have."
Once Sam knew he had made the club, he sent for his wife and, with their three children, they now live in a Boston suburb. The atmosphere is congenial, but his reserve persists. On a summer excursion to Cape Cod, for example, he and his wife came across a beatnik hangout. Gladys, delighted with the chance to see some beats, went right in. Nothing could persuade Sam to join her "I was plain scared," he admits.
K.C.'s reserve, if he feels he is among friends, almost disappears. His athlete's body takes on a pronounced jauntiness, and he becomes a smiling, outgoing person—a man who is never far from people and laughter. ("No, no, Abe," he'll say, repeating Comedian Bob Newhart's routine about Lincoln's public-relations man building up the presidential "image," "first you were a rail splitter, then you were a lawyer.") But he can be exactly the opposite. Bill Russell, the Celtic center who has known him since they played ball at San Francisco University, claims that K.C. didn't say more than a handful of words to him during the first month they were roommates. "He'd leave at 7:30 a.m. for chow," says Russell, "shake my bed and say, 'Russ, breakfast!' In the evening he'd say, 'Russ, good night!' That was it." Eventually, there came the night K.C. talked. "I nearly fell out of bed," says Russell.
After graduation K.C. spent two years in the Army, then took a brief (and bruising) fling at professional football with the Los Angeles Rams. In 1958 he joined the Celtics. "I was scared and awed," he says. "I was afraid of making mistakes, and that's just when you make them. Cousy and Sharman would tell me to relax, and I would—in practice. At game time, though, I'd be tight. All I could do was run."
An All-America at San Francisco, K.C. was hardly unknown. But Coach Auerbach was not satisfied. K.C., says Auerbach, was "an All-America who couldn't shoot," and his defense was "the gambling kind." K.C. worked on his weaknesses. "I'm not a good shooter," he says, "and I try to make up for it with ball handling and defense. I'd watch Cousy, trying to pick up the way he gets rid of the ball on the fast break, the way he dribbles when a man is pressing him, the way he controls the game." As a rookie, K.C. never stopped running. "From the day he reported," Auerbach says, "he did everything I asked him. He went in and dogged his man, whether it was for 30 seconds or 30 minutes."
For K.C, as for Sam, the running paid off. "I began to notice," says Auerbach, "that when they were in the game we never lost any ground. Meanwhile, Cousy and Sharman were resting." Now, adds Auerbach, there is no feeling on the Celtics, or in the NBA, that when he puts in the Jones boys he is putting in substitutes; there are few teams on which they would not be first-string.
Auerbach's opinion is supported by statistics. Sam, who is primarily a shooter, would average 18 to 20 points a game if he played regularly (something accomplished last season by only four NBA guards, Cousy and Sharman among them), and K.C., who is primarily a passer, would collect 350 or more assists (something achieved by only six NBA playmakers, led by Cousy).
A patented press
On entering a game, K.C. and Sam usually press the man who brings the ball up. "We hound him all the way," K.C. says, "trying to make him lose it." For the most part, this tactic only works against a man who brings the ball up slowly. "It's easier to block his lanes," explains K.C. "The whole idea is to make him stop." At the very least, such a press makes the opposition waste valuable time. As many as eight or nine seconds may elapse before it gets the ball across half-court (a team is allowed 24 seconds in which to shoot) and, as a result, it may be forced to hurry its shot. "We keep our hands up, too," says Sam, "not out, sideways, but up. It keeps them from passing over us." If a man takes advantage of the close guarding to slip past them, the Jones boys get help. Nine times out of 10, the towering Russell is there to slap the ball away from anyone trying a layup.
Auerbach does not always play the Jones boys together. Sam, for instance, is playing more and more with Cousy. (Sharman has been out of the lineup with a recurring leg injury a good part of the season.) Sam has the lithe, limber body of a sprinter ("he has two speeds," says a teammate, "fast and real fast"), and frequently he is able to pull away from his man on fast breaks. Cousy leads him with long, graceful passes. When the opposition has a 7-foot center near the basket, however, Sam takes no chances of a layup being blocked. He stops short near the sideline, banks a shot off the backboard from 20 feet away. "Too late!" he yells as he gets the ball away before the 7-footer can deflect it. Sam is one of the few professionals (Gene Shue is another) who expertly use the backboards on medium-range shots; the fashion today is to aim for the front rim of the basket.
Similarly, K.C. teams up well with the sharpshooting Sharman. Chunky and tireless, K.C. jack-rabbits his way around the court, blocking for teammates and diving for loose balls. "If you want assists," he says, "just pass the ball to Sharman. He makes a shot from 30 feet out look easy."
Off the court, the Jones boys fit smoothly into the Celtics' extracurricular activity. Sam is the team's best cardplayer, no small achievement among professional athletes, who traditionally while away the long hours of traveling with games that range from bridge to blackjack. Sam is so good, in fact, that he often has trouble getting into a card game. ("I got 'em all," he exults, meaning he has taken every card. "My God," someone groans, "he's done it again.") For a time Auerbach stayed out of the games, putting his money, instead, on Sam. Both men prospered so mightily under this arrangement that the other players soon prohibited it.
Part of the team
K.C. keeps the team entertained. One time he may lead the Celtics in whistling "Whoops! There goes another rubber tree plant!," a tune that takes on added significance because Russell is the proud part owner of a rubber plantation in Liberia. ("Those trees are really growing," Russell says loftily.) Another time K.C. may convulse them all by mimicking Cousy's languid walk or Russell's haughty stare. Auerbach revels in these exchanges. "That's the way a team has to be," he says. "You've got to be a part of it all the way."
As the Celtics clinched their fifth consecutive division title last week, Sam and K.C. Jones were very much a part of it. Nobody knows this better than their teammates. In a game in which the Celtics were ahead by 16 points K.C. took a headfirst dive to save a ball going out of bounds; Russell scooped it up and started the fast break; Sam took his favorite jump shot, ended up on the seat of his pants, and the Celtics were ahead by 18. From the bench, Bob Cousy leaned forward and applauded.
SOLEMN POSE reflects usual reserve Sam (seated) and K.C. exhibit off the court.
AS SAM RACES ALONGSIDE, K.C. DRIBBLES BALL UPCOURT TO START BOSTON PLAY