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Better late than never: Celtic ace JoJo White finally makes the Hall of Fame

Why was the perennial All-Star guard snubbed for years?

Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Bird, McHale or Parish and DJ. Russell, Havlicek and Sam Jones. Russ, Heinsohn and Cousy. Garnett, Pierce and Allen.Cowens, Havlicek and White.

The above are all great Boston "Big Three" trios. And even though it may be among the least well-known, arguably the Cowens, Hondo and White threesome was as good as any Celtic troika.

Yet one third of that vaunted trio had been kept out of the Hall of Fame for nearly 30 years after becoming eligible until he was finally announced as being voted in April 6, 2015.

John Havlicek and Dave Cowens are top tier Hall of Famers and members of the NBA 50 Greatest players list, and deservedly so. But the third member of that 1970's threesome that won two titles was unfairly (and puzzlingly so) kept waiting far too long.

It seems certain that JoJo White's considerable college, pro and Olympic accomplishments would have added up to inclusion, a la Chris Mullin recently or Bill Bradley, years ago.

Born Joe White (but called JoJo by his high school coach, where the nickname stuck), the steady Celtic guard made seven consecutive NBA All-Star Games from 1971-77.

He was one of the most consistent and well-rounded guards of the 1970's, and it could be argued that he is the best all-around backcourt man in Boston Celtic history.

White was a very key member of an overlooked chapter of Celtic history, the 1970's. He was a two-time champion on a team that made it to five straight Eastern Conference finals from 1972-76, and was named the NBA Finals MVP in 1976.

Without him, Boston certainly does not win it all in 1974 or 1976, nor probably even contended for the crown.
Before that, he was an established winner as an All-American on fine teams at tradition-laden Kansas, and as the number two scorer on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team in 1968.

It seems fitting that he finally made it in this year along with fellow 1968 Olympic star and former Seattle Supersonics standout Spencer Haywood - and with his Celtic coach of nine years Tom Heinsohn, who became only the fourth man to be enshrined as both a player and coach.

Hoop luminaries John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman are the others. But what took so long for White to make it to the Hall of Fame?

Certainly he is as good as or better than many guards in the Hall; just in recent years, White stacks up favorably or equal to inductees like Mitch Richmond, Reggie Miller and Sarunas Marciulionis. None of those fine players won a single NBA title, let alone two, or an NBA Finals MVP award.

But for some reason the largely forgotten White kept coming up short in the voting. The underrated, non-flashy nature of the workmanlike Celtic teams he starred on between the much more ballyhooed Russell and Bird eras explains a bit of being overlooked.

Perhaps the lukewarm end to his career in Golden State and Kansas City after being traded from Boston in 1978 also tarnished his legacy a bit.

One unnamed Celtic implied in a Basketball Digest blurb at the time that JoJo could be selfish, saying he "gets his 20 points first, then he looks for you (passes)." That label, fair or not, probably followed and tainted his major accomplishments to some degree.

He never made first team All-NBA, although he did make second team all-league in 1975 and 1977 in an era chock full of top guards.

JoJo never finished higher than 11th in any MVP voting, but was one of the best and most consistent players in the NBA for nearly a decade. Inch for inch and pound for pound, few if any were better. 
He was extremely consistent at a high level (without compiling eye-popping numbers), which also may have worked against him, since that type of sustained excellence gets taken for granted after a while, especially when one rarely misses a game.

In his prime from 1970-77, White averaged between 18.1 and 23.1 points a game every year. He also averaged roughly 5.5 assists and over four rebounds a game over that time span, with highs of 6.1 apg and 5.6 boards per outing.

White never made an all-defense team, yet was a solid defender. A fitness buff and an ironman, he ranked near the very top of the NBA in minutes played from 1972-77, and toiled in all 82 games over five straight seasons from 1972-77. He set a club record of 488 consecutive games played in so doing.

From 1970-77, he missed only 10 of a possible 576 contests while playing 40 minutes a game at a high level of intensity for a hard-running club. He was in incredible condition, much like Havlicek.

White was not flashy like other top guards of the era like Walt Frazier, Nate Archibald, Earl Monroe and Pete Maravich; he wasn't as good as Jerry West or a younger Oscar Robertson, and didn't shoot or score as much as Gail Goodrich or George Gervin.

He also didn't play in the biggest media markets like West, Frazier, Monroe and Goodrich. These factors all contributed to him being underrated.

Even on his own team, he was seen as a third wheel behind the fiery Cowens and the sport's consummate all-around, understated superstar in Havlicek.

The man with the plain name simply was very good and quietly well-rounded for nearly a decade. Joe White did everything well. He was a complete guard who could handle the ball well and pass in an era before guards were delineated into one's and two's; he ran the show and was a very good shooter.

He defended well, was very fast and quick, could drive and create his own shot, but almost always within the team context. He shot a very accurate, unorthodox hanging jumper released just after reaching the apex of his leap on the way down, confounding defenders. He excelled in the running game and also in the halfcourt offense.

White was also a clutch shooter, hitting numerous big shots in the Boston 1974 and '76 title runs, as well as a buzzer-beater in game one of the 1977 eastern semis at the rival 76ers.

He played 58 minutes out of a possible 63 in the epic triple-OT game five win over Phoenix in the 1976 Finals, scoring 33 points. Boston won that contest, often called the greatest game in NBA history, 128-126 due in large part to JoJo.

Like Hondo and Dave, White sacrificed a lot of offense to fit into a balanced, great ball club. On a lesser team, he could have easily scored over 25 ppg in his prime.

Yet his considerable one-on-one skills were on display when he battled all the way to the NBA one-on-one tournament final round televised weekly by ABC in 1972.

He defeated 6-5 Golden State swingman Jeff Mullins in the semifinals before falling to 6-11 Detroit center Bob Lanier in the title game, 21-16. But just making it that far at 6-3 was quite an accomplishment.

In 1977-78, White's scoring dropped from 19.6 ppg to 14.8, his lowest output since his 12.2 ppg when he was an all-rookie selection in 1969-70.

The aging Celtics fell into steep decline in 1978, Hondo's farewell season, and became non-title contenders for the first time since 1971.

Just two years removed from their 13th NBA title, the Celtics decided to start rebuilding. At age 32, White was unceremoniously traded to Golden State 47 games into the 1978-79 campaign for a first round draft pick.

There may have been some issues and hard feelings over Cowens having been named player-coach at the time over White, but the team was sinking fast and the dual job was certainly no prize at the time.

With the struggling Warriors, who were reeling over the free agency loss of star forward Rick Barry to Houston, White scored 10.5 ppg over 107 games in parts of two seasons.

He then ended up with the Kansas City Kings near his hometown of St. Louis in 1980-81, but injuries limited him to just 13 games and he retired.

Without his services, the Kings made their furthest playoff run ever until the 2000's when KC lost in the Western finals to Houston. Had they beaten the Rockets, the Kings ironically would have met Boston and second-year superstar Larry Bird in the Finals.

Six years later in 1987, the incredibly fit White tried to make a comeback and played well with the CBA Topeka Sizzlers at age 41, but he did not get back to the NBA.

Even today at age 68, the always nattily-attired and trim White looks like he could play well at a local playground game.

With White's belated induction, Celtic Cedric Maxwell is now the only eligible NBA Finals MVP not in the Hall of Fame.

The ninth overall pick in the NBA draft, White scored 13,188 points over 10 seasons in Boston. He averaged 18.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.3 assists per game over 717 contests with the Celtics.

He shot 44 percent from the field and 83.3 percent at the charity stripe. His numbers compare well with other Boston great Hall of Fame guards like Sam Jones and Bill Sharman, although they won more NBA titles, the likely reason for their inclusion and JoJo's long-time exclusion.

In the playoffs White was even better, adding further merit to his Hall candidacy. In 80 post-season contests from 1972-77, White scored 21.5 ppg, passed out 5.7 apg and pulled down 4.4 rpg. He shot 45 percent from the field and 83 percent from the foul line in nearly a full season's worth of playoff games.

In the 1973 playoffs, he scored 24.5 ppg. In 1974, with no time left on the clock in a tied game six of the eastern semifinals at Buffalo, White calmly drained two foul shots to win the game and clinch the series before a hostile crowd. Clutch.

Boston went on to beat Milwaukee in seven games for the crown as Havlicek was named MVP.

In the 1976 playoffs, he averaged 22.7 ppg over 18 games as Boston won it all for the second time in three years. In 1977 at age 31, he poured in 23.3 ppg in his last post-season.

White also lost a year to his NBA career due to a one-year military requirement with the Marine Corps, and he also played without the three-point line, factors that lessen his career stats a bit along with the balanced Boston offense. He was inducted to the Marine Corps Hall of Fame in 2008.

Perhaps White's "close but no cigar" theme was best embodied by the 1966 NCAA tournament. In the regional finals, JoJo hit a 30-foot jumper at the buzzer of overtime to apparently beat Texas Western.

But the shot was waved off in a controversial call since he was ruled to have stepped on the sideline before the winning shot. Given a reprieve, Texas Western beat Kansas in double overtime, and then went on to win the NCAA title.

One of his crowning moments came in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, where he continued to show his penchant for clutch play.

As one of the leaders of an underrated team missing UCLA All-American Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and superscorer Pete Maravich, he allayed the growing fear that the long American Olympic hoop win streak was destined to end in Mexico City.

Along with leading scorer/rebounder Spencer Haywood, an unheralded 19-year old at the time, White paced the "star-less" U.S. squad to its seventh straight Olympic gold medal without a loss.

White averaged 14.6 ppg as Team USA went 9-0. In the gold medal game vs. Yugoslavia, reliable JoJo fired in his tournament-high 24 points as the U.S. pulled away from a 32-29 halftime lead to win, 73-58.

Had a controversial call not disallowed his shot vs. Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA tourney, White may have become one of the few men to win an NCAA title, Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship.

And he probably would have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame long ago. Better late than never. Congratulations, JoJo.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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