clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Fond memories of Jo Jo White

New, comments

The often overlooked Celtic star guard passed away at 71

New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

The death of Celtic All-Star guard Jo Jo White Tuesday at age 71 from complications due to dementia and pneumonia, less than three years after he was belatedly voted into the Hall of Fame, brought on a flood of memories.

White possessed an accurate hanging jumper that was almost a double-pump shot squeezed off as he was coming down, just after he had reached the apex of his leap. The slightly-delayed release of his unique trademark shot seemed to take defenders by surprise, allowing him an edge to get his deadly shot off.

Jo Jo was a physical fitness buff who still holds the Celtic franchise record for consecutive games played at 488. Even in 1987, six years retired from the NBA at nearly age 42, he was trying to make a comeback with the then-CBA Topeka Sizzlers in Kansas, where he starred as a Jayhawk All-American.

In 1968, along with future Celtic teammate Charlie Scott and then-unknown teenager Spencer Haywood, White led the underdog U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal at Mexico City.

White averaged 14.6 ppg as Team USA went a perfect 9-0 under coach Hank Iba. In the gold medal game vs. Yugoslavia, the reliable future Celtic star tallied his tournament-high of 24 points. Behind White, the U.S. pulled away from a close 32-29 halftime lead to win, 73-58.

”We were the more determined team, and I think that’s what set us apart,” said White of the American win without the likes of more ballyhooed college stars Lew Alcindor, Wes Unseld and Pete Maravich.

Growing up in St. Louis White’s given name was just Joe, but his high school coach called him Jo Jo, and the name stuck. I can’t help but wonder if his speed and quickness helped inspire the alliterative, short, clipped name of Jo Jo.

I was a little kid the night of Game 5 in the 1976 Finals, when I stayed up late to watch Boston outlast Phoenix in triple overtime, 128-126. It was a Friday night after the last day of school that year (on June 4), and buttressed by such an epic game, the summer’s potential seemed happily limitless and long, like that contest.

White played 60 of a possible 63 minutes that night, scoring a game-high 33 points to go with nine rebounds and six assists. At one point during a stoppage the fatigued White sat on the floor, back reclined as his arms and hands supported behind him on the ancient parquet floor.

John Havlicek hit a running banker with two seconds left in the second OT to apparently give Boston the win. Fans stormed the court, and referee Richie Powers was punched by one in the melee. When one second was ruled to be left on the clock, both teams had to be brought back out of the locker rooms to finish the contest.

Thought to be a mere formality, White had already cut the tape off his ankles. Yet when play resumed, Sun forward Garfield Heard forced a third extra session at 112-112 by draining his trademark high-arching jumper from the top of the key at the buzzer.

But led by the ageless Havlicek, White and seldom-used reserve Glenn McDonald, Boston would not buckle. A lesser team, with less heart and character, may well have. The unheralded McDonald scored six points in the third OT as the Celtics went ahead 128-122.

A Paul Westphal layup and then a miraculous 360-driving bank shot by the acrobatic Westy helped the spunky Suns pull within 128-126 as time was running out.

Havlicek and Boston broke the Phoenix press as Westphal dove into the stands trying in vain to deflect a long pass that hung in the air as it sailed across halfcourt. With Gang Green running out the final seconds of the frantic third overtime, the Suns desperately tried to foul to stop the clock.

Veteran swingman Dick Van Arsdale actually ran into and grabbed veteran Don Nelson away from the ball, but no call was made. Even the officials were dead tired and seemed to want the endless marathon to be over.

When the final buzzer went off, White held the ball near halfcourt. After it went off for good, ironman Jo Jo launched a 43-foot hook shot off the glass for fun as the fans rushed the parquet for the second time that night. It was finally over.

So draining was the contest in the warm early June weather that tough guy Celtic head coach Tom Heinsohn fainted from dehydration, heat and stress in the post-game press conference.

Two days later on a Sunday in Phoenix, two nearly-spent teams met again and the Celtics gutted out an 87-80 win over the plucky Suns to clinch their 13th championship banner.

The devastating three-OT loss seemed to take more out of the younger Suns than the guile-ful and grizzled Celtics, who may also have been energized a bit by the classic, three-OT victory.

Their character and championship mettle pulled them through.

White did not have a great sixth game - Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott, who had both fouled out of game five, carried the Celtics to victory with Havlicek gamely competing yet hobbled by a foot injury at age 36.

But Jo Jo’s calm, steady backcourt play helped win another ring. Having been through the playoff wars for five straight years, the Celtic experience was something Phoenix had no answer for.

The Suns started two rookies, including Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams, and first-time starter Westphal, a key reserve the previous three seasons for the Celtics.

Boston patriarch Red Auerbach felt the Celtic championship window was closing and that he needed to win now, so he pulled the trigger on the deal to send Westy out west in exchange for the more veteran, proven Scott - after defensive ace guard Don Chaney also jumped to the ABA.

The deal paid off with a Bosotn title in the short run, but Westphal became a three-time first team all-league guard for the Suns over the next five seasons.

Former Sun Scott had fouled out of the first five games of that surprising Finals, and was whistled for five fouls in game six, nearly making it six for six. On the airplane ride to Phoenix after the fifth game win, a weary White took Scott aside and told him he had to pick it up in game six for Boston to clinch.

Scott had been outplayed decisively by Westphal through the first five contests. Jo Jo felt tired after playing all but three minutes of the long game five. He also knew dependable veteran great Hondo was hurting afte rplaying 58 minutes in the triple OT epic, and figured he had to inspire Charlie to come up big.

And his former Olympic teammate did as asked, totaling 25 points, 11 rebounds and five steals.

The fiery Cowens carried Boston down the stretch and scored 21 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and made three steals (despite playing with five fouls as well) to lead Boston to its second championship in three years.

A tired White played 45 minutes in game six, shooting 5-15. He scored 15 points and added six assists with five rebounds in the clincher. And his late free throws helped seal the seven-point win.

In the post-game locker room celebration, smiling long-time NBA referee turned CBS analyst Mendy Rudolph interviewed White first. He presented Jo Jo with a watch commemorating his NBA Finals MVP selection, which he humbly accepted.

A few months shy of age 30, it was the peak of White’s career, with the team averaging well over 30 among its top six and on the precipice of a big fall.

White was a seven-time All-Star in the 1970s, helping the overlooked Celtics of that era to consistent excellence between the Russell and Bird dynasties. The underrated 1970s Celtics won two NBA titles and made it to five straight Eastern Conference finals from 1972 through 1976 on the heels of five consecutive Atlantic Division crowns.

Jo Jo was always overshadowed by other guards of theat star-studded decade, initially by all-time luminaries like Jerry West and Oscar Robertson early in the decade and then by rivals such as Walt Frazier and Pete Maravich throughout the 1970s.

Later in the decade, a new wave of bigger off guards like Doug Collins, Gerge Gervin, Westphal and David Thompson were all flashier, younger and top-notch. As the Celtics fell in the late 1970s, so did White’s star.

Yet even on his own team White was overshadowed by superstars Havlicek and Cowens. Dave and John deservedly made the NBA all-time 50 greatest player list in 1997.

Hondo, one of the very greatest all-around players in league history, was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1984. Cowens, the 1972-73 NBA season MVP and the 1973 All-Star Game MVP, followed suit in 1991.

White had to wait until 2015 to get in. When he finally was inducted, fittingly his coach Tom Heinsohn and Hall of Fame teammates Havlicek and Cowens presented him into the Springfield Valhalla.

The steady Celtic guard made seven consecutive NBA All-Star Games from 1971-77. He was exceptionally quick, a very good shooter and strong driver.

A fine one-on-one player who melded his talents into the Celtic team system, he made it to the NBA’s first one-on-one tournament finals in 1972, an event sponsored by ABC and shown at halftime of games back then.

White advanced to the finals by defeating 6-5 swingman Jeff Mullins of Golden State in the semis. But in the finals at the LA Forum, 6-11 Detroit All-Star center Bob Lanier was too big and too good for Jo Jo to overcome, and he lost 21-16.

White was one of the most consistent and well-rounded guards of the 1970’s. When I heard the Celtics had acquired Kyrie Irving before this season, I immediately was struck by the similarities between he and White.

It hit me that Kyrie was the best and most complete offensive guard Boston has had since White. White arguably was the most well-rounded guard offensively in Celtic history. Both are about 6-3, strongly built combo guards who can handle the point or off guard duties well. Each could pass and defend, although White was the better defender.

Both are very good shooters, although with the three-pointer White never had th eluxury of during his Celtic career, Irving has more range while JoJo was the better mid-range sniper. Both drove well, although Irving is more creative and ambidextrous, and more flamboyant, a sign of the times.

White could be occasionally spectacular, but in keeping with the more selfless and less individualistic style of play in vogue then - and the nose to the grindstone mindset of the Hondo/Big Red-led Celtics of that era - his one-on-one game was somehwat muted.

White was very poker-faced and persistent, a tough competitor who gave no quarter.

One great moment for White was hitting a left baseline jump shot at the buzzer to beat the rival 76ers 113-111 at Philadelphia in game one of the 1977 eastern semifinals. The younger 76ers eventually dethroned defending champion Boston in seven grueling games, and White’s clutch buzzer-beater may have been the swansong of the 1970’s Celtics.

For Havlicek played one more year and retired after missing the post-season for just the third time in his 16 seasons in 1977-78. After nearly a decade at the helm, Heinsohn was fired and replaced by former teammate defensive ace Satch Sanders. The Celtics tumbled to 32-50.

Early in the 1978-79 season with the Celtics continuing to reel, Sanders was dismissed and replaced by Cowens, who was made player-coach. The move caused a bit of a rift since White, who was senior to Dave by a year in Celtic green, was upset he had not been considered to replace Sanders.

The team was in full decline and rebuild mode, as well as in great discord under the fractured ownership of John Y. Brown. The Celtics were waiting all year for the savior (Larry Bird) to come to town, and thus Boston decided to trade the disgruntled White.

After averaging 18.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game over 717 regular season contests for Boston from 1969-79, he was unceremoniously traded across the country to another proud but sliding franchise for a number one draft pick.

Forty-seven games into the 1978-79 campaign, White was sent to another declining power of the 1970s, the suddenly Rick Barry-less Golden State Warriors.

The unusual trade of a Celtic great, something they rarely have done, illustrates the tumult the franchise was suffering at the time. Franchise pillar Red Auerbach was contemplating a move to take over the rival Knicks, fed up with John Y’s clueless meddling.

Kentucky Fried Chicken mogul Brown, who had previously owned the ABA Kentucky Colonels, tried an unheard of franchise swap with the lowly Buffalo Braves, who later moved to San Diego to become the Clippers.

Boston dropped to 29-53 in 1978-79, finishing dead last in the Atlantic Division. The great franchise’s survival was in doubt just three-plus years after winning their 13th title. Only the arrival of the great Bird the next season rescuscitated the league and its flagship franchise, as the rookie phenom led Boston to a then-record 32-win improvement.

Far away on the left coast in September of 1980, after a year and a half of 12 ppg play with the sinking Warriors, White was quietly sold to the Kansas City Kings, where he finished out his career near his hometown of St. Louis.

He played just 13 games for the Kings before retiring from the NBA at age 35. Ironically, KC made it to the Western Conference Finals in 1981 before losing to Houston, the team Bird and Boston defeated 4-2 in the NBA Finals one round later.

Had Jo Jo stuck around the entire season, he might have been able to help the injury-depleted backcourt of the Kings beat the Rockets and meet his old team in the championship round - along with future Celtic Scott Wedman, then a Kansas City All-Star small forward.

On April 9, 1982, Jo Jo’s number 10 was retired by the Celtics and hoisted to the rafters of the Boston Garden.

Without White, Boston certainly does not win it all in 1974 or 1976, nor make five straight Eastern finals from 1972-76. Losses in the ECF to the great Knick teams of 1972 and 1973, and the Bullets in 1975, kept Boston from adding to its cache of two crowns in the decade.

Perhaps the lukewarm end to his career in Golden State and Kansas City after being traded from Boston in 1978 tarnished his legacy a bit and led to his long wait to be inducted to Springfield.

White never made first team All-NBA, although he did make second team all-league in 1975 and 1977 in an era relplete with top guards.

Jo Jo 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.

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 caroms per outing.

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.

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.

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, a solid defender and strong runner.

White was also a clutch shooter, hitting numerous big shots during the Boston 1974 and 1976 title runs. In his Celtic career, he shot 44 percent from the field and 83.3 percent at the charity stripe.

In the playoffs White was even better. 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, Boston led Buffalo 3-2 when White was fouled as the buzzer went off with the score tied in game six. Before a deafening and angry Buffalo crowd with no time left, White stood alone at the foul line.

He calmly drained two foul shots to win the game and clinch the series, and Boston won on to win its first post-Bill Russell title.

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.

Dapper Jo Jo was always nattily-attired and trim. Even in his 60s, he looked like he could play well at the local YMCA.

Another memory I have of White is from the MSG television Vault and game four of the epic 1973 eastern finals at New York on Easter Sunday.

In the MSG Vault tape of that historic double OT loss (televised by ABC TV with Bill Russell as analyst alongside the recently-deceased great Keith Jackson and Havlicek sidelined by a shoulder injury), White was streaking up the court on the left side.

A Knick guard tried to intercept a slightly underthrown pass headed for Jo Jo. But White reached forward and cleverly popped the pass up in the air over the head of the New York defender with his right hand.

He ran under it like an NFL wideout, caught the ball on the run and stopped on a dime. He then rose up and drained his patented hanging 20-footer jumper. Vintage Jo Jo White.

With White’s belated HoF induction in 2015, Celtic Cedric Maxwell is now the only eligible NBA Finals MVP not in the Hall of Fame.

White 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. The crafty Auerbach got his two-year hitch redued to one season, and he was inducted to the Marine Corps Hall of Fame in 2008.

He had always been a good clutch player, a trait molded further by the pressure of starring for the Celtics, a franchise burdened by the expectation to win titles by the time White arrived.

In the regional finals of the 1966 NCAA tournament, Jo Jo 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 launching the winning shot. Given a reprieve, Texas Western beat Kansas in double overtime, and then went on to win the NCAA title.

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

The last memory of White on the old parquet floor came when the Celtics closed down Boston Garden in 1995. The club cleverly held a unique, creative and memory-laden passing of the torch play where over a dozen retired Boston greats came back for one last time on the old court.

Starting with Red dishing to Nate Archibald, the legends passed the ball from one great to the other, usually with fundamental chest passes, slowly making the way upcourt. The early passes went from Gene Conley, Ed Macauley and Bailey Howell to Jim Loscutoff and Bill Walton among others, winding from the far end to halfcourt.

Fittingly, White got the ball just across midcourt from long-time ex-teammate Nelson, midway through the exercise. His well-earned positioning in the hierarchy of Celtic greats mirrored his time in Boston midway through their 30-year dynasty from 1957-86, an extended stretch that produced an unprecedented 16 titles.

Showing off his long-suppressed but latent razzle-dazzle, White flipped a no-look, backhanded pass to Cedric Maxwell. Max dished on to Sam Jones, who passed to Heinsohn, a noted gunner who faked shooting a left wing three-point hook shot before passing on to Bill Sharman in the left corner.

Sharman passed to his old backcourt mate Bob Cousy near the foul line, and the flashy-passing Cooz threw his trademark behind the back pass to Russell.

Russ passed to Hondo, who ran up the sideline as if he had stolen the ball (replicating his steal in the closing seconds of game 7 to win the 1965 eastern finals vs. the 76ers, 110-109).

John then passed on to Larry Bird, who culminated the one-of-a- kind ceremony by banking in a layup. The normally stoic Bird smiled broadly as the fans cheered on, clearly moved by being the last one chosen in the long line of Boston greats.

Of the Celtic legends involved in that play, Red, Conley, Sharman and Loscutoff preceded White in death.

Rest in peace, Jo Jo. Your place in Celtic lore and the Basketball Hall of Fame will live on.