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KC: the quiet Celtics legend who won at every level

The initials K.C. don’t stand for anything; just K.C.

1984 Boston Celtics Championship Parade Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

That understated, slightly enigmatic style fit the former Celtic who won eight NBA titles as a player, two as a head coach and one more as an assistant for the hated Lakers.

Jones became the latest in a long line of pro sports legends to pass away in this difficult year, preceded recently by long-time teammate Tom Heinsohn. K.C. died at age 88 on Christmas Day at an assisted living facility in Connecticut from Alzheimer’s disease.

Jones is one of just eight men to win an NCAA title, Olympic gold medal (1956) and NBA title as a player. Among that exclusive club, only his long-time friend and teammate Bill Russell also coached an NBA champion.

After serving as a valuable reserve apprenticing under the great Bob Cousy for his first five seasons, he had the unenviable task of succeeding the league’s most popular player when the legend retired in 1963.

All he did was help lead Boston to three more crowns. He wasn’t a good shooter, nor the passer or scorer Bob was, and he didn’t run the fast break with the aplomb of Cooz. But he was a superior defender and a tough competitor, clever and unselfish.

In his first eight NBA seasons after a military hitch, Boston won the championship each year. He never scored more than 9.2 points a game, and averaged 7.4 ppg and 4.3 assists for his career.

In his last season, Boston finally was unseated by the eventual champion 76ers in the 1967 eastern finals. His number 25 was later retired by the Celtics.

A well-muscled and speedy 6-1, Jones was a good enough athlete to also be drafted by the Los Angeles Rams as a defensive back, but he was cut by the NFL club.

Laker great Jerry West related that Jones was the toughest defender he ever faced. Hall of Fame teammate John Havlicek said K.C. was one of the most respected men in the league because he always covered the opponent’s top guard.

Boston Celtics Players Photo by Paul J. Maguire/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

College teammate and roommate Russell said the taciturn Jones knew more about basketball than anyone he ever met. High praise considering all the high-hoops IQ personnel the Celtics have employed over the years, from Red Auerbach to Heinsohn and Bird, among others.

At USF, K.C. would go long stretches without even speaking in their college dorm room - which bothered the loquacious Russell.

When Jones finally said something, Russell jumped down off the top bunk and excitedly said. “Yes Case?” When Jones spoke, it meant something.

In the mid 1980s, when Bird was at his three-peat MVP peak, Jones was a steadying hand as head coach of the Celtics. He led Boston to the NBA Finals in each of his first four seasons in charge.

They won it all in 1984 and 1986, and lost to the Laker sin six games in 1985 and 1987 in large part due to injuries and a more rougher road to the Finals. The legendary 1985-86 championship team went 67-15 (15-3 playoffs) and is considered by many to be the greatest club in NBA history.

In his fifth season of 1987-88, aging Boston’s run of four straight Eastern Conference titles was ended by Detroit in the rugged eastern finals, 4-2.

He was replaced by long-time assistant Jimmy Rodgers the next season. That year he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Jones resurfaced in Seattle and coached the SuperSonics to a .500 mark from 1990-92 before being succeeded by George Karl.

He later returned to the east coast to coach the New England Blizzard, a women’s pro team in the new American Basketball League for two seasons from 1996-98. That league was eventually disbanded, elbowed out by the NBA-subsidized WNBA.

Quietly versatile, K.C. was also a pretty decent lounge singer.

He actually started his coaching career immediately after he retired as a player, guiding Jewish-based Brandeis University, which is situated just outside of Boston, from 1967-70. He then was an assistant coach at Harvard from 1970-71.

From there it was on to the Lakers for a championship season as Bill Sharman’s assistant, then to the ABA as head coach of the San Diego Conquistadors for one season (1972-73). The next year he was succeeded there by none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After that, he was hired as head coach of the Washington Bullets in 1974. In his second season there he guided the Bullets to the 1975 Finals by beating the defending champion Celtics in the Eastern finals, 4-2.

But then the heavily-favored Bullets were swept by Golden State and Rick Barry in the 1975 Finals, all but erasing the memory of his 60-22 campaign.

In 1976 the Bullets lost 4-3 to Cleveland in the eastern semifinals and Jones was fired despite a 48-34 record. In three seasons in charge of Washington, his teams went 155-91 in the regular season, but 14-17 in the playoffs.

He humbly returned to Boston as an assistant in 1977, first under Heinsohn, then ex-teammate Satch Sanders and player-coach Dave Cowens. Bill Fitch took over in 1979, Larry Bird’s rookie season, and K.C. was retained as his number two assistant through 1983.

K.C. was often belittled by Bill, who was a former drill sergeant and a college coach who had been at Mnnesota, North Dakota and Bowling Green.

Once when Jones was showing a Celtic player how to do something in a drill, Fitch yelled over to the player to come over to him when they were done so he could show him how it should be done correctly.

Jones took the insult quietly, but didn’t forget.

Bill had a biting sense of humor and was tough on the players. Eventually he wore his welcome out over the course of four long, high-pressure seasons. He earned the nickname Captain Video for his insistence on film-watching.

By the end of the Fitch regime, other than the loyal Bird, Bill almost had a mutiny on his hands as Milwaukee - coached by ex-Celtic teammate Don Nelson - swept Boston 4-0 in the 1983 eastern semis.

Fitch was quickly dismissed by Auerbach after the embarrassing sweep and elevated the patient Jones, returning the head coaching position to one of its roots in the Celtic tree.

The Celtic players loved playing for Jones - his low-key, respectful style was the opposite of the demanding Fitch, who held long, grueling pratices with plenty of running, and tedious film sessions.

With K.C. less was more, a style the similarly-quiet Bird copied as head coach of the Pacers. Bird noticed the team started tuning Fitch out after three seasons and said he would only coach the Pacers for three highly successful seasons - and he kept his promise after taking Indiana to the 2000 NBA Finals.

1988 NBA Playoffs: Detroit Pistons Vs Boston Celtics At Boston Garden Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Jones was also a shrewd judge of talent. When Fitch underplayed promising rookie Kevin McHale in favor of the more physical Rick Robey in the 1980-81 championship season, Jones reassured Kevin of his abilities.

“You’re a great player rook, he (Fitch) just doesn’t know it yet,” said Jones, prophetically.

K.C. had been embarrassed by Fitch but when he succeeded him, Jones led Boston to the 1984 NBA title in his very first season. In his first three seasons at the helm, Boston registered the best record in the league each campaign with 62, 63 and 67 victories.

In five seasons as Celtic head coach he led the team to a 308-102 record (65-37 playoffs) punctuated by two titles, five Atlantic Divison crowns and four conference championships.

In the joyous Celtic locker room after the 1984 championship was won in seven hotly-contested games over the hated Lakers, K.C. joked with CBS interviewer Brent Musburger, who called him “the best coach in the world.”

With a smile Jones deadpanned, “I did it all myself, with a little help from Larry Bird.” The 1975 Finals sweep with Washington had finally been avenged.

A gloating Auerbach chided the media, asking what happened to the so-called Laker dynasty. He raised his hands three times to signify their 15th NBA title, one of the sweetest.

In 1986, Jones and Fitch faced off in the 1986 Finals and K.C. was able to quietly exact his revenge without much fanfare or notice.

In Boston Fitch had not gotten the best out of Danny Ainge, and the team was on the verge of letting him walk ss a free agent when his contract was up in 1984 before Danny played well in the Finals.

Made a starter the next year after the trade of K.C.-playalike Gerald Henderson, Ainge blossomed into an All-Star under Jones. Fitch had undermined the major league baseball washout’s offensive confidence and used him primarily as a defender.

“When Bill Fitch was here, I don’t think he thought I was a very good player,” said Danny in the official 1986 NBA Finals film.

K.C. and Boston beat Houston 4-2 in a series that was not as close as that score indicates. Three of the Boston wins were blowouts, and the game three Rocket win with Houston down 2-0 was a nailbiter marred by a late inadvertent whistle that cost Boston.

Anyway, when I re-watched the end of the game six thrashing Boston gave Houston in the Garden to clinch their 16th title, I noticed something Jones did that was a clear dig at Fitch.

Out of all five starters, he removed Ainge last from the clincher as the team celebrated its 16th banner-winner. Not Bird, McHale, DJ or Robert Parish, but Ainge, the clear fifth wheel.

Jones let Danny enjoy the title longer on court because he knew Fitch had disrespected Ainge as a player. Danny rewarded him by playing very well in those Finals.

K.C. did little things like that which went largely unnoticed and unreported. But those type of actions inspire loyalty and I am sure Ainge has never forgotten it.

To be honest, as the most diehard of Celtic fans during the Bird era, I always thought K.C. got out-coached by Pat Riley in the two memorable Finals that Boston lost to LA.

Like K.C., Riley was a fine athlete and a real scrapper, a good defender. Pat also was drafted by the NFL, picked by the Dallas Cowboys.

Jones even coached Riley (West’s roommate and backup) when he served as an assistant coach for Los Angeles in the 1971-72 title season under former Celtic teammate Bill Sharman.

“They hired the (bleeping) Celtics,” complained West to a freind on the phone when he heard Sharman had been hired to coach Los Angeles. Sharman had just coached the Utah Stars to the 1971 ABA championship and would go on to become the first man to coach champs in three pro leagues (the ABL in 1962 with Cleveland under young owner George Steinbrenner was the other club).

The two former Celtic Californian guards teamed up to lead LA to that first title in LA, a still-record 33-game win streak and a 69-13 record. When the franchise finally won that elusive ring in Los Angeles on their eighth try at the Finals, Jerry West embraced his former defensive nemesis, K.C. Jones.

Almost a decade later, Riley took over as head coach of the Lakers and staged three memorable Finals showdowns aginst K.C. and the Celtics from 1984-87.

Riley was a better strategist, a flashier dresser and slicker. But he also was less dignified than Jones. K.C. got his players to play well, hard and unselfishly by appealing to them and treating them as men and competitors, like he had been as a player.

K.C. did not stoop to Pat’s level of manipulating the officials through the media, didn’t whine about LA’s dirty play - which was unreported but as bad or worse than the Celtics’ supposed rough style. He didn’t use the myriad injuries or tougher East as excuses in the battle of attrition that is the NBA playoffs.

One quote he made in a post-game press conference - I think it was after a game 2 blowout loss at LA in the 1987 Finals - struck me as how insightful Jones could be.

“They just took our legs and our minds away,” he said, refusing to admit or agree that injuries and fatigue beat Boston, when he easily could have.

The more I thought about it, he was right. They had mentally intimidated the weary Celtics, along with their crowd. Michael Cooper had hit six three-pointers as I recall, and Boston was so tired and injured they had done all they could just to reach those Finals.

After another loss in the series he started to try and analyze the defeat, but then simply said, “ah hell, they just played better than we did.” How many coaches are honest, ego-less and blunt enough to say that and not make excuses, especially in an NBA Finals? Few, if any.

Yet the bruised and battered 1987 Celtics grinded through two grueling seven-game series wins over Milwaukee and Detroit in just 26 days just to rach the Finals. K.C.’s mom died durign the Piston series and he missed game six to attend her fineral, then flew back all night to re-join the team for game 7 in Boston - which they won.

Out West, the Lakers swept two sub-.500 teams and beat the Warriors 4-1 to reach the championship round in six less games than Boston. Despite the Finals startbg two days after the brutal Piston series, the Celtics gave well-rested LA all they could handle before bowing out, 4-2.

Walton barely played due to foot injuries. The league’s best seventh man, swingman sharpshooter Scott Wedman, missed almost the entire season and all of the playoffs with a heel injury.

Top pick Len Bias, the young and athletic 6-8 super-talent the team desperately needed, had died from a drug overdoes before ever playing an NBA game.

McHale battled through a broken navicular bone on one foot and a sprain on the other, as well as the flu, to play. He still limps to this day after playing that post-season while hurt against doctor’s advice.

Ainge sprained his knee in game seven vs. the Bucks and missed the first three games of the legendarily vicious Piston series, and never regained his groove vs. LA.

Bird soldiered through a playoff record 1,015 minutes in 23 post-season games in 1987. He and DJ played 3-400 more minutes than their most-utilized Laker counterparts in the 1987 playoffs. Yet like their coach, they made no excuses. They would run through a wall for K.C., and did.

If not for some terrible calls in game four when Boston blew a 16-point second half lead at home to lose by a point, the Celtics might have actually won their 17th banner.

It would have been the ultimate win had they pulled it off over the rested, healthier Lakers on their homecourt, an even greater achievement than 1969 due to the injuries and rough road to just get to the championship series.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

My favorite story about K.C. Jones might be this tale told by Bill Walton. I think it demonstrates a lot of what made K.C. successful as a psychologist/coach, and adds subtle insight to his personality and ability to motivate.

At the end of close games, K.C. would call timeout and design a last shot for clutch Celtic guard Dennis Johnson - who like K.C. was a superb defender and California native. DJ was even drafted by Russell when he was running the Seattle club as a hardship second rounder in 1976.

Walton says Bird would become irate in the huddle and say, “Hey, I am Larry Bird, give me the ball!”

Walton said K.C. would glare at Larry, jam his thumb in his chest and say “shut up, I am the coach of this team.”

Then after a moment he would grab his clipboard, start to draw up a play, and say, “Now let’s get the ball to Larry here...”

He knew just how to push the proud Bird’s buttons, to make sure he was angry enough to overcome the moment and hit another game-winner, which he usually did.

When Bird was inducted to the Hall of Fame, he chose Fitch and Walton as his presenters. But he did not forget Jones. He called K.C. “one of the greatest people walking the face of the Earth.” When the camera zoomed in on K.C., he was beaming with a wide smile, rarely seen in public.

Another good story is that one time Jones chastised the Celtics for shooting too many three-pointers (imagine that today?!) in the pre-game huddle.

So when Boston won the opening tap, the incorrigible Ainge dribbled quickly into the forecourt and immediately launched a three on the first possession.

K.C. just shook his head and smiled.

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