Sam Jones, the sharp-shooting Boston Celtics guard who won 10 NBA titles alongside Bill Russell before being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, has died at age 88.
‘Just hearing from Aubre Jones that his dad, Sam, passed away last night at 88,’ John Feinstein, a longtime Washington Post contributor who interviewed Jones for a recent book, tweeted Friday. ‘Sam was a GREAT NBA player (part of 10 Celtics title teams) and an upbeat, enthusiastic person who played golf well into his 80s. He was a huge help to me on ”Raise a Fist, Take a Knee.” Sad day.’
A cause of death has not been revealed publicly, but a team spokesperson said he died of natural causes.
The Celtics held a moment of silence for Jones before Friday’s matinee against the Phoenix Suns in Boston.
‘You look at the championships and what he did, it’s obviously a big loss for the community here,’ Celtics coach Ime Udoka told reporters Friday.
‘Sam Jones was one of the most talented, versatile, and clutch shooters for the most successful and dominant teams in NBA history,’ the Celtics said in a statement. ‘His scoring ability was so prolific, and his form so pure, that he earned the simple nickname, ”The Shooter.”
‘The Jones family is in our thoughts as we mourn his loss and fondly remember the life and career of one of the greatest champions in American sports.’
Jones’s 10 NBA titles as a player ranks second in league history behind only Russell, who won 11.
Sam Jones, the sharp-shooting Boston Celtics guard who won 10 NBA titles alongside Bill Russell before being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, has died at age 88
Jones, known as ‘Mr. Clutch’ by teammates, is the third member of the Celtics’ dynasty to pass away in the last two years, following his backcourt partner, KC Jones (no relation), and Tom Heinsohn, who both died in 2020. ‘The Jones Boys are eternally reunited,’ KC’s daughter Bryna tweeted Friday. ‘Rest in Heaven, Uncle Sam.’ PICTURED: Sam Jones in his later years (left) and a shot of him with alongside backcourt partner KC Jones (back right)
Tom Sanders #16, Sam Jones #24, Bill Russell #6, and John Havlicek #17 of the Boston Celtics during a game circa 1968 at the Boston Garden. Russell served as a player-coach at the time
NBA commissioner Adam Silver also reacted to Jones’s passing in a statement.
‘Sam Jones will be remembered as one of the most prolific champions in all of professional sports,’ Silver said in his statement. ‘His selfless style, clutch performances and signature bank shot were hallmarks of an incredible career that featured 10 NBA championships in 12 seasons with the Boston Celtics.
‘An HBCU legend at North Carolina Central University and a member of the NBA’s 25th, 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Sam was a beloved teammate and respected competitor who played the game with dignity and class. We mourn the passing of a basketball giant and send our deepest condolences to Sam’s family and the Celtics organization.’
Jones, known as ‘Mr. Clutch’ by teammates, is the third member of the Celtics’ dynasty to pass away in the last two years, following his backcourt partner, KC Jones (no relation), and Tom Heinsohn, who both died in 2020.
‘The Jones Boys are eternally reunited,’ KC’s daughter Bryna tweeted Friday. ‘Rest in Heaven, Uncle Sam.’
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1933 — 35 years before Michael Jordan’s family would move into town — Sam Jones attended Laurinburg Institute, a preparatory school founded at the request of civil rights hero Booker T. Washington.
Longtime Washington Post columnist and author John Feinstein remembered Jones as an ‘upbeat, enthusiastic person’ and a ‘great NBA player’
He’d go on to star at little-known North Carolina College in Durham (now North Carolina Central) and was picked by legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach with the eighth pick of the 1957 draft on the recommendation of another coach.
In fact, Auerbach had never even seen Jones play in college – usually a non-starter for the Hall of Fame coach.
Initially, Jones didn’t think he had a chance of cracking Auerbach’s rotation, which included 11 veterans at the time.
‘I never felt so miserable in my life when I got the news,’ Jones said at the time. ‘I really thought it was the end of my basketball career. Sure, I was thrilled with the honor … I never thought I’d be able to break into the game, let alone the lineup.’
Fortunately for Jones, he was wrong. After playing sparingly as a rookie, Jones replaced injured Bill Sharman in the Celtics’ starting lineup in his second season, and remained a franchise cornerstone throughout the 1960s.
With Russell manning the middle as perhaps the greatest defensive player in NBA history, the Celtics’ needed offense — specifically shooting — and Jones seemed to fill that role easily.
The World Champions of basketball Boston Celtics pose for a team portrait seated (L-R): K. C. Jones Gary Phillips, President Walter A. Brown, Head Coach Red Auerbach, Treasurer Lou Pieri, Captain Bob Cousy, Sam Jones. Standing Frank Ramsey, Tom Sanders, tom Heinsohn, Bill russell Gene Guarillia, Jim Loscutoff, Carl Brown, Trainer Buddy LeRoux in Boston
Decades before the league adopted the three-point shot, Jones became one of the NBA’s preeminent perimeter shooters, hitting 45.6 percent of his field goals and 80.3 percent of his free throws while averaging 17.7 points a game over his career.
He was known for banking in his perimeter attempts off the backboard, which is a skill that is now uncommon in today’s NBA.
‘Well, the banks are open in heaven this #NYE,’ tweeted former Celtics forward and current radio announcer Cedric Maxwell, the MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals.
Jones was also known for his work ethic.
‘He’ll do anything you ask him,’ Auerbach in the 60s, as quoted by NBA.com. ‘He’s always in shape and ready to play, and nobody works any harder at basketball than he does.’
Boston’s Sam Jones, left, drives past the Lakers’ Jerry West (44) and drives along the baseline towards the basket in the teams’ NBA playoff game in Los Angeles on May 2, 1968. At right are Darrall Imhoff of Lakers, who blocked the shot, and Celtics’ Bill Russell
The Celtics had already won one title in 1957 before Jones’s arrival the following season, but the team reeled off a record eight-consecutive championships from 1959 until 1966 with the 6-foot-4 guard as one of their key players.
Then, with Russell as the team’s player-coach, Boston would win two more titles in 1968 and 1969, the last of which came in Jones’s final season with the team.
Jones, a five-time All-Star as a player, had a brief coaching career at his alma mater and later served as an assistant for the New Orleans Jazz in 1974-75, but never had the same success he had as a player.
He would go on to be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 and was recently included among the 75 players named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.
The Boston Celtics professional basketball team toured the White House today and had it’s picture taken with President Kennedy. Left to right: John Havlicek; Buddy LeReux; Clyde Lovellete (rear); K.C. Jones; Bob Cousy; Coach Red Auerbach; Jim Loscutoff; President Kennedy; Sam Jones; Frank Ramsey; Tom Heinsohn and Tom Sanders
Jones was fortunate to play for one of the more progressive organizations in professional sports in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Under Auerbach’s guidance, the Celtics became the first NBA team to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper, and the first to start a lineup of five African Americans, which included both Sam and KC Jones, Russell, Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders and Willie Naulls.
Later, in 1966, Auerbach chose Russell as his hand-picked successor, making him the first African-American coach in major US team sports. (Russell also continued playing for the Celtics, who would go on to win two more titles before the end of the decade)
But despite the Celtics’ progressive attitude towards race, the city of Boston and the NBA were less accommodating to black athletes at the time.
In a November article for The Associated Press, Jones remembered the NBA landscape in the 1960s being only marginally different from what he had experienced growing up in America’s segregated South.
‘There was a quota for Blacks when I came in 1957. There were only two players on each team that were African-Americans,’ recalled Jones.
The 1960s was the decade Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry took flight and the NBA’s second dynasty reigned on the Boston Garden’s parquet court.
It was also a time of ongoing struggle and crisis across America, when the country was forever altered on a ‘Bloody Sunday,’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream and Black athletes raised their fists and voices in hopes of holding America to its creed.
Sam Jones dribbles the ball up court against the Philadelphia 76ers during an NBA basketball game circa 1965 at Convention Hall in Philadelphia as Wilt Chamberlain runs up court
In its infancy just 10 years prior, the NBA took its first meaningful strides in the 60s, growing from the little league that could barely get attention, to laying the framework it still stands on today – a place where athletes can be more than entertainment and use their influential platform to effect change.
George Mikan and the Lakers’ run of championships in the 50s had provided some buzz around the NBA. Boston then followed with eight consecutive titles – part of 11 in 13 years won by Hall of Famer Bill Russell – the kind of on-court dominance the young league had never seen before.
Still, games were barely being broadcast on television in the ’60s and the titles didn’t come with the fanfare that are afterthoughts today. Jones, who turned down his first contract after being drafted by the Lakers following a two-year stint in the Army, said: ‘We never flew first class in my 12 years of playing.’
And the on-court success certainly didn’t shield the league’s black players from the realities that existed off the court as activists challenged Jim Crow’s grip in the South and the Vietnam War was becoming an increasing flashpoint.
Members of the ’62 Celtics team from left, Tom Sanders, Bill Russell, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, and Jim Loscutoff are honored on the 50th anniversary of Boston’s game 7 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to win an NBA championship, at the TD Garden during half time. The Boston Celtics play the Orlando Magic at the TD Garden during a regular season NBA game in Boston on April 18, 2012
Players who spoke out risked everything.
‘What we did, we did kind of behind the scenes as best we could, because a lot of us were insecure at the time because there weren’t that many of us begin with,’ said Wayne Embry, who played 11 seasons in the NBA and was on the Celtics’ 1968 championship team before becoming the league’s first black general manager in 1972. ‘When you are on non-guaranteed contracts… if management didn’t like what you were doing, you were gone.’
That awareness was a common thread among players who challenged the status quo.
‘Sacrifice is what strongly characterizes an activist,’ said Len Elmore, who played 10 seasons in the NBA and is a senior lecturer at Columbia University where he’s taught on athlete activism and social justice in sports. ‘Back in those days those guys could have not only lost their positions but been forgotten by history.’
Even star players on premier teams weren’t immune from indignities of racism.
‘There were a lot places we couldn’t eat,’ Jones said. ‘If the hotel where we were staying was closed, we had to find a Black section to get food late at night. … So sometimes we’d just have to wait until the next morning to get food.’
Jones said black players in Boston had a champion in Auerbach.
Auerbach was known for his demanding style (Jones describes Auerbach as a ‘taskmaster’ and said at times he ‘overdid it’), but the coach also recognized how his players were affected by what was happening in the world. Jones remembered one example in 1961, when he, KC, Satch Sanders and Russell refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky.
The team was in its hotel when Sam Jones asked Sanders to go to the lobby to get some food. They were refused service.
‘And so I told Satch, ‘I’m going home,’ Jones recalled. ‘And I said, ‘I don’t care what you do, I’m going home and I’m not going to play in this game.’
Decades before the league adopted the three-point shot, Jones became one of the NBA’s preeminent perimeter shooters, hitting 45.6 percent of his field goals and 80.3 percent of his free throws while averaging 17.7 points a game over his career. He was known for banking in his perimeter attempts off the backboard, which is a skill that is now uncommon in today’s NBA. ‘Well, the banks are open in heaven this #NYE,’ tweeted former Celtics forward and current radio announcer Cedric Maxwell, the MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals.
The duo went to the elevators where they were met by Russell and KC Jones. After Sam told them what had happened, Russell implored them to talk to Auerbach.
Auerbach called the hotel manager, who quickly relented and said he’d allow the players to eat in the restaurant. It wasn’t enough for Sam Jones.
‘Once we eat in the hotel, blacks will never eat down here again until something happens. So I’m going home,’ he told Auerbach. ‘And the rest of the fellas decided that they would go home also. And Red took us to the airport.’
Jones credited Auerbach for supporting players when others in his position were shying away from racial issues in a city with a complicated history.
While the Celtics and Bruins broke the color barrier in their sports, the Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to field a Black player in 1959. And a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education decision in 1954 declared schools separated by race to be unequal, Boston fought desegregation measures by its state legislature. It led to violent protests over court-ordered busing in the 1970s.
‘He knew that we were men. We were not children,’ Jones said. ‘You got to understand that the Celtics were the first to draft a black player. Celtics were the first to have a black coach. The Celtics were the first to start five black players in the NBA. So there was a lot of things that the Celtics did first for the African-American.’
LeVelle Moton, the head coach at Jones’s alma mater, remembered him as a ‘mentor’