Sam Jones, Boston Celtic. You Can Take That to the Bank.
It was very likely the worst-looking shot of Sam Jones’s career, that last jump shot he took in Game 4 of the 1969 NBA finals.
Jones, who died last Thursday at the age of 88, was nearing the end of a 12-year career during which he quietly made himself into one of the best shooting guards ever to play pro basketball.
Playing his whole career with the Boston Celtics, he was a decent defender, a first-rate team player and a strong rebounder. Mainly he had this sweet jump shot, a classic square-up from which he often used the backboard. One of his nicknames was “Bank Shot.”
There was nothing sweet, classic or banked about the shot he took as time was expiring on April 29, 1969. This was a shot that seemed destined to hit everything but net, which is what it did until it somehow dropped through and gave the Celtics an 89–88 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. That win was almost certainly the reason the Celtics took the series and finished off the most impressive dynasty in U.S. pro sports history.
Sam Jones was known for clutch playoff performances — like seven Aprils earlier when he won Game 7 of the Eastern Division finals for the Celtics, 109–107, hitting a jump shot with three seconds to play.
By 1969 things had changed. The Celtics had won nine of the previous 10 NBA championships, but the sand was running out of that hourglass. The Lakers had three of the best players in basketball history — Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain — while the Celtics were getting, by basketball standards, old.
The Lakers had won two of the first three games in the finals. Had they won Game 4 and gone up 3–1, it would have been almost impossible for the Celtics to recover.
Faced with that grim specter, the Celtics played badly in Game 4. Fortunately, so did the Lakers. It was a game of turnovers, missed shots and little of the flow that used to make basketball so engaging to watch.
With seven seconds left and the Lakers leading 88–87, the Celtics got the ball. They took a timeout, during which player-coach Bill Russell took suggestions from the team on the best means by which to score.
John Havlicek, the team’s top player, suggested an “Ohio,” a play with which Ohio State had beaten Indiana nine years earlier. Three players would set a triple pick for Jones, whose 5-for-13 shooting was the best on the team that night.
While these plans rarely work as well on the floor as they do on a clipboard, Jones got the ball and the picks were set. The only problem is that Baylor and Johnny Egan had their hands in front of Jones, as did Chamberlain, who was nine inches taller.
Jones also stumbled slightly as he dribbled to his left to get behind the picks. With three seconds on the clock he planted his left foot, but had to tilt back toward the right to shoot. The result was that the man whose jumper normally had almost poetic fluidity launched this one more like a shot put.
From 18 feet away it cleared Chamberlain’s outstretched hand and made it to the front rim. From whence it bounced to the back rim. After which it quietly dropped through the cords.
The Celtics, and Boston Garden fans, went nuts. Jones did not. He just looked up at the basket.
After the game, Jones did something almost as impressive as the shot. He kept a straight face while he said, “I thought to shoot it with high arc and plenty of backspin, so if it didn’t go in Russell would have a chance for the rebound.”
Fun fact: Russell wasn’t in the game. He had taken himself out for that last play because he was a lousy free throw shooter.
But, y’know, so what. Jones’s teammate Larry Siegfried was asked about Jones’s analysis and shrugged. “What the hell,” Siegfried said. “You make a shot like that, you’re entitled to blow some smoke about arc and backspin and things like that.”
Three games later the Celtics won their 10th championship and Jones retired as a player. He coached for a few years, then retired from that, too. He moved to Maryland, where he and his wife raised five kids and Jones, among other things, worked as a substitute teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School.
The money probably came in handy, since his peak salary with the Celtics was $55,000 a year, but he went on to live a comfortable life. He played golf, he traveled, he put his kids through college, he collected art. He hung around the neighborhood, went to local restaurants, mowed his own lawn. When he retired from teaching and the kids were grown, he moved to Florida.
He didn’t watch a lot of basketball, he told Kevin Merida of the Washington Post in 1998. It was a different game, not so interesting. Too much one-on-one, not enough team.
Jones’s own path to the game started in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he grew up during the Depression. He served two years in the Army and went to North Carolina College, a black school, where he studied to become a teacher.
He wasn’t happy about being drafted by the Celtics, since he figured it would be too hard to crack their lineup. Celtics boss Red Auerbach convinced him to give it a try.
He and an unrelated Jones, K.C., became the backup backcourt to Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. After a while, Auerbach said, he noticed that when the Joneses entered the games, the Celtics’s lead tended to grow. By Sam’s second season he was averaging in double figures, which he would do for the rest of his career.
It’s tempting to call Jones the quintessential old-school ballplayer, who put the team first and knew his own role, which was to score. That’s all true, and those Celtics teams remain a model, or you might say a relic, of basketball as a five-person team sport.
Jones’s style didn’t involve chest-thumping and sky-pointing after every successful bank shot. But he did allow that he was not Silent Sam. He liked to “talk to” players on the other team, he said, especially Chamberlain, “because he would talk back.” And oh yeah, there was the time in the 1962 playoffs when Jones threw an elbow, Chamberlain came after him and Jones grabbed a stool to try and even the odds. Russell stepped in to break things up.
Most of Jones’s conversations with Chamberlain, probably just as well, are lost to history. But Sam Jones isn’t. While he may be found mostly in grainy old black and white films, that’s enough to show why he’s in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame — and to confirm that if he had a little luck that night in 1969, it was probably the gods of basketball rewarding him for a dozen years of playing the game the best way possible.