K.C. Jones coached Washington Bullets to new heights

To those of us who made our way through rush-hour traffic on the Beltway to Landover and the no-longer-standing Capital Centre, those we...

To those of us who made our way through rush-hour traffic on the Beltway to Landover and the no-longer-standing Capital Centre, those were heady times. Jones coached teams that included Wes Unseld (who died in June at 74), Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter, Mike Riordan, Archie Clark and Nick Weatherspoon, among others.

“We had the best team in the league during that period,” former general manager Bob Ferry said in a telephone interview. “K.C.’s strength was his calm demeanor regardless of the situation, his knowledge of the game and handling players.”

Jones’s first Washington team — called the Capital Bullets in 1973-74 after moving from Baltimore — won the Central Division with a 47-35 record before losing in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Knicks in seven games. His 1974-75 team, renamed the Washington Bullets, went 60-22 and beat the Celtics in a wild six-game series to win the Eastern Conference but was swept by the Golden State Warriors in the finals.

The four defeats to the Warriors were by a combined 16 points. That team featured Hayes averaging 23 points, Chenier 21.8 and Riordan 15.4, with Unseld dominating the boards and Porter dishing the ball, in front of pulsating home crowds.

Some began to question Jones’s coaching skills during the series against Golden State, pointing to his laid-back approach. “You don’t have to embarrass a player in front of 15,000 people to make the same point you can make in private,” he countered.

In the following season, 1975-76, the Bullets were 48-34 to take second place in the Central Division and were eliminated in the playoffs in seven games by Cleveland. Team owner Abe Pollin and Ferry agreed that, for the team to reach the next level, a coaching change was needed, so Jones was replaced by Dick Motta. Two years later, in 1978, the Bullets won their only NBA championship.

“[Jones] was honest and always available,” remembered David DuPree, the reporter who covered Jones and the Bullets for The Post. “He was a player’s coach who trusted his players a bit too much, and it probably cost him his job. He was perceived as being too soft. Maybe he was protective of his players at times, but he wasn’t soft.”

After Jones spent several years as an assistant, Red Auerbach hired him to be Boston’s head coach in 1983. The Celtics legend explained his reason simply: “He’s a winner.” Jones coached the Celtics for five years, winning NBA championships in 1984 and 1986 and also falling in the Finals twice.

“The nicest human being I ever met,” Bird said after learning of Jones’s death. Added Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, a player under Jones, “He was a class act, and yet he had this competitive edge that was fierce.”

That edge was sharpened early, when he and future Celtics teammate Bill Russell won 55 straight games and two NCAA championships playing for the University of San Francisco. He also won a gold medal playing with Russell for the United States in the 1956 Olympics. A member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Jones is one of only seven players to have won an NCAA title, an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal.

Drafted in the second round in 1956, Jones played behind Bob Cousy before becoming a starter. In his nine years with the Celtics, Jones won eight NBA championships.

“People thought we were brothers,” Sam Jones, K.C.’s backcourt teammate with the Celtics, said in a telephone interview. “But there was no relation, except a true friendship and the fact the newspapers would call us the ‘Jones Brothers.’

“He was so quick, a great defensive player who could score. What a great team we had. Russell, K.C., me, Willie Naulls and Satch Sanders, with [John] Havlicek coming off the bench. The starting five was the first all-Black starting five in NBA history. Red drafted guys who could get along and take criticism.

“Oscar [Robertson] called me today to talk about K.C. So did Jerry West. It was a time. We talked and remembered.”

George Solomon was assistant managing editor for Sports at The Washington Post from 1975 to 2003. He was the director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism until his retirement July 1.

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Newsrust: K.C. Jones coached Washington Bullets to new heights
K.C. Jones coached Washington Bullets to new heights
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