In the hard-running ranks of professional basketball, players are judged by the company they manage to avoid. When they feint their way past their men, or streak down the court on the fast break, or momentarily escape the clutch of pawing hands, their unsociability is regarded as a highly desirable trait. In the National Basketball Association, no players are more adept at these admittedly unfriendly maneuvers than Sam and K.C. Jones.
These two uncommonly swift young athletes play the guard positions for the Boston Celtics, and their speed of foot and sleight of hand usually leave their rivals panting and puzzled—in much the same state as the champion Celtics perennially leave the other NBA teams. What is thoroughly incongruous about this situation, however, is that Sam and K.C. have achieved their pre-eminence in the role of substitutes.
On the Celtics, it would be almost impossible for the Jones boys (they are not related) to be anything but substitutes. Bob Cousy, who has been an NBA All-Star for 10 years, and Bill Sharman, an All-Star for seven, are the first-string guards, and they are not men easily pushed aside. The facts of life, however, are that Cousy and Sharman are in their 30s, and their skills, while just as shiny, are no longer as durable. "Around the second quarter or so," Cousy says, "I actually plan on being taken out of the game, and I pace myself accordingly. That's when Sam and K.C. come in. They not only sustain a lead, they add to it. And on defense, they hound the opposition guards so much that my man's all softened up for me when I come back in."
Aggressive as they are on the courts, Sam and K.C. (the initials stand by themselves; K.C. has no given names) are serious, reserved young men. Sam, whose somewhat elongated features recall the haunting sadness of a Modigliani portrait, is more innately so. "I was raised in Durham, where North Carolina College is," he says, "and by the time I graduated from high school I had scholarship offers from two out-of-town colleges—CCNY and Notre Dame. But I was only 17 and I felt I was too young to go away. I figured the best thing to do was stay at home and go to North Carolina." Sam met his future wife at college; then, part way through school, he went into the service. "Gladys wrote to me for two years," he says, "and when I went back to North Carolina we just naturally got married." He finished college and was drafted by the Celtics. His reaction is typical of the man. "I was a little mad, a little glad," he says somberly. "I knew I would have had a much better chance of making another NBA team, but I felt good about playing with the best."
Originally, it was touch and go as to whether Sam would make the team. Coach Red Auerbach, a skeptical man whose luggage reputedly includes a 10-foot pole for measuring the height of baskets on enemy courts, had to be shown. In 1957, the year Sam joined the club, the Celtics already had four excellent guards. "Frankly," says Auerbach, "he was an unknown boy from an unknown school. But we had last draft choice and I figured, 'Why not? There's nobody else left.' " Sam displayed so much speed ("he's the fastest man in the league") and spirit ("he's strictly a team man") that Auerbach not only kept him, but moved an established star—Guard Frank Ramsey—to the forward position to make room for him.
Sam's earliest impressions of the Celtics revolve around Cousy. In one of his rookie games he took his eyes off Bob for an instant while racing down the court on a fast break. A Cousy pass caught him square in the head, rebounding several rows back among the spectators. "I told myself I'd never take my eyes off Bob in a game again," says Sam, "and I never have."
Once Sam knew he had made the club, he sent for his wife and, with their three children, they now live in a Boston suburb. The atmosphere is congenial, but his reserve persists. On a summer excursion to Cape Cod, for example, he and his wife came across a beatnik hangout. Gladys, delighted with the chance to see some beats, went right in. Nothing could persuade Sam to join her "I was plain scared," he admits.
K.C.'s reserve, if he feels he is among friends, almost disappears. His athlete's body takes on a pronounced jauntiness, and he becomes a smiling, outgoing person—a man who is never far from people and laughter. ("No, no, Abe," he'll say, repeating Comedian Bob Newhart's routine about Lincoln's public-relations man building up the presidential "image," "first you were a rail splitter, then you were a lawyer.") But he can be exactly the opposite. Bill Russell, the Celtic center who has known him since they played ball at San Francisco University, claims that K.C. didn't say more than a handful of words to him during the first month they were roommates. "He'd leave at 7:30 a.m. for chow," says Russell, "shake my bed and say, 'Russ, breakfast!' In the evening he'd say, 'Russ, good night!' That was it." Eventually, there came the night K.C. talked. "I nearly fell out of bed," says Russell.
After graduation K.C. spent two years in the Army, then took a brief (and bruising) fling at professional football with the Los Angeles Rams. In 1958 he joined the Celtics. "I was scared and awed," he says. "I was afraid of making mistakes, and that's just when you make them. Cousy and Sharman would tell me to relax, and I would—in practice. At game time, though, I'd be tight. All I could do was run."
An All-America at San Francisco, K.C. was hardly unknown. But Coach Auerbach was not satisfied. K.C., says Auerbach, was "an All-America who couldn't shoot," and his defense was "the gambling kind." K.C. worked on his weaknesses. "I'm not a good shooter," he says, "and I try to make up for it with ball handling and defense. I'd watch Cousy, trying to pick up the way he gets rid of the ball on the fast break, the way he dribbles when a man is pressing him, the way he controls the game." As a rookie, K.C. never stopped running. "From the day he reported," Auerbach says, "he did everything I asked him. He went in and dogged his man, whether it was for 30 seconds or 30 minutes."