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It's A Mighty Good Road
Alexander Wolff
October 17, 1983
Basketball is the route by which the six brothers Jones, all 6'8" or taller, have traveled from home in McGehee, Ark. to Albany (Ga.) State and beyond
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October 17, 1983

It's A Mighty Good Road

Basketball is the route by which the six brothers Jones, all 6'8" or taller, have traveled from home in McGehee, Ark. to Albany (Ga.) State and beyond

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Why a duck?—GROUCHO MARX, Duck Soup

Last fall, at the moment the Philadelphia 76ers traded him and a No. 1 draft choice to the Houston Rockets for Moses Malone, Caldwell Jones caught a live duck while he was fishing off New Jersey. Why a duck? Perhaps because ending up in Houston, when on the whole you'd rather be in Philadelphia, is the NBA's equivalent of hooking a bird on a fishing line. What's more, events of great significance—and any one of the 1.7 million people who witnessed the 76ers' championship parade down Broad Street in June can tell you how significant the Malone trade was—often have memorable props. The sale of Manhattan had its $24 in trinkets. The burning of Rome had its emperor's fiddle. The Ma-lone-for-Jones deal had its duck. Why not a duck?

The land near the Yazoo Delta is so flat that it's a wonder the Mississippi River can even flow through it. It seems to get flatter as time goes on, too, what with all the clear-cutting that's being done to open up new farmland. If Caldwell Jones Sr. were a run-of-the-mill 70-year-old, the removal of some trees probably would not matter much to him. But he still drives his tractor over 48 acres of soybeans on the outskirts of McGehee, Ark., and he and his wife, Cecilia, would like to see some trees left standing. They're partial to verticals. You get that way when you've raised six boys 6'8" or taller.

These six, the youngest of the Joneses' seven boys and one girl, are also the first six guys on the alltime rebounding list at Albany State College, a predominantly black school in southwest Georgia, where the land is predominantly red and even rolls a little. At least one Jones has been at Albany State each season since 1961, when the 6'8" Oliver enrolled.

This fall, the 40-year-old Oliver, who had 1,255 career rebounds at State and was the Cincinnati Royals' 13th draft pick and a late cut in 1965, begins his 12th season as coach of the Division II Albany State Golden Rams, defending champions of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Melvin, 36, 6'9", 1,926 rebounds, who had a shot with the ABA's Denver Rockets in 1968, is Oliver's unpaid assistant when he's not working as a supervisor at Procter & Gamble's Albany paper products plant. Wilbert, 36, 6'8", 1,656 rebounds and a nine-year pro with three ABA and two NBA clubs, has run an Atlanta recreation center since 1980. Caldwell, 33, 7 feet, 2,216 rebounds, is a sometime duck fisherman who soon will begin his 11th pro season, with Houston. Major, 30, 6'9", 2,052 rebounds, is a reserve forward with the Rockets who, after hearing of the Malone-for-Jones trade, said, "I'm losing my best friend and gaining a brother." Charles, 26, 6'9", 1,378 rebounds, who is in the New York Knicks' training camp, doesn't like to be compared to his brothers, as we shall see.

Credit the late Robert Rainey, another Arkansan, for starting the Jones family's march to Georgia. Before he came to Albany State in 1960, teams like Florida A&M would blow into Albany and fleece the Rams. Oliver was one of the first players Rainey brought in; he was a rough-edged kid Rainey had taught seventh-grade science to back in McGehee. Of all the Jones boys, Rainey affected Oliver most profoundly. Oliver became Rainey's assistant in 1970 and succeeded him when he died of a heart attack before the 1972-73 season. "We ran the four corners in '61," Oliver says. "We had only one big man—me—and 6'3" and 6'1" forwards and 5'11" and 5'7" guards. Coach Rainey sat me down and said, 'Jones, you're all the size we got. We need you to sacrifice your scoring for rebounding and defense.' "

Groucho gets the epigraph; let's save the concluding sentence of that last quote for the Jones boys' epitaph.

Most of pro basketball's best defensive centers have been Southerners. The Louisiana towns of Shreveport and Bernice and Monroe produced Robert Parish, Willis Reed and Bill Russell, respectively. Cordele, Ga. gave us Tree Rollins, and Macon, Ga., Elmore Smith. From Chipley, Fla. came Art is Gilmore; from Tylertown, Miss., George T. Johnson.

McGehee fits neatly into basketball's defensive gazetteer. Caldwell has twice been the center on the NBA All-Defensive Team, and he twice led the ABA in blocked shots. Houston deploys Major when it needs bolder defense and rebounding. Wil was selected to the ABA's all-defense first team in 1974-75. In 1979-80 Charles set league records for blocks in a game (11) and a season (185) while playing for Maine in the Continental Basketball Association, a minor pro league. Says Melvin: "When we were young, all the things we did when we weren't playing basketball helped develop quickness and speed and judgment. We'd go into the woods and jump from tree to tree, like Tarzan. Miss a limb, you'd hit the ground."

The Joneses raised cotton and okra and soybeans, and hogs and cows and chickens, but no ducks. Clint, the eldest and a mere 6'6", now a construction worker in St. Louis, enjoyed farm work. So did Charles. But the others, including 6'1" sister Clovis, who's a computer programmer in Arverne, N.Y., could do without it. "Best thing that happened to me," says Major, whose left leg bears a scar from a bean knife, "was when they got the cotton picker." Caldwell adds, "I've plowed it, chopped it and picked it. Done everything to cotton except make a shirt." Oliver laughs when he says, "Being seven feet tall, bending over a two-foot cotton stalk...."

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