1983-84 Boston Celtics
If ever one smile was worth a thousand words, it was the one on K. C. Jones' face Monday. He now can look back at the last four years, and call it a meaningful experience.
Now he can say that all the sacrifices he made to remain an assistant under Bill Fitch were worth the pain and mental anguish that often were difficult to hide. Now K. C. Jones can return to being his own man, and maybe grab a microphone and croon a tune or two somewhere along the NBA trail, as he used to do when life was simpler and he had a few credit cards to pick up a tab with once in awhile.
The return of Jones is more than just a qualified assistant coach winning a promotion. It is a triumph of a man who reaped the harvest of his labor because he learned the true meaning of survival. K. C. beat the odds in the politically motivated NBA coaching world where plums seldom go to the best qualified.
Just a few weeks ago, Fitch was still the head coach and Jones was a man going nowhere fast. He dropped out of the head coaching fraternity after being fired by the Washington Bullets in 1976. Since coming back to Bostonin 1977, he has worked under Satch Sanders, Dave Cowens and, the last four seasons, under Fitch . . . and life became a rut. NBA jobs came and went and Jones never even got a courtesy call.
Lesser men would have gotten the message.Jones was a black assistant coach with a winning team and, since he had one shot at the top, should be satisfied for the rest of his life. He admits that two years ago he came to grips with the idea that he might never get another chance.
But Jones has never been satisfied with a lesser role. He paid his dues as a college player for San Francisco and in the Olympics. He was a star with the Celtics and still one of the most recognizable of the players from the glory years of the 1960s. Coaching stints at Brandeis, the 1972 NBA world champion Lakers and San Diego of the ABA were stepping stones to his true destiny. He achieved that in three seasons in Washington where, for reasons still hard to fathom, he got fired. Fortunately for him, Celtics' general manager Red Auerbach is one of those who always thought Jones was shortchanged.
Many felt his tour as an assistant coach with Milwaukee and the Celtics would end as soon as the Celtics won another championship. Good assistants on championship clubs are usually rewarded. But not until Fitch stepped aside did Jones get his chance again.
There is justice in this. After years of being rejected, Jones was in the right place at the right time.
It had to rub Auerbach the wrong way that Fitch, the one man the club went outside of the organization to hire, ran for the nearest green pasture at the first sign of turmoil on the club he had built to a championship level. Jones may be fired, but he'll never leave Boston for greener pastures.
Not many people are aware of what it took to be an assistant under Fitch. The two are friends - now. They play racquetball together and had a better professional relationship last year than in any of the previous three.
Jones had a knack for getting in the way of Fitch's image as the Super Coach, particularly after the Celtics won an NBA title his second year. Fitch was not Ivan the Terrible. He merely expected his assistant coaches, first Jones and later Jimmy Rodgers, to be seen and appreciated, but not heard. For a man like Jones, who had a personal warmth as a Celtic player that still comes through, it was a difficultrole, particularly in Boston.
Fitch demanded absolute control of the basketball operation, which meant that both players and coaches followed orders. Most NBA coaches who remain that aloof have an assistant to bridge the communication gap and Jones was perfect for that role. But after Boston won the NBA title in 1980-81, it appeared Jones had become closer to the players than Fitch liked.
The players decided to vote K. C. an additional half-share of the playoff money because his contract with the Celtics called for only a half-share, rather than the full share given Fitch.
Living with Fitch's ego on a daily basis was a team problem. Jones was not alone in that regard. While Auerbach will say publicly that there is no way one can criticize Fitch's record, the people who worked in the office would tell you his departure was a welcome relief, because Fitch insisted on dominating as many phases of the scene as possible.
One area of conflict for Jones was that he is a teacher and, as a former head coach, has organizational skills. But Fitch did all the teaching at practice and openly questioned players about advice given them by Jones. It wasn't just on the practice floor, either. Once, at the airport, Jones went over to console a disconsolate Gerry Henderson, who had had a particularly bad game. Fitch admonished Jones for trying to take charge of "his" players.
Fitch had his own way of doing things, which often didn't include Jones, either professionally or socially. Jones had little to do in the last four drafts. Sometimes he didn't even know about practice schedules because Fitch kept this in his head, or told only Rodgers, who, by the way, feels he will be a better assistant now that Jones is the boss.
Two years ago, after the season ended, Jones had to wait almost until the draft in June to find out if he had a job for the next season. Last year, Fitch and he reportedly got into a shoving match.
The Celtics found Jones attractive for many of the reasons that led them to hire Fitch. He is well versed in the 48-minute game and what it takes to win in the NBA. Defense was always K. C.'s specialty, even as a player. But as an assistant under Fitch, he was also the man whose job it was to silently inspire confidence among the players. He says it will be no problem to do this as a head coach.
Jones will work cheap. At least, he won't ask $250,000 to coach Larry Bird. Jones already has the respect of the players. Winning it as head coach should be easy.
Boston, of course, is no ordinary franchise. It is a club steeped in tradition which, in today's big-bucks environment, is more mystical than real. The media pressures and the constant need to win, win, win will haunt Jones if the club fails to bounce back.
But that's a problem he may never have to face. Right now, K. C. Jones is back home where he belongs. And if you ask him nicely, he might just croon a tune.