Basketball Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, an Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion who won eight straight NBA titles during the Celtics’ Bill Russell era and then coached the Boston teams with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to two more championships in the 1980s, has died. He was 88.
The Celtics said Jones’ family confirmed that he died on Friday at an assisted living facility in Connecticut, where he had been receiving care for Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
“K.C. was the nicest man I ever met. He always went out of his way to make people feel good, it was such an honor to play for him,” Bird said in a statement. “His accomplishments are too many to list, but, to me, his greatest accomplishment was being such an outstanding person to all who had the privilege of knowing him, I will miss him dearly.”
Jones is one of seven players in history to have won an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship and an NBA title. He won two more NBA crowns as an assistant coach and was the Celtics head coach when they went to the NBA Finals four straight years from 1984-87, winning it all in ’84 and again two years later with a team that won a then-record 67 regular-season games and went 15-3 in the postseason.
Only Russell and fellow Celtics teammate Sam Jones won more NBA championships as players.
“Where K.C. Jones went, winning was sure to follow,” the Celtics said in a statement before their Christmas Day game against the Brooklyn Nets.
“K.C. also demonstrated that one could be both a fierce competitor and a gentleman in every sense of the word. He made his teammates better, and he got the most out of the players he coached,” the team said. “Never one to seek credit, his glory was found in the most fundamental of basketball ideals — being part of a winning team.”
Jones is the third Hall of Famer from the 1965 NBA champions to die this year: John Thompson, who went on to greater success as the coach at Georgetown, died in August, and Celtics player and coach Tommy Heinsohn died last month. Two days after observing a moment of silence for Heinsohn before their season opener, the Celtics had another for Jones on Friday.
“He was a great coach to work for. He was a class act, and yet he had this competitive edge that was fierce,” said current Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who played for the team from 1981-88, when Jones was an assistant and then head coach.
“He had this gentleness and kindness. He was a great leader of men,” Ainge said before Friday’s game. “I looked at him as a mentor, and a friend. Much more than a coach.”
A point guard who excelled on defense, Jones joined with Russell to lead San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955-56. The two also played on the U.S. team that won the Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. Jones reunited with Russell in Boston to win eight straight NBA titles from 1959-66.
“Friends for life,” Russell posted on Twitter, along with what he said was their last photo together.
Jones retired in 1967 and began coaching, first in college at Brandeis and Harvard before joining the Los Angeles Lakers as an assistant, where he earned another NBA championship ring in 1972. He had head coaching stints with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA and led the Washington Bullets to the 1975 NBA Finals.
After a stop in Milwaukee, Jones returned to Boston in 1978 and won his 10th NBA title as an assistant on Bill Fitch’s staff in 1981. He took over for Fitch in 1984 and over the next five seasons never won fewer than 57 games or failed to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Ainge said Jones was misunderstood and underappreciated because he was more laid back than some of his predecessors and thus less often mentioned among the great Celtics coaches like Red Auerbach, Heinsohn and Fitch.
“People are always looking for the people that are seeking that attention in front of the cameras. K.C. was fine with everybody else getting the attention and not much being focused on him,” Ainge said. “He didn’t have to do it very often — and he didn’t do it very often — but when the time came to take a stand, he would go toe-to-toe with the Hall of Fame players on our team.”
Jones’ No. 25 was retired by the Celtics in 1967, and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.