BOSTON (AP) – Basketball Hall of Famer Sam Jones, the Boston Celtics’ “Mr. Clutch” whose sharp shooting fueled the league’s longest dynasty and earned him 10 NBA titles – second only to teammate Bill Russell – has died, the team said. He was 88.
Jones, who was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, died Thursday night in Florida, where he had been hospitalized in failing health, Celtics spokesman Jeff Twiss said.
“Sam Jones was one of the most talented, versatile, and clutch shooters for the most successful and dominant teams in NBA history,” the team said in a statement.
“His scoring ability was so prolific, and his form so pure, that he earned the simple nickname, ‘The Shooter,’” the Celtics said. “The Jones family is in our thoughts as we mourn his loss and fondly remember the life and career of one of the greatest champions in American sports.”
The Celtics paused for a moment of silence before Friday afternoon’s game against the Phoenix Suns, showing a video tribute on the screen hanging among the championship banners above the parquet floor at the TD Garden. His No. 24, which was retired by the Celtics in 1969 while he was a still an active player, also was displayed on the monitor in the hushed arena before a still photo of him in a suit and the words “Sam Jones 1933-2021.”
“Another one of my dear friends lost,” Celtics broadcaster Cedric Maxwell wrote on Twitter. “Well, the banks are open in heaven this #NYE.”
Often providing the offense while Russell locked things down at the other end, Jones averaged 17.7 points per game over 12 seasons. The number went up in the postseason, when he averaged 18.9 points and was usually the No. 1 option for the game’s final shot for the teams that won 10 titles from 1959-69.
“We never flew first class in my 12 years of playing basketball,” Jones told The Associated Press this fall in an interview for the league’s 75th anniversary. “But we always won NBA championships.”
In 1964, Jones was a member of the NBA’s first starting lineup to include five Black players, joining Russell, Tom “Satch” Sanders, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls. Although coach Red Auerbach maintained he was thinking only of his best chance to win, the lineup broke with an unwritten rule that pressured teams to have at least on white player on the floor.
Sam Jones, a North Carolina native who served two years in the Army before returning to college, told the AP that the NBA of the 1960s was little different than the segregated South where he grew up and went to school.
“I’m fighting for the freedom of everybody here in the United States. And when I come back, I still got to fight for my freedom,” Jones said. “Something is wrong with that, and has always been and is happening even today.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Jones will be remembered as “one of the most prolific champions in all of professional sports.”
“His selfless style, clutch performances and signature bank shot were hallmarks of an incredible career,” Silver said. “Sam was a beloved teammate and respected competitor who played the game with dignity and class. We mourn the passing of a basketball giant and send our deepest condolences to Sam’s family and the Celtics organization.”
Born in Wilmington, Jones attended North Carolina Central, a Division II, historically Black university in Durham. Auerbach first heard of Jones when he went to North Carolina to scout the national champion Tar Heels and was told that the best player in the state was actually at Central playing for Hall of Fame coach John McLendon.
Auerbach selected Jones in the first round of the 1957 draft, eighth overall, despite never seeing him play.
“Russell and I are the most successful players in winning championships in the NBA. Yet he never saw us play a game because they had no scouts,” Jones told the AP. “The coaches called other coaches to see how other players were playing. They took their word for it.”
Jones led the Celtics in scoring five times – including the 1963 champions, when he was one of eight future Hall of Famers on the roster. When he retired in 1969 at the age of 36, Jones held 11 Celtics records and was the only player in franchise history to score more than 50 points in a game.
“You look at the championships and what he did, it’s obviously a big loss for the community here,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said before Friday’s game.
Using a bank shot that was unconventional even then, Jones came to be known as “Mr. Clutch” after a series of game-winners, including a buzzer-beater to clinch the 1962 Eastern Conference finals. He hit an off-balance, wrong-footed jumper to win Game 4 of the ‘69 Finals; instead of heading to Los Angeles trailing 3-1, the Celtics tied the series against the Lakers at two games apiece and went on to win in seven.
Jones retired after that title, having won his 10 championships in 12 seasons. A five-time All-Star, he was was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.
Jones was named to the NBA’s 25th, 50th and 75th anniversary teams. His death comes a year after teammate Tommy Heinsohn and 13 months following the death of K.C. Jones.
AP freelancer Doug Alden contributed to this story.