Former Tar Heels and NBA star Bobby Jones up for Hall of Fame consideration
A significant basketball question will soon be answered for Bobby Jones. But one way or the other, he looks like he will be just fine with the result.
Jones, 67, sits on the deck outside his south Charlotte home, looking out at the backyard he and his wife have turned into a paradise for their six grandkids. Swings. Trampoline. Zip line. Disc golf. Climbing wall.
“I got a letter from the basketball hall of fame, about a month and a half ago,” Jones begins. “I’m a finalist again.”
He shrugs. He has gotten a similar letter four other times. Jones – who excelled at Charlotte’s South Mecklenburg High, then at the University of North Carolina, and then in the NBA as a defensive standout – has repeatedly made it to the doorstep of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But each time, he has been denied entry.
Will this time be any different? The 2019 hall of fame class will be announced Saturday in Minneapolis at the Final Four.
“There are two ends of it,” Jones said of his possible selection. “I’m not really a publicity-type person, so that is a negative. But as a Christian, that would increase my platform to share my faith. That would certainly outweigh anything else. So it’s a great honor, and it’d be great to have.”
Should Bobby Jones be in the hall of fame? Absolutely.
For all the emphasis on scoring points in basketball, you only play offense half the time. Jones was a decent offensive player, but he was also one of the finest defenders ever. Dean Smith, who coached Jones for the Tar Heels, once told me that when UNC played the wonderful N.C. State teams of the early 1970s that the coach could put the 6-foot-9 Jones on either 7-foot-4 Tommy Burleson or 6-foot-4 jumping jack David Thompson.
“And he’d do a great job on either one,” Smith said of Jones.
Jones still plays tennis regularly and remains at his playing weight of 215. He’s been eligible for election into the hall of fame in Springfield, Mass., for close to 30 years, so it’s not like he’s holding his breath to see how it turns out this time.
“I’m so old now,” Jones laughs. “I can tell people what I did, but I can’t remember half of it.”
His favorite play
Jones made the All-NBA defensive first team eight times in a row from 1976-84, despite battling both epilepsy and a heart condition for much of his career. The 76ers retired his No. 24 only six months after Jones himself retired in 1986.
Jones’ favorite play in basketball was not a three-pointer – in fact, he shot 0-for-17 on threes during his 12-year NBA career. It wasn’t a dunk, either, although he had a bunch of those.
It was a blocked shot.
“My favorite would be chasing down a guy on a breakaway who thinks he’s got a layup,” Jones said, “and knocking it off the backboard.’
For a play like that, Jones got credit for a block. But a lot of what he did on the court wasn’t quantifiable, which is part of what has made hall of fame induction so problematic.
For instance, when his man caught the ball deep in the corner on offense, Jones would sprint to within inches of his foe but also leave an inviting opening on the baseline. When the player took the bait and drove in that direction, Jones would shade toward the baseline just slightly, causing the player to try to avoid him and instead step out of bounds.
This would count simply as an offensive turnover. Jones would get no credit for it at all. The credit only came for the team – Jones played 12 years in the ABA and NBA, and all 12 of those teams made the playoffs.
Jones was the perfect teammate — getting along with everyone, scoring when called upon, hustling and defending always. He was the all-star still chasing the loose ball to the floor, the guy who would point to a teammate at UNC who passed to him even if Jones missed the resulting shot (Dean Smith christened this “the Bobby Jones rule” and eventually told everyone else to do it, too).
Billy Cunningham, who coached Jones on the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers team that won the NBA championship, once told me of Jones: “I don’t know if he’ll ever get into the hall of fame, because so many voters look only at numbers. But he should.”
‘Know your limitations’
Yes, the numbers. That’s where Jones’ candidacy runs into some trouble. Although he was a four-time NBA all-star, he averaged a modest 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game during his pro career.
On offense, Jones was always a complementary player on teams that usually had a great scorer like Thompson, Julius “Dr. J” Erving or Charles Barkley.
Jones never scored more than 33 points in a single NBA game. He did, however, shoot 56 percent for his pro career.
“I never learned a lot of individual moves,” Jones said. “I was limited in that area. But I think it’s good to know your limitations. So I never really would try to take a guy on a move, unless I could just drive by him. Most of my shots were open shots, or on a fast break, or putbacks. I did have a high percentage because of that.”
Jones’ father, Bob Jones, played basketball at the University of Oklahoma. When he saw his son was a natural lefty, he trained him to shoot right-handed anyway. This had the side effect of Jones becoming ambidextrous near the basket and also preferring to drive to his left.
The Jones family moved to Charlotte when Bobby Jones was in sixth grade. He would later be recruited by UNC, Duke and Florida, picking UNC in large part because he clicked with assistant coaches John Lotz and Bill Guthridge.
It was at Chapel Hill that Jones first began to receive some national recognition. Back when the United States sent only its best college players to the Olympics, instead of the pros they send today, Jones was chosen to represent America in the 1972 Olympics – primarily because he was so good on defense.
Jones’ team lost the gold medal that year in one of the most controversial basketball games ever played, when the Soviet Union was given three tries in the final three seconds to score a winning basket. The Russians finally did so.
A U.S. protest was later disallowed. Convinced the game was stolen, the U.S. team has refused to accept its silver medals for 47 years.
In happier times, Jones stole a ball at midcourt against Duke in the final seconds of a tie game in 1974, hit a left-handed layup at the buzzer to win it and just kept on running into the tunnel. Later the same year, his Senior Day at Chapel Hill coincided with the famous “eight points in 17 seconds” comeback against Duke.
Jones began his pro career with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets, where he would team with Thompson – his former rival with N.C. State. Carl Scheer, then the Nuggets general manager and later the first Charlotte Hornets GM, traded Jones to Philadelphia in 1978 and would later rue it as the worst basketball decision he ever made. Jones didn’t hold a grudge, however, and the two men would later occasionally attend basketball games in Charlotte with their families.
The secret vote
It was in Philadelphia where Jones really hit his stride. But not in his first practice with the 76ers.
“I wanted to show I was a tough defender, so I was really on my man tight,” Jones said. “Darryl Dawkins set a pick at the top of the key and I ran right into him. And he flexed his chest. He didn’t move, but it still knocked me out. I just laid there. And when I came to and looked up, he said: ‘Welcome to Philly.’”
Dawkins would later give Jones the nickname “White Lightning” and the two became fast friends. The 76ers in general thought so much of Jones they unveiled a sculpture of him outside their arena in 2018.
Most basketball sculptures show their subject either shooting or dunking. Not Jones’ sculpture – he is nearly parallel to the ground, diving for a loose ball.
“If you look at it from a distance, you’ll think that it’s broken,” Jones said. “But I think it’s really neat.”
Although the hall of fame is considered basketball’s greatest honor, its voting process is as transparent as an unexplored cave at midnight. The identity of the 24 voters who make the final call is kept secret. Jones knows he needs at least 18 votes, but he doesn’t even know who those 18 people are. He does know that this time he was nominated by the “Legends” committee. Whether that will make any difference is unclear.
But Jones has lived his entire life without making the hall of fame, and he’s done pretty well. He’s a deeply spiritual man who quotes Biblical scripture from memory. He has coached middle and high school kids for years in Charlotte, and this past season was the assistant coach for a high school team composed entirely of home-schooled kids.
Jones never drew a technical foul in his 12-year pro career, and even now downplays all of his athletic accomplishments.
“He’s a humble man,” his former NBA coach Cunningham told me. “All he wants to do is touch thousands of lives. You’d never know he did a blessed thing in his life.”
Bobby Jones did a lot, though. And on Saturday, he deserves to finally make the hall of fame.