Bobby Jones was one of the most admired defenders ever to wear an NBA uniform; he was also considered one of the most virtuous. While most other players depended on the occasional thrown elbow, hip-check, or grab of the uniform to gain an advantage, Jones relied on hustle and determination. It was Jones’ stellar defense along with his other specialties such as leadership, that made him a standout sixth man. Opposing teams could ill afford to relax on defense when Jones came off the bench, and they also had to work a lot harder on offense to get the ball in or even near the basket.
Jones’s coaches used to marvel that he was so good at the things they had trouble getting many other players to do at all, such as block shots, move without the ball, hustle back on defense, tip passes, dive after loose balls, give up an open outside shot so a teammate could hit from inside—all the things that rarely, if ever, show up in a box score. Jones was as unselfish as a player could be, so much so that coaches had to implore him to take more shots.
What that work added up to was a 12-year pro career that featured eight selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team; the first-ever NBA Sixth Man Award; membership on the ABA All-Rookie Team; four appearances in the NBA All-Star Game and one in the ABA All-Star Game; and perhaps most prized, an NBA Championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. Above all, Jones’s value as a player was evidenced by the fact that his teams never missed the playoffs.
“Bobby Jones gives you two hours of his blood, showers and goes home,” former Sixers General Manager Pat Williams told NBA Today. “If I was going to ask a youngster to model after someone, I would pick Bobby Jones.” Added longtime 76ers teammate Julius Erving, “He’s a player who’s totally selfless, who runs like a deer, jumps like a gazelle, plays with his head and heart each night, and then walks away from the court as if nothing happened.”
As for his almost polite approach to the game, Jones believed that anything less would have been downright un-Christian. “If I have to play defense by holding on, that’s when I quit,” Jones said early in his career. “If I have to use an elbow to get position, then I’m going to have to settle for another position. And if I foul, or if the official makes a mistake, there’s no use screaming about it. It won’t change things or make me happier.”
On one of the few occasions Jones did address a referee, it was to point out that the official had called a foul on the wrong player: it was Jones, not a teammate, who was the guilty party. The trusting ref changed his call and assigned the foul to Jones—his fifth of the game. Larry Brown, Jones’s coach with the Denver Nuggets, remarked, “Watching Bobby Jones on the basketball court is like watching an honest man in a liars’ poker game.”
The 6-foot-9 forward played with an almost boyish respect for the game, its rules, and its traditions. He always raised his hand when called for a foul. When Nuggets teammate Paul Silas showed him a less-than-legal way to get a rebounding position, Jones said no thanks. “For veterans like Paul, I consider that executive privilege,” Jones said. “But that’s not my game.”
As for vices such as drinking, smoking, and cursing, they were out of the question. When a computer-generated ranking sponsored by Seagram Distillers rated Jones the NBA’s “most consistent and productive player” in 1976–77, Jones turned over the $10,000 prize to religious charities. At the award dinner (held without alcohol at Jones’s request) he pronounced from the podium: “I’m definitely against whiskey, and I just felt God gave me this money not to keep, but to use.” And while he never asked teammates or coaches to avoid expletives, they frequently found themselves crying out “Oh, shoot!” in his presence.
Jones also brought to the game the demeanor and expression of a bank teller. Nothing seemed to disturb him; the final buzzer meant the end of just another day on the job. “He has a rare ability to divorce himself from the games after they end,” Dean Smith, Jones’s coach at North Carolina, told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1984. “He is a man at peace with himself. It’s what I term internal affirmation—and in Bobby, it’s strong.”
Physically, Jones was lucky to be playing any sport at all. He suffers from asthma as well as occasional epileptic seizures and a chronic heart disorder, both of which require medication. Stricken by a seizure in his kitchen one day, Jones fell onto a butcher block and gashed open his head. The incident nearly led him to quit basketball for the clergy. His perseverance earned him Philadelphia’s Most Courageous Athlete Award in 1983.
While his limitations would have shelved many a player of lesser faith, they never forced Jones to appear in fewer than 70 games in any one season. And he never played with less than full commitment. With his long arms, lanky body, great leaping ability, and quick hands and feet, there seemed to be three of him on the court at the same time. Contemplative and unflappable, Jones rarely threw the ball away or took an ill-conceived shot. His career field-goal percentage of .550 is among the highest ever for an NBA forward.
Strangely, Jones was never in love with the sport of basketball. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, he essentially had to play. His father had played on the Oklahoma Sooners national championship runner-up team of 1949, and older brother Kirby was an All-State cager and later a Sooner as well. Since Kirby versus Mr. Jones did not make for many close matches, Bobby was invariably enlisted to join them in their games behind the house. “I didn’t enjoy sports,” Jones remembered. “I would rather watch television, but my father wanted me to play.”
In the sixth grade Jones unwillingly played for a local church team that was looking for tall kids. On his junior high team he sat on the bench much of the time because he was a poor dribbler and shooter. Whenever he made it into the game, he focused on rebounding, defense, and passing. “I didn’t want the ball,” he remembered, “and as soon as I got it, I passed off.” Jones, a natural left-hander, was also working on his right hand—mainly at his father’s behest. (By the time he reached the NBA, he was virtually ambidextrous.)
As a sophomore at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, the 6-foot-6 Jones made the basketball team. His brother Kirby was also on the squad. Bobby actually liked track and field better, because he could practice by himself and on his own terms. Twice he won the state high jump title, finishing second in his junior year to a prep named Bob McAdoo. As a senior, Jones broke the state record by clearing the bar at a height of 6 feet, 8 inches.
Jones blossomed on the court in his junior year, earning Charlotte’s Player of the Year Award and leading South Mecklenburg into the state playoffs. His squad lost to a Greensboro team that starred McAdoo, but South Mecklenburg won the championship a year later. Still, with all of his success as a cager, Jones did not think much about a future in basketball. “It was a seasonal thing,” he said, “but the colleges became interested, so I thought it was a way I could go to school free.” Jones ended up playing for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina.
Jones had a splendid year as a college sophomore, then doctors discovered that he had an irregular heartbeat. Their prescription: a few weeks’ rest. (Jones later had to take medication before every game to control the problem.)
At around the same time, tryouts for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team were about to be held. Jones was not only unaware of the trials, but he also did not know that the Games were being staged in Munich. When Smith heard that a couple of players had been taken ill at the tryouts, he got on the phone and got Jones a shot. Jones made the team but had little time on the court, playing only 5 minutes in the Soviet Union’s infamous win over the United States in the gold medal game.
The American Basketball Association’s Carolina Cougars selected Jones after his junior season in the 1973 Special Circumstances Draft, but Jones wanted to finish his psychology degree and polish his game, so he returned to North Carolina for his senior year. He turned in an All-America campaign in 1973–74, averaging 16.1 points, and was selected by the Houston Rockets with the fifth overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft.
Meanwhile, the Cougars franchise was moved to Missouri after the 1973–74 season and became the Spirits of St. Louis. Former Carolina Coach Larry Brown had moved on to the Denver Nuggets, and he was hell-bent on getting his hands on Jones. After acquiring his rights from St. Louis in exchange for the rights to Marvin Barnes, the Nuggets outbid Houston for Jones’s services, offering him a seven-year, $1.4-million contract.
With Brown at the reins and Jones in the frontcourt, Denver went 65-19 in 1974–75, the best record in the ABA that year and the second-best mark in league history. Jones shot .604 from the floor for an ABA record, scored 14.8 points per game, and won a spot on the ABA All-Rookie Team. In 1975–76, the ABA’s final season, Jones averaged 14.9 points and 9.5 rebounds and again topped the circuit in field-goal percentage at .581. He also played in the 1976 ABA All-Star Game and was named to the All-ABA Second Team. The Nuggets, with stars David Thompson and Dan Issel, finished with a league-best 60-24 record.
Jones made a graceful transition to the NBA with the ABA-NBA merger in June 1976, as did the rest of the Nuggets. Denver shocked the more established circuit by winning the Midwest Division that season and the next year as well. Thompson was an offensive machine, and Jones made solid contributions at both ends of the floor. In 1976–77 he averaged a career-high 15.1 points, ranked third in the league with a .570 field-goal percentage, and played in his first NBA All-Star Game. He also outpolled all other players in earning the first of eight straight selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. The following season Jones averaged 14.5 points, elevated his field-goal percentage to a league-leading .578, and returned to the All-Star Game.
Nuggets management, however, feared Jones would be limited by his health problems. After the 1977–78 campaign he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers with Ralph Simpson for forward George McGinnis. McGinnis lasted a year and a half in Denver; Jones went on to play eight seasons in Philadelphia.
Primarily a starter during his four seasons with the Nuggets, Jones was forced to make yet another transition after his first year with the Sixers. Coach Billy Cunningham thought Jones would be best utilized as a sixth man, coming off the bench for frontcourtmen Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, and Caldwell Jones. Cunningham was worried that the change would devastate Jones, but it took Jones about half a minute to agree to the coach’s plan.
With their system working to near perfection, the 76ers went to the Finals twice during the period, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in both 1980 and 1982. The arrival of workhorse center Moses Malone from Houston prior to the 1982–83 campaign proved to be the final piece of the championship puzzle. In the regular season Malone repeated as league MVP, and Jones won the first-ever NBA Sixth Man Award. Philadelphia then romped through the playoffs, eventually sweeping the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. During that 1983 playoff run, a Philadelphia Inquirer article on Jones paraphrased the famous John Havlicek call by Johnny Most stating, "Bobby Jones stole the ball. It was grand larceny. Bobby Jones stole the ball and robbed the Milwaukee Bucks of a game, turning an almost-sure upset into a 111-109 overtime victory for the 76ers."
The Sixers began a steady decline after that championship year, finishing second to Boston the next three seasons. Jones turned in steady defense and solid numbers during those years, although his playing time and production tailed off gradually. Still, he was as efficient as ever. In his last season, 1985–86, Jones shot .559 from the floor. He retired at age 34, and the Sixers retired his uniform No. 24 shortly afterward.
Jones left the NBA as one of the most admired players of the era, if not of all time. Said a young Charles Barkley while a teammate of Jones’s, “If everyone in the world was like Bobby Jones, the world wouldn’t have any problems.”
In 2003, Jones cofounded a Charlotte, North Carolina-based religiously affiliated non-profit, 2xsalt, that supports underprivileged youth through sports, along with Bart Kofoed and former teammate and Hall of Famer David Thompson.
Bobby Jones is now coaching the middle school boys basketball team at Carmel Christian School in Charlotte.
During his entire tenure with the Sixers, his jersey always include the letter B with a period before his last name (B. JONES) above his number 24; he still wore it even after former teammate Caldwell Jones was traded for Moses Malone in 1982 and Caldwell's brother Charles left after only one season with the Sixers (1983–84). However, during the 2008 season, as part of the Sixers' 25th anniversary of the 1983 Champions, he was given a framed replica jersey that simply states his last name without the letter B, since he was the only Sixer named Jones to play on the 1983 team. Jones is currently the assistant varsity basketball coach at Charlotte Christian School, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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