HOUSTON — On a team with the likes of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson, the least likely hero is the Celtic who never averaged more than 9.1 points a game, who shot a dismal 39 percent for his career, and who just turned 54 years old, but still looks OK in shorts.
Call him K.C. Jones, that is, K.C. Jones, the coach of this well-juiced machine that is the Boston Celtics. As usual, the guy with the tie gets the least recognition, but it is safe to say that without Jones — who, himself, played nine seasons in a Boston uniform — it is unlikely the Celtics would be here. True, Larry Bird once said of his coach, “Why should I listen to a guy who shot 39 percent for his career?” But he was laughing when he said it. True, Jones himself has often remarked that he merely goes into Red Auerbach’s office, takes some instructions, lets Red tap some cigar ashes on his head, and leaves.
But self-deprecation is the way the great ones put on their makeup, and K.C. Jones is a great Boston Celtics coach. That doesn’t mean he could take any group of 11 dribbling fools and turn them into champions. But just as it is difficult to coach poor talent, it is a fine art to coach outstanding talent. “K.C. knows,” Bird said, “what to do, and what not to do.”
Thus, when Bird gets the itch to fire a wild three-pointer, Jones does not launch off the bench like an angry rocket. When Bill Walton and Kevin McHale switch defensive positions in the middle of a play, Jones does not scream a demand to know what’s going on.
“They are the ones out there,” he says. “These are intelligent ballplayers. My job isn’t to try and control everything they do. I can’t, so why try?”
He pauses. He shrugs. “I don’t have to play the game,” he says. “They do.” He’s no button-pusher
Now one might figure that given a Larry Bird, a Kevin McHale, etc., anybody with a lick of basketball sense could produce a winner. The temptation is to see Jones as little more than the factory worker who monitors the automated assembly line, occsionally fidgeting with a piece here or there but most of the time leaning against the wall with a cigaret and a radio. Not true. In addition to the plays, the substitutions, the defensive assignments and the rest of a normal coach’s duties, what Jones has done with this Boston team is create an atmosphere in which the needed players can thrive. It is no accident that players such as Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton have hit personal peaks under Jones’s regime. His is a professional, workmanlike and disciplined system — without a lot of ego and theatrics.
To tell the truth, Jones is laid-back to the point of falling over. “I have no charisma,” he deadpans. But quietly, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He keeps a professional distance from his athletes — “an iron curtain” he calls it — so that there is no socializing, no partying together.
“That’s my way,” he says. “I keep that distance. Sometimes I should try to curb it, like when a player comes out of the game after making a few mistakes. Usually I’ll be so in tune with the game I’ll ignore him when he walks by. I should remember to pat him in the back more.” There’s one finger left
Nevertheless, his players are, to a man, supportive of Jones. Many prefer his quiet style to the sergeant-in-arms approach used by Bill Fitch –Jones’s former boss with the Celtics and the man who coaches the Rockets. Besides, they can’t argue with success. Jones has never had a losing season as a head coach. You get the feeling looking at Jones’s record, that championship rings are just hanging on strings, waiting for him to pick them off. As a Celtic player, he collected eight in a row from 1959 to 1966. As a Celtic coach he acquired another one in 1984. That’s nine rings. In other words, there is only one finger left. Not for long. But he still doesn’t figure he’s got this coaching racket down to a science.
“The thing is,” he says, “I don’t know it all. If I did know it all, I’d be in deep trouble. If I knew it all, I’d be a terribly confused person.” He waits for laughter, and then he laughs along with it. He knows the 10th ring is there on the string, there for the picking. He knows enough. CUTLINE