Recalling fondly Jo Jo White, a man of Celtic-green contradiction

As both a person and a player, NBA Hall of Famer Jo Jo White was an “Everyman” of sorts, a guy in whom we all could spot a little of ourselves – good family man, great athlete, solid citizen.

In the midst of the NBA’s battle for players with the old ABA, Red Auerbach had drafted and signed the Kansas Jayhawk in early April of 1969 with the expectation that he’d serve a season’s internship with the defending champions behind savvy veterans like Larry Siegfried, Emmette Bryant and John Havlicek.

But when Bill Russell announced his retirement four months later, the rookie and second-year man Don Chaney were put on the fast track to becoming new Coach Tom Heinsohn’s backcourt of the ‘70’s – the refurbished Sam and KC Jones, so to say, a savvy scorer paired with a lock-down defender.

It tends to be misleading, though, to fit Jo Jo White into any particular category. In an extraordinarily tumultuous era, he was a man of conviction, unafraid to take unpopular stances.

While the Alcindors and Unselds of college basketball were boycotting the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, White signed on to play for grizzled old Henry Iba and (along with a teenager named Spencer Haywood) to win gold …

Even as Russell and a slew of high-profile black athletes were backing up Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to a war in Southeast Asia, Jo Jo trained and served with a Marine reserve unit

Likewise, to pigeon-hole White as merely an offensive performer who let his running mate do the heavy lifting on defense? That’s just not true.

Jo Jo had a funny-looking shooting motion (even had a “hitch” in the middle of it) and some rather quirky mannerisms. He seemed ever-so-precise – about the release on his shot, about his appearance (I defy you to find a picture of him with his shirttail hanging out).

In certain ways, he seemed like the kind of guy who raised his pinky whilst sipping a cup of tea.


Go take another look at all those pictures you just googled trying to prove me wrong about the shirttail.

Take a good look at the dude’s body – while not “muscle-bound,” you gotta admit Jo Jo is, indeed “cut” and in a lot of game pictures, he almost appears to be flexing – legs, arms, shoulders.

He was an iron man in more than one way, as he holds to this day the Celtics’ all-time record for consecutive games played at 488.

Under Heinsohn’s expert tutelage, White’s game and fame improved almost in lockstep with the team’s resurrection. He was an All-Star by Year 2 and in 1972 represented the C’s in a funky one-on-one tournament, advancing to the final before falling.

Jo Jo’s finest moment was his MVP performance in the 1976 Finals against Phoenix. Chaney was gone by then, having chased ABA big bucks. And new running mate Charlie Scott managed to rack up 35 personal fouls in a six-game series. (Yes, I did indeed just type THIRTY-FIVE.)

The soon-to-be-30 White logged 60 minutes and posted a 33-9-6 stat line in the famous triple-OT Game 5.

Amicable Break-up (?)

On the heels of Banner No. 13 – despite Jo Jo earning a seventh straight All-Star selection – the fortunes of the team and franchise deteriorated rapidly. Dave Cowens decides to take a two-month sabbatical; Red reluctantly relieves his burnt-out coach -- and then a season later hires as player-coach the guy who’d walked. (Red was also trying to manage a fluid and oft-flabbergasting ownership upheaval.)

Competitor that he was, White wasn’t pleased with Big Red’s “bolting,” particularly in a season when that magnificent body (foot/ankle) finally showed some wear-and-tear. Their strained relationship is believed to have been a factor in Jo Jo’s requesting/forcing a trade to the Warriors in late January of the “Waitin’ for Bird” season.

Jo Jo White last competed upon Boston Garden parquet on Halloween of 1980, scoring 11 points off the bench in a losing effort for Cotton Fitzsimmons’s Kings. His NBA career came to a close the following evening in Kansas City, pretty close to where hoop had all started for the St. Louis native. Ironically, the only other Gahden game Jo Jo played in the “wrong” jersey was on Leap Day (Feb. 29) of the same year for the Warriors.

It took another two years before No. 10 made it to the rafters, on April 9 of 1982 while White was working as an assistant at his alma mater. While Red and Jo Jo appeared always to remain on good terms, there was a little apprehension in the arena that evening; my late sister and I were there. Predictably, the Hall of Famer-to-be faced it head on, no hedging or false modesty – and just as predictably got hammered for that from certain corners.

I have a vague recollection of Jo Jo’s brief comeback attempt several years later with the Topeka, Kansas franchise of the Continental Basketball Association … like very vague.

Long, Hard Road to Springfield

As Jo Jo was wrapping up a glorious career and taking his rightful place among the franchise legends, few if any foresaw the magnitude or direction of the changes – both on and off the court – that the sport of basketball and its ultimate level of play were fixin’ to undergo. (Me too, I became a Texan shortly after No. 10 rose – as you can see in my word choice.)

In the same way that a George Mikan becomes minimized when hoops talk is limited to “The Shot-clock Era,” players like White are increasingly overlooked and/or underappreciated by a modern era of basketball associated with mergers or a three-point line. Thus, it took three-and-a-half decades to drive a player of this caliber to the other end of the Mass. Turnpike.

In the spirit of Walter Brown, Red always encouraged the presence and involvement of former players, and Jo Jo’s name or crooked smile would show up from time to time. Celticlifer Mark van Deusen’s blog mentions would help keep him on my radar.

Reconciliation is a good thing!
Alas, that radar had a malfunction back in 2010, and I got quite a shock one Thursday afternoon three summers ago. At the kick-off event for the 2015 induction ceremonies for the Naismith Hall of Fame, each honoree was invited to offer remarks. Good ol’ alphabetical order slotted White last on the program. The then-68-year-old Jo Jo, looking quite slight of build, needed some assistance navigating the distance from his stool to the podium.

Then he started to speak … oh my!

Jo Jo seemed to be trying to express the extent to which he’d reveled in the competition, but it was hard to tell. Ponderous pauses and some repetition punctuated his words. The clearest – and certainly the most touching – moment was when, with his distinctive smile, he observed that his wife was suggesting he go sit down. Whether you were or were not aware of Jo Jo’s 2010 health scare, the scene was both gut-wrenching to watch, but too riveting to look away.

In today’s hold-nothing-back media world, the sight of athletes (even very young ones) in such or similar distress is hardly uncommon, but typically the consequence of collision/combat sports. Basketball folk are expected to remain vibrant. Coach Heinsohn’s going strong. Hell, wasn’t Red out promoting a book just months before he passed away?

But the late summer of 2015 offered a dose of reality to hoop folk of a certain generation, especially us baby-boomers. A couple of weeks before the induction, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins was felled by a fatal heart attack; then the weekend was punctuated by the sudden death of Moses Malone.

I was reminded at the time of something my Dad used to say, more frequently after we’d lost my Mom to a “rough go” with cancer – “I’m not afraid of dying, I just want to live until I do.” Dear Ol’ Dad’s been gone nearly 25 years now; he pretty much got his wish.

I was fearful that our No. 10 was destined not to be so fortunate.

The next week, though, while re-watching my recording of Coach Heinsohn’s magnificent induction speech, something caught my eye. As Coach was taking his “parting shot” at Hank Finkel, a crowd camera caught Jo Jo’s face. His expression shows him fully connected to the moment, his smile wide and natural – he looked ready to tell a Finkel story of his own.

By a good many accounts, Jo Jo was able to remain so engaged thereafter.

Of that I have little doubt. In his own truly unique way, Jo Jo White was a champion.

Abacus Revelation for the Road

According to a kinda famous play, the fates of Romeo and Juliet were said to be “star-crossed.”

The same might be said about Jo Jo White and Don Chaney. When White was traded to Golden State, his spot on the active roster was taken by – you guessed it – the Duck.

And did you know that the two were rivals before they were teammates? You’re supposed to – I wrote about it recently.