Wonderful Wally—76er Court Jester, 1967

One of the great sportswriters of the 1970s was George Kiseda of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Kiseda, a slightly built young man with short-clipped blond hair and glasses, had an absolutely wicked sense of humor, heavy on irreverence and deeply irritating to those in positions of power. 

While researching my book Shake and Bake, it was always fun to flip through the newspaper accounts of Philadelphia 76ers games from that era just to read Kiseda, a. k.a., The Silver Quill. For example, of then-Sixer guard Wally Jones, Kiseda wrote that trying to describe his famously unorthodox jump shot is “like trying to explain a Jackson Pollock painting to somebody over the phone. Wally jumps, cranks, hitch kicks, and flutters, and then the next thing you know, the ball is going through the basket—if he’s on one of his hot streaks.” Kiseda went on in the same article to describe all this kicking and fluttering like watching Jones “falling down an elevator shaft.”

Kiseda’s career as a sportswriter was cut short when Sixers’ general manager Don DeJardin took exception to the Silver Quill’s daily raft of irreverence. He complained to Kiseda’s editor, who asked his star basketball reporter to knock it off. Kiseda wouldn’t, and that got him pulled from the Sixer beat and assigned to desk duty. Kiseda, embittered by the experience, eventually moved to the Los Angeles Times as an editor and, sadly for us, never covered sports again.

DeJardin, a humorless West Point grad, later took exception to Wally Jones and ruined his career, too. More about that in a few future posts. (Or just pick up a copy of my book.) But before DeJardin came to town, “Wally Wonder” was a beloved member of the Sixers, partly for his gutsy, never-say-die style of play and partly for his unique personality. In this May 6, 1967 article from The Sporting News, veteran Philly sportswriter Bob Vetrone takes us back to a time of true Wonder in the Sixer-land.

Wally jumps, cranks, hitch kicks, and flutters, and then the next thing you know, the ball is going through the basket

When Alex Hannum took over as the Philadelphia 76ers’ coach, he knew what to expect from almost all his veterans. He had coached Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Dave Gambee, Chet Walker, and Larry Costello—Wilt at San Francisco, the others at Syracuse. 

Second-year man Bill Cunningham would be new. And Wally Jones, a third-season guard?

“I had heard some funny things about this fellow,” Hannum said. “I didn’t know too much about him, because when we (San Francisco Warriors) played the 76ers last season, we hardly worried about him. He was the one player we didn’t worry about.”

“Then, when I was in Philadelphia during the summer before we went to preseason practice, hardly anybody had heard from him. Most of the others had either been in Philadelphia or at least in touch with the office quite regularly. But when we reported for practice at Longport, N.J., Jones was there, except for a few extra pounds, he was ready to play.”

Within a month, Hannum knew what to expect from Jones. “Every team should have a Wally Jones,” Hannum said of the pleasant, 6-feet-2 young man early in the season, and that was even before the former Villanova star blossomed into the exciting outside-shooting guard the 76ers needed to complement the multi-talented Greer.

And Hannum wasn’t only talking about Jones’ ability. “The NBA season is a long grind,” Hannum said, “and players can get tired of just being with each other constantly. It’s part of a coach’s job to keep everybody loose, and Wally sure helps on that count.”

Besides maturing, in his third season, as a serious scoring threat and besides the continuous development of his defensive talents, Jones’ value to the squad also lies in his ability to keep everyone loose. 

He’s the team disc jockey on trips. Walker supplies the portable record player and Greer and Jones, the sure-handed guards, hold it at a playing level. “We haven’t dropped it all season,” Jones said, interrupting one of his imitations of one of Philadelphia’s “soul music” dispensers. 

“I learned way back in Overbrook High, that it’s best to stay loose when you approach this game. I have my little fun and the others join in, but when he (Hannum) comes into the dressing room for our pregame stuff, the joking ends.”

A few years ago, there was a new teenage singing sensation named Little Stevie Wonder. Wally did an especially true imitation, so it was only natural that friends and teammates began calling him Wally Wonder. 

The sobriquet has stuck. Headline writers have fun with it, and Jones feels it sets him apart from the other Jones boys, both among his family and friends in Philadelphia and from Boston’s talented K.C. and Sam. 

For a while in 1965, there was an indication that it would have to be changed to Wally Wander. After leading Villanova to the New York Holiday Festival title in his senior year, he had been drafted by the Detroit Pistons. A few weeks later, he was traded to Baltimore and then found himself at camp battling people like Don Ohl, Kevin Loughery, Si Green, Al Butler, and himself for a job. 

“They had a lot of good guards,” Jones said, “so I was only playing about eight to 10 minutes a game. I wasn’t helping my game at all, and I pressed when I did play. 

“In the playoffs, I became a starter and chased Los Angeles’ Jerry West from coast-to-coast. He had a great series, but I felt as though I accomplished something in the way I stayed on him, making him take some forced shots and hounding him all the time.”

The following summer was one of discontent and confusion for Jones. He had become involved in home problems. He ran away and hid, and failed to report to the Bullets’ camp. The 76ers, who had passed him up in the draft, decided they wanted him and traded reserve center John Kerr for him. 

“I was out on the West Coast,” Jones recalled, “hiding among the redwoods and working at my job as a sales representative for Bata Shoes. I called Walt Hazzard, who had been my teammate at Overbrook, when they [the Lakers] came into the city where I was, to play an exhibition. He told me I had been traded to Philadelphia. 

“That was great, but I still had some problems to settle. Mr. (Ike) Richman, one of the owners, got hold of me and really straightened me out. When he died (at a game in Boston in December, 1965), it was quite a shock to all of us because he had helped so many.”

Jones joined the 76ers and found himself competing with veterans like Greer, Al Bianchi, and Gerry Ward for a backcourt birth. Dolph Schayes, then the coach, gave him a chance to play and, before long, Jones started to show some of the talent and flair which had made him a fan favorite at Villanova three years. 

This year, he has been, at times, sensational. His scoring average rose from 9 points a game last season to 13.2 a game during the regular 1966-67 schedule. 

Through all his improvements, Jones has maintained his touch of the fantasy. One of his tricks in the past, something he hasn’t done this season, was to sit on the opposing team’s bench during a lull in the action. 

“When you’re tired,” he said nonchalantly, “you sit down anywhere.”

At the height of the talk about the formation of a new league, he called a “press conference” in the lobby of San Francisco’s Jack Tar Hotel for a one-man audience, Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News. Wally announced rather profoundly that he was going to be the playing-coach of the Selma, Ala., franchise. 

He wears sunglasses on the cloudiest day, but often will chuck them on a sunny afternoon. Before one playoff game with Boston, he was sent home from practice with tonsillitis. The next night, he played only 29 minutes, but scored 21 points and shot 9-for-16. At times, he was brilliant, but no more so than in the dressing room. 

Asked what had bothered him most that day, he replied: “Well, I had accumulated an abundance of mucus in my esophagus. And besides that, I had trouble swallowing, too.”

Jones closed the season on a high note as he paced the 76ers in scoring with 27 in their 125-122 win over San Francisco in the final playoff game. 

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