Nick Jones: Tales of a Pro Basketball Journeyman, 1971

[Nick Jones averaged almost 20 points a game during his senior season at the University of Oregon. That’s what made the Portland Trail Blazers’ decision in the summer of 1970 to cut him really sting. Nick, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard known for his all-out speed, would have loved playing in his hometown before friends and family.

Nick called his big brother Steve and shared the rotten news. Steve, a.k.a., Snapper Jones, a star in the rival ABA, said he’d ask around the ABA about any openings. In the meantime, Snapper, who spent the offseason in Berkeley, Calif., told his kid brother to move down to the Bay Area and start working out with him. Snapper said he scrimmaged with some of the NBA San Francisco Warriors. Maybe Warriors coach Alvin Attles would give him a tryout. 

“After Portland told me to get lost, I called Alvin begging him for a tryout,” said Jones, known as “Quick Nick” at Oregon. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to help me. “I’m a soul brother.’ I don’t think that meant as much as I hoped it would.”

For Attles, what mattered is he once shared an apartment with Snapper, whom he considered a friend. Attles, in his deep baritone voice, told Nick that he was free to try out for the Warriors, though adding there were no roster spots available. But Attles promised to shuttle Nick, into a few preseason games and give him a chance to show his wares to other NBA teams that might be in need of a point guard. 

As fate would have it, Attles liked what he saw in Snapper’s kid brother. Nick’s energetic style reminded Attles of himself as a youngster breaking in with the then-Philadelphia Warriors. But with no “G” League team to stash an extra player, Attles asked the team’s publicity man Harry Jupiter for a favor. Could he could use an assistant? “Alvin wanted me to keep Nick around for a year and have him work with the Warriors,” said Jupiter. “He wanted to figure out a way to keep him on the payroll until [Attles] retired [as an active NBA player].”

At the last minute, Attles changed his mind. He cut another player and kept Quick Nick. One week later, his secret weapon from Oregon scored 16 points against Baltimore. Had a star been born? Nahhhh, the next night in Atlanta, Quick Nick was back on the bench, where he remained, off and on, for two seasons, averaging 6.9 points per game in year one and 3.3 points in his second campaign. Then Attles cut him loose in October 1972 to keep a promising rookie guard named Charles Johnson. 

By the end of October, Nick joined Snapper on the ABA Dallas Chaparrals, one of four players with the surname Jones. Nick lasted three games, then got his pink slip in late November. Jones never joined another NBA or ABA team. On the court, that is. In the late 1980s, Jones joined the front office of the Portland Trail Blazers, serving as their community activities coordinator. In between community events, Jones still reminded anyone who would listen: The Blazers should have never cut him back in the summer of 1970.] 

This brief article, from March 27, 1971 issue of The Sporting News, recounts Jones’ multi-year quest to stick with a pro team just when things were looking up for him in San Francisco. John Simmonds, who covered the Warriors for the Oakland Tribune, tells Jones’ tale.] 

Quick Nick during his career night against the Bucks

At his brother’s urging, Nick Jones moved from Eugene, Ore., to the San Francisco Bay Area. It may have been the best move he’s ever made.

What it led to was a job as the key reserve in the backcourt of the National Basketball Association’s San Francisco Warriors. It was the last place he expected to be appearing this season. 

“I had no hope of making the Warriors,” said Nick, who starred at the University of Oregon, but later traveled to one tryout camp after another in both pro leagues looking for a job. “My brother Steve was trying to arrange a tryout for me with some team and said it would be better if I came down to workout with him and leave from here.”

And so Nick took part in the informal summer drills held by the Warriors and waited while Steve, one of the top performers this season for the Memphis Pros of the American Basketball Association, tried to line up something for him. 

One day, an opportunity seemed to arrive. “We arranged a tryout with the New York Nets (ABA),” Nick recalled. “I was supposed to leave on a Sunday, but the Thursday before, they called me and said they’d made a trade and didn’t need me. 

“There had been a lot of other guys working out with the Warriors who had gone to other places. But I still was around.”

Warrior coach Al Attles stepped in to help him. “Al said he’d carry me during the exhibition season and then put me on waivers, but that he’d give me good exposure,” Jones said. “When the last day of practice season came along, I wondered where I’d be going. I called the Warrior office and was told to go to practice. When I got there, I got a note from Franklin (Warrior owner Franklin Mieuli).

“It said, ‘Congratulations for making the team. I want you to know I had nothing to do with it.” He was kidding me because he also went to Oregon,” Jones said, laughing. 

The road to San Francisco was a long and often discouraging one for Nick. After leaving college, Nick played most of the 1967-68 season with the San Diego Rockets of the NBA before going on active duty with the National Guard for 4 ½ months. 

That fall, he was the last man cut from the Rockets’ training camp roster. Then followed tryouts at such places as Dallas, Indiana, Miami, Seattle, and Portland. But he never got a serious look from anyone until he arrived in San Francisco. 

What especially angered him was the treatment he got from ABA clubs. “Having played in the NBA and going to the other league and getting pushed around really upset me,” Nick said. “They treated me like an NBA reject. The longest I spent at any camp was three weeks in Dallas.”

While waiting for the chance he thought might never arrive, Jones worked in a Eugene clothing store and went back to school at Oregon, where he picked up his social science degree. 

And Nick also did some playing in an industrial league for a unique team called the Springfield Creamery Jugs, put together by author Ken Kesey. Many of the players came from neighboring communal farms, and the uniforms were makeshift—from cut-off Levis to cutdown baseball pants. 

“They came to me about getting a club together,” Nick said. “I got a lot of my friends and Kesey got a lot of his. We had so many players we had 18 guys on the bench (reportedly the roster is up to 33 this season). The other teams in the league worked out, but we didn’t. 

“I shot a lot. The basket is the same size, and nobody’s checking you. We had a lot of fun, and we were pretty good, too .”

Jones has given a slow Warrior team vitally needed quickness in the backcourt. A month ago, a San Francisco television station decided to do a feature on a Warrior non-star. Jones was chosen, and the film footage was shot during a Warrior workout. That night, Nick made the feature look silly as he hit his career high to that point—28 points—as the Warriors drubbed Seattle.

A couple of weeks ago, Jeff Mullins, the top scorer for the Warriors, twisted an ankle and missed three games, so Nick was pressed into service as a starter. Not only did he do the job, he came up with 31 points in a game against, of all teams, the Milwaukee Bucks, basketball’s biggest winner this season. 

“I’ve learned to control my speed.” Nick answered. “I’m fast and getting open is the way I play. But I’ve learned you just can’t run by everybody because the defensive man is going to wise up.”

And he has learned a lot from watching his coach, who still may have the quickest move to the basket. “I learned a lot about accelerating from Attles,” Jones noted. “I thought he went fast all the time, but I’d sit there on the bench and watch him come up court and suddenly accelerate as he moved to the basket. It kind of set me straight.”  

[Bonus Coverage: Here’s an Associated Press story about the Springfield Creamery Jugs from March 1971. The headline: Hippie Hoopers Love Cage Game.]

Author Ken Kesey, arms raised, joins the rally squad behind him in pulling for the Springfield Creamery Jugs.

Springfield, Ore.—One night each week they leave their communal farms and funnel towards a junior high school in Springfield. In gaudily painted pickups and panels, entire families arrive for an evening of fun and recreation that is so traditionally American it smacks of apple pie, Midwest cornfields, and Lawrence Welk. 

Adorned in beards, long hair, and peace symbols, they gather in a gymnasium for a single purpose—basketball. And nearly everyone participates. The men—33 of them are listed on the roster—play for the Springfield Creamery-sponsored team. The boys play in the band, and the girls perform as a rally squad. Even the wives and mothers sometimes get into the act by passing out milk and cookies to the other spectators. 

While the basketball is strictly serious, the accompanying activities and trappings are all in good fun. The band, led by author Ken Kesey, is delightfully awful. Tooting on a trombone, clarinet, flute, and small tuba while banging on a snare drum, the kids provide a sort of rhythm during halftime and timeouts, but nothing that could be construed as music. The players’ uniforms are almost as individualistic. Numerals are stenciled on the back of T-shirts, and on the front the word “Jugs,” complete with drawing of a milk jug, is silkscreened. [Above and below the milk jug are the words: “Grade A” and “Homo.”]

The bottom halves of the uniforms include cut-off Levis and cut-down baseball pants. One player wore what appeared to be homemade trunks and had a star stitched into the seat of his pants. 

But it’s basketball they’re there for, and the Springfield Creamery Jugs are good at it. Playing recently against a team called Mannila’s, the Jugs came from behind in the first half, tied the game, and then built a 20-point lead in the second half. 

During the game, Kesey, the controversial author of such best-selling novels as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Nation, sat amidst the band members, keeping the children off the playing floor with such admonishments as, “Why don’t you sit here and watch your Daddy make a basket?”

How do the somewhat irregular-appearing Jugs fit into the more-structured confines of competitive basketball? “At first the referees were just blatantly prejudiced,” said Kesey as he sat and watched the Jugs outscore their opponents. “They’d see all that long hair and, as far as they we’re concerned, we couldn’t do anything right.”

The players themselves, however, seemed unconcerned about the differing modes of attire and went about their business on the court as usual. “They really have a great time,” said Ken Long, the assistant superintendent of the Willamalane Park District in Springfield. “They (the Jugs) would win the sportsmanship award if we had one. 

“Last year, Kesey brought a parrot on his shoulder, and we had a little trouble with the school not allowing animals in the gym, but that’s the only thing.”

The Jugs play to win, but participation is also high on the priority list of their player-coach Ken Babs.  With two minutes to go and with a 20-point lead, the Jugs send in their five most inexperienced players. And from a roster of 33, that’s digging pretty deep. 

Within 20 seconds, eight points of the lead were lost before the reserves finally got the ball across the 10-second line. Finally, with only 36 seconds left in the game, the reserves had squandered all but four of the points, and the regulars trooped back in to preserve the victory. 

In almost two full seasons of competition, the Jugs have already “graduated” one team member to the National Basketball Association. Nick Jones, the former Oregon star, played for the Jugs last season and this year won a job with the San Francisco Warriors as a free agent. 

There don’t appear to be any budding professional stars on this year’s squad, but for some reason nobody seems to care. [The Jugs would beat the Lane County Sheriff’s team for the league championship either this season or the next. A photo of the Jugs appeared in the last supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog published by Stewart Brand in 1971-1972.]

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