Wali Jones: Outlaws & Holdouts, 1974

[In the early 1970s, the Milwaukee Bucks suspended veteran guard Wali Jones for allegedly buying a packet of cocaine on a West Coast roadtrip. Jones vehemently denied the allegation, which the Bucks referred to the LAPD for a short-lived investigation. What’s fascinating about the suspension is the Bucks, while ratting out Jones to the LAPD for a criminal investigation, publicly stuck to a bogus story: Jones had to be terminated because he lost weight and lacked stamina. 

Why float a head-scratching lie in public? The Bucks and the NBA had no agreed-upon guidelines back then on how to handle the taboo subject of drugs. The Bucks had to make it up—and badly—as they went along. 

I have interviewed all of the main parties involved, except then-Bucks GM Wayne Embry. A few years ago, Embry agreed via email to talk to me about his tenure with the Bucks, with one emphatic exception. He wouldn’t talk about Wali Jones. Interesting.

The article below is pulled from the Winter 1974 issue of the magazine Sports Philadelphia. The byline belongs to none other than Wali Jones. It’s his attempt to rescue his public reputation in his hometown after the Bucks suspension and since the rest of the NBA took a pass on his services. Noteworthy for me, this article has been on the top of a stack of paper directly next to my computer for the past two years. I’ve wanted to add this article to the blog for a quite a while, so I can file it away once and for all. Today, sports fans, is the day!]

There are times when it seems like I might never play professional basketball again, and let me tell you, that hurts. It’s a cold world out there, man, and it’s not easy being an outlaw. But then, in some ways, I’ve been an outlaw all of my life. 

I’m not talking about being a criminal or anything like that, understand. I just mean that, for a lot of different reasons, I’ve been outside the system—or at least hangin’ on its outer edges—more often than not. 

Like I said, if I didn’t play again, it would hurt. It would hurt because I’ve been playing ball as long as I can remember, and it would hurt because being a ballplayer is the way I make my living. 

Most of all, though, it hurts when some of the younger brothers come up and ask me why I’m not playing. When I see the look in their eyes, it says that maybe they are starting to believe some of the things they hear about me. 

That’s a bad scene. Because of all the achievements of my life, the one of which I am most proud is that I have become a leader in my community. My brothers and sisters have come to respect me because I am a professional athlete, have seen me as someone to look up to, as an example of what you can achieve if you have dedication and desire. 

If I lose that, I have lost everything. 

I want to tell you some things about me and my life so that maybe you’ll understand. I want to talk about some things you have read and some things you never knew. 

For me, it all started very young. I was one of five brothers (plus three sisters) and, whenever anything happened in our apartment building at 48th & Brown, everybody just naturally assumed that it was “the Jones boys.” Before you knew it, we were “outlawed” from various sections of the building. 

I also learned to play ball back then, first at the Mill Creek courts across the street and later, when we moved, at Haddington Recreation Center. 

I learned a lot from my father, who was a semipro baseball pitcher. He told me about how, because he was black, he was outlawed from various leagues. And he also took me around to play against older kids in various parts of the city, kids who were bigger and more experienced than I was. That’s when I learned that you have to have determination, that you have to outhustle, outthink, outlast your opponent to make him respect you. 

A lot of kids who grew up in the ghetto, they know four or five blocks, that’s all. That’s the whole range of their experience. Basketball gave me a chance to break out of that, to see other parts of the city. It was my passport through the gangs; guys didn’t bother you if they knew you were an athlete. 

I got good enough so I was playing all the time . . . playing in junior high school, in recreation tournaments, on any schoolyard where I could find a couple of guys and a ball. Of course, you may remember we had a pretty good high school team when I was at Overbrook, guys like Walt Hazzard (now Mahdi Abdul-Rahman), Wayne Hightower, Ralph Heyward. We won the city title three years in a row—but again, because of the rules, we were outlawed from the state championships. We couldn’t go out and prove how good we really were. 

So, we did it on our own. We traveled all over to play the best teams we could find: Camden, Moorestown, Chester, Norristown, Atlantic City, Allentown, New York City. I was MVP in the city title game my senior year and named All-America. I hadn’t thought too much about college, but I had worked with my father as an interior decorator, and I decided I wanted to get an education and make a better life for myself. Finally, I chose Villanova, and I had some of the best years of my life there. 

I still miss those times and the guys I played with—Hubie White, Billy Melchionni, George Leftwich, Jim Washington, Richie Moore. We had some good teams, with a lot of talent, but it was all very pleasant. We played team ball and learned to work together. And we got to play in the Palestra and the Big Five, one of the roughest college leagues in the country. 

I could feel myself developing while I was in college, see how I had qualities of leadership. I learned how to communicate, to adjust to the style of other ballplayers. An interesting thing happened in my junior year at Villanova, particularly after what happened to me later in the pros. 

I tore the cartilage in my leg the summer after my sophomore year, and I had to play my entire junior season wearing a leg brace that went from my thigh to my ankle. Let me tell you, that leg hurt something fierce at times, and I had to take the whirlpool every couple of days to keep it from tightening up. 

Still, we made it all the way to the semifinals of the NIT that year, and afterwards Dolph Schayes, who was coaching the 76ers, said I was “the best one-legged guard in the country.” That made me feel good. 

That summer, after an operation, I had to sit around and watch my buddies play some ball. I got a chance to study the moves of Abdul-Rahman, Tee Shields, Ty Britt, Bobby Jones, Frank Card, and Earl Monroe. But I really wanted to be out there with them. Instead, I spent my time working out with weights. 

I came back and had a good senior year (we won the Holiday Festival, and I was MVP), and I was chosen for the 1964 Olympic trials. Just before that, I played in the East-West all-star game and found I could hold my own against any competition. I really felt fine, especially because my good brother Abdul-Rahman was having one of the most beautiful years any athlete ever had out of UCLA. This team was 30-0 and won the NCAAs. 

So, he was directing a team on the West Coast, and I was directing one on the East Coast. Now we both thought we’d be together again on the US Olympic team. 

It didn’t work that way. 

The funny thing was, the night the final team was announced, we were out talking about it, about who had to make the team, about who had to make it for political reasons, about who had to make it for racial reasons. I had played well, and all the newspapers were saying I was a shoo-in. But there was the list, and my name wasn’t on it. In a way, I had been outlawed again. 

Later, people told me that my style was too much like Abdul-Rahman’s. Others said I was too stylish, had too much flair, and that Hank Iba wouldn’t like that. Today, guys like Pete Maravich become famous with that sort of thing. 

Anyway, the one comment that meant most to me was when John Wooden, the best college coach ever, told the newspapers that he just couldn’t believe that I was off the team. I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I’d be, because I had this new challenge—making it in the pros. I reported to Baltimore, which had traded for me from Detroit after the Pistons had drafted me on the third round. 

That first year was a mixed one. I played pretty good, made the all-rookie team, but the management in Baltimore was ridiculous. At that time, salaries were quite low, and I couldn’t afford a car. I had to take the bus to practice, and they knew it. But every time the bus was late, I had to pay a fine. If it hadn’t been for guys like Walt Bellamy and Gus Johnson helping out, I couldn’t even have moved my family. 

And then, after that pretty good season, they wanted to give me a $500 raise. I just got disgusted. I decided to go away and forget all about basketball. 

I went to Seattle, but I left my car in Philly. Just left it on the street, abandoned, that’s how mad I was. Well, the police found it and pretty soon the word got out that something had happened to me. The FBI was called in, and I was listed as a missing person. 

All the time, I was in Seattle, working and playing a little ball when I could at Air Force bases and junior colleges. This was all part of my decision-making, the kind of thing I stress to younger children today; you have to know who you are, what you are, what you want, and what you can do. I was finding out. 

Then, the Celtics and Lakers came to Seattle for a preseason exhibition game and Abdul-Rahman, who was with LA, got in touch with me. Philly has traded for you, he said, and they want you back, go back and show them what you can do. 

So, I came back and talked with Ike Richman, who was the owner. And I joined the team in Carolina. Those were the days when they were trying to make a guard out of Billy C. (Billy Cunningham), and he was getting torn apart. He was one of the great forwards in the game, and they were playing him at guard. 

So, I became the third guard and then a starting guard. The team began to jell, especially when Alex Hannum took over as coach. He had all kinds of talent: Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Billy C., but we learned to work together. And Alex let me play my way, let me lead the team. 

In 1967, we put it all together, the best professional basketball team ever assembled. We went 68-13 and won the world championship with me as a starting guard. And you know what happened? The hockey team was introduced about that time, and the next season they were selling out every game. We were drawing much smaller crowds, and somebody asked the fans why they didn’t come to see the 76ers play. And the answer was: because they have five black men in the starting lineup. Can you imagine that? A team goes 68-13 and brings all kinds of accolades to the city, and it is outlawed because of its color. 

Still, that year was a high spot. It was about then that we formed Concerned Athletes in Action to work with children in the ghettos. A lot of guys worked with CAIA—Billy Cunningham, Al Henry, Archie Clark, Fred Foster. Funny thing, all of those guys—including myself—were soon gone from Philadelphia. 

My trouble started in 1970 when I chipped a bone. I was supposed to be out four weeks, but I was out 12. I was getting myself ready for the playoffs, but Jack Ramsay said I was malingering. 

And the next year, they wanted to cut my salary. 

I had an agent, Mark Stewart, and we decided to hold out. But he couldn’t do anything with them and eventually just sort of dropped out of the picture. So, I went to Richie Phillips, the attorney who had helped Hal Greer settle with the 76ers. 

We didn’t get anywhere either until we filed a $5 million antitrust suit against the 76ers and the NBA. I was traded to Milwaukee soon after and got a good contract. We settled the lawsuit, then I went back to work. I thought I did well with the Bucks. I picked up their system quickly and did what I was asked as a spot player and as a fill-in for Oscar (Robertson) when he was hurt. We beat San Francisco, but eventually lost to LA in the playoffs. 

I stayed in condition all that summer and got a Concerned Athletes chapter started in Milwaukee. I traveled all over, played a lot of ball, and reported to camp in good shape. On the second day of practice, I hurt my Achilles tendon and had to sit out most of the preseason. Opening night, after only three days of working, I went 22 minutes against Phoenix. As a result, I strained a hamstring. If that wasn’t bad enough, I ended up in bed with tonsillitis a week or so later. 

Then, on December 14, I was suspended, supposedly for loss of weight, loss of stamina, and because of that thing about drugs supposedly being found in my room in LA, which was in all the papers. 

I’m already on the record about the weight thing. I weighed 170 pounds when I reported to the Bucks in December 1971; I weighed 170 pounds when they suspended me in December 1972. And the statistics are available to prove it. 

As for stamina, anybody who knows me, who has ever seen me play, knows I give 100 percent or more at both ends of the court. Endurance is one of the mainstays of my game. And I was one of the guys who was urging that we pick up the other team fullcourt on defense early in the season. One game while Oscar was out, Lucius Allen and I held the Baltimore backcourt scoreless with our pressing defense. Does that sound like somebody who’s lost stamina?

The drug charge was the one that really got to me, though. It keeps hangin’ on, even though the LA District Attorney refused to prosecute and told one guy that, “Whoever set that thing up did a lousy job of it.” That kind of rumor does more than hurt me as a ballplayer; it cuts into my work with Concerned Athletes. 

I believe that you have to be confident. If you know the truth, nothing can harm you, and you can fight against anything. The Creator has a master plan—I believe that. 

Listen, the players are behind me because they know the truth. And the community has been behind me—there were 2,000 signatures on a petition in Milwaukee protesting my suspension. I know what it’s like to be blackballed, outlawed. I’ve seen it happen to my brothers, guys like Woody Saulsbury and Andy Johnson. I know that there are going to be obstacles. 

My contract with the Bucks has been settled, and my record is there for all to see: I’ve averaged 10 points a game over nine NBA seasons, made the playoffs every year, and then scored above my average in the playoffs when the pressure was on. 

My studies into religion have taught me many things. The future lies in my children, my two sons, Wali and Askia Rahman, and my daughters Kelli, Myke, and Sundaa Ayo. It is for them, and for all the children, that we all must be truthful to ourselves and do what we believe. 

And I’m not going to worry. Let me tell you something—when you worry, three things happen. You get baldheaded, you get fat, and you have a heart attack. As for me, I’ll just keep on being an outlaw and doing the best I can. 


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