Caldwell Jones: On Guarding Kareem in the NBA Finals, 1980

[One of my favorite basketball writers is Leigh Montville, a wonderful, long-time reporter and columnist with the Boston Globe. He has a new book out about the 1969 NBA Finals. It’s getting rave reviews—including from this humble blogger. 

But before ordering Montvillle’s latest book, his ninth, check out his Boston Globe column from May 12, 1980. He wrote it during the 1980 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. Montville is in the 76ers’ dressing room talking with center Caldwell Jones about the futility of trying to defend the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As many of us remember, when the ball went inside to Jabbar, he was darn-near automatic. Or, so it seemed. Jones had a great sense of humor, and it rubs off here on Montville, who captures his subject well.]


The man and the beer both were on ice. His long legs were stretched straight ahead, as far as they could go, directly into the crowd of sportswriters in front of him, people stepping high over the legs as if they were a couple of giant two-by-fours that had been left by some construction gang. One bag of ice on one knee. One bag on the other. 

The beer was next to him in a giant plastic washbasin. Twelve frosted bottles of Natural Light. No. 11 frosted bottle of Natural Light. No. Ten. No . . . 

“You think you’re going to drink all that before you go home?” a voice asked.

“I think I may have to,” Caldwell Jones said. “I have to do something to rejuvenate myself.”

Tired? OK, Johnny [Carson], how tired was he? Tired as he’s ever been. That’s how tired. Tired as he hopes he will ever be. Dog-tired. Bop-till-you-drop tired. Coal-mine tired. The feeling started at the far ends of his conservative Afro and traveled all 7-foot-1 to the soles of his feet.

“Even my eyes are tired,” Caldwell Jones said. 

His eyes?

“Yeah,” he said. “From watching all those shots go over my head.”

Caldwell Jones (left) gets whacked by Jabbar’s elbow

There was no end to his descriptions of how tired he was. There were no words that properly conveyed how hard he had worked in the past two afternoons, how frustrating it had been, how tired it had made him. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How would you like to guard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for two straight basketball games, mano a mano, no one in between? How tired would you be?

“The man gives me nightmares,” Caldwell Jones said. “True fact. I wake up at night, and I’ll be punching myself. 

“I’m like a hummingbird trying to push around an eagle,” Caldwell Jones said. “My little bony forearms are all beat up from pushing on him. 

“You’ll fight him and fight him, trying to keep him away from the basket, think you’re doing a pretty good job, and then all of a sudden the net will be brushing against the top of your head,” Caldwell Jones said. “You’ll say, ‘Oh-oh.’”

There were some nice things being said about his work yesterday afternoon at the Spectrum, about how he had “held” Abdbul-Jabbar to 23 points, about how he had been a large part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 105-102 win over the Lakers that squared the best-of-seven NBA championship series at two games apiece. But Jones would have none of that. Hold Abdul-Jabbar? Huh. Hold a tornado from zipping through Kansas. That would be easier. 

“Jabbar’s the only one who can hold Jabbar down,” the Sixer center said. “I don’t have anything to do with it. 

“The reason he didn’t score more today, I think, is that he didn’t get the ball as much as he usually does. Other guys on his team were scoring some today, so he didn’t get as many shots. The other guys were taking the shots. That’s all.”

The Jones method of guarding Abdul-Jabbar is actually no method at all. Not the way he described it. He has no favorite way to work against the big man because there is no favorite way to work. He tries to stay in front of Abdul-Jabbar for a while and, oops, that’s not working. He tries to stand behind Abdul-Jabbar for a while and, oops, that also in not working. He tries to surrender the jump shot to Abdul-Jabbar and, oops, the ball is going through the basket. He tries a bit of everything, all the pitches possible, and after he’s seen them all hit for home runs, he simply goes back to the beginning again in the rotation. That’s all he can do. 

“Did you ever try talking to him?” a man asked. 

“Yeah, I talk to him at the start of every game,” Caldwell Jones said. “I say, ‘Hey, what’s happening? Pleeeeese don’t score 50 points on me today.’ He says, ‘OK, only 48.’”

“Is there something you’d like to do to him that you haven’t been able to do?” another man asked. 

“Yeah, I’d like to get him locked up or something for a couple of weeks,” Caldwell Jones said. “That’s what I’d like to do.”

“You must be doing something right,” a third man said. “Didn’t you hear that standing ovation when you left the game once?”

“Maybe the people were cheering because they wanted me out of there, and I finally was leaving,” Caldwell Jones said. “Did you ever think of that?”

Jones (left) going up-and-down, back-and-forth with Bird

In the Eastern Division championship series against the Celtics, his defensive assignment was Larry Bird. He haunted Bird to the far reaches of the basketball court, staked out three-point land, worked an up-and-down, back-and-forth game. There was a certain ignominy to that job, the constant danger of being upstaged by the spectacular, the grind-away pounding on the legs, but this one is even worse.

This is the physical job for Caldwell Jones. This is the toe-to-toe job, the flip side. He has to bang and blast Abdul-Jabbar. He has to hold his ground against the tide. He can survive, perhaps, but he never can win. Not individually. 

“I’m just a 190-pound guy,” the Sixer center said. “I go in there, and I’m holding on and holding, playing the good defense, doing the best I can, and the ball keeps coming into Jabbar, and he keeps scoring. It’s frustrating, you know. You just stand there sometimes and say, ‘Hey, give me a break. Don’t I get any rewards for what I do?’”

The big man shook his head. He opened another Natural Light, leaned back into his locker a little bit and closed his eyes for a half second. Tired. How tired? Just tired. 

“Hey, you’re not 190 pounds,” a voice said. “You said last week that you weighed 213.”

“That, my friend, was last week,” Caldwell Jones said, opening his eyes. “I’m down to 190 today. Believe me.” 

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