Sam Jones: King of the Bank Shot, 1968

[In mid-April 1968, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, and their defending-champion Philadelphia 76ers had a commanding three games-to-one advantage over their arch-rival Boston Celtics in their best-of-seven playoff showdown. Nobody thought the Celtics had a prayer of coming back, not even Boston Globe reporter Cliff Keane. 

“Get that Garden basketball floor in the backroom and have it waxed for another year,” Keane wrote. “It’s a mess for a big-league team. Change that lighting above so the sickening yellow lights won’t be stuck in the middle of the bright ones. Clean up the place all over—the Celtics have seen the Garden for the last time until October.”

History, of course, would prove Keane wrong. The Celtics took game five in Philly, sending the series back to Boston and “those sickening yellow lights.” The Celtics took that game, too, returning to Philly for a classic game seven and an improbably Boston triumph. 

In the pivotal game five, the star of the Boston show was 11-year veteran Sam Jones, known for  his trusty bank shot. Jones banked in 37 clutch points and played his predictable stout Celtic defense. “When you’re down three-to-one,” Jones explained in his big game afterward, “you just pull up your socks and get the job done.”

Jones’ can-do mindset prompted the Christian Science Monitor’s Phil Elderkin, one of the best NBA beat reporters in those days, to write this brief profile of the man in those high, white ankle socks. The profile isn’t long, but Elderkin does his usual nice job in this story that ran on April 19, 1968. If you want to read more about Jones, who passed away last December at age 88, you’ll like Mark Bodanza’s Ten Times a Champion.] 

Sam Jones’ skills, while as shiny as they ever were, are no longer as durable. Along about the start of the second quarter of any Boston Celtics game, Jones can plan on being rested by player-coach Bill Russell. That is precisely the way Red Auerbach prolonged Bob Cousy’s NBA career. 

But for the number of minutes he’s oncourt (between 35 and 37 a game), Sam is still one of the most-productive clutch shooters in pro basketball. His bank shot has been primarily responsible for Philadelphia’s delay in eliminating Boston from the Eastern Division playoffs. 

“As a man gets older, I think he probably gets smarter,” Jones said. “He knows what things work for him, so he relies on them. Take me, for example, I shoot exactly the same way against Philadelphia as I do against the rest of the teams in the league. If I change my style against someone like Wilt Chamberlain, then I’m giving up what I do best for something I don’t do as well.

“Look, Chamberlain is going to block some shots on me,” Sam continued. “I know that. But he isn’t going to block me enough to make any difference. If I can get to the spot I like on the floor before the man who is guarding me, I’m going to score.”

Jones’ trademark is the bank shot from the corner, or anywhere around the key, which hits the backboard and then angles neatly into the basket. Sam uses the backboard on most of his medium-range shots, although the fashion in the pro game today is to aim just over the front of the rim. 

“I developed the bank shot in high school because I couldn’t make a layup,” Sam explained. “I used to spend hours in practice aiming at the strips on the backboard.”

Not too many people know this, but the Celtics came close to losing Jones to the faculty of a North Carolina high school. “I was not exactly happy when Boston drafted me in 1957,” Sam said. “I wanted to play pro basketball, but with another club. I followed the pro game very closely in college, and I was not unaware of the situation in Boston. 

“The Celtics were coming off a championship year, and Auerbach had all his players returning,” Jones continued. “To be completely honest, I didn’t think I could make the club. 

“At the same time, I was considering a high school teaching job in North Carolina. I probably would have said yes to the school right away if the money had been better. But the pay was so poor, I decided to ask for another $500. 

“I told myself, ‘If you get that extra dough, forget the Celtics and become a teacher. You’re not going to make that Boston club anyway.’ I waited, but when nothing happened, I figured that I at least had to give the Celtics a shot.”

Auerbach, who once complained about a too-low basketball hoop in St. Louis and was proved right by a subsequent measurement, could hardly miss the talent in Sam Jones. He has a shot as soft as drifting fog, blinding speed, and the overall body of a sprinter. 

“But he was still a gamble,” Red said. “He was an unknown kid from an unknown school [North Carolina College], and it meant cutting a veteran to keep him.”

After a week of watching Jones run away from his veterans in practice, Auerbach decided to ignore convention and sign him. Sam won the job with his speed, and his shooting let him keep it. 

Jones, whose firepower has probably been felt as much by Philadelphia as any team in the league, has already announced that next season will be his last in the NBA. He will do public relations work in South America for United Fruit after he quits the Celtics, possibly moving his family there on a permanent basis. 

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