The ultimate team player
"We learned that at North Carolina, to thank the guy for the pass," Jones recalls. "I took it one extra step; even if I missed the layup, I still thanked the guy – it wasn’t his fault that I missed the shot. You’re not an island by yourself out there. It’s a five -man game and if you can encourage somebody – just a gesture to let the crowd or the coach know that I scored but this guy should get some credit because he allowed me to score by getting me the ball at the right time – that helps everybody."
Jones averaged 15.0 ppg and 9.8 rpg while shooting .600 from the field at North Carolina. During his sophomore year the Tar Heels, led by senior Bob McAdoo’s 19.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg, finished third in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina ranked in the top 12 in the final regular season poll each of the next two seasons, but played in the NIT both times because the Tar Heels did not win the ACC Tournament and until 1975 the NCAA Tournament only took one team from each conference.
"Larry is always looking to be aggressive on the defensive end," Jones says. "He had the same kind of mindset that Coach (Dean) Smith had when I was in college. He looks for players who are not worried about scoring the ball. His teams really try to hold the other team down as much as possible. That was a big factor in me going to Denver – the fact that Larry was there. All that I learned during those four years at North Carolina, he just continued that on."
Jones set the ABA single-season field goal percentage record (.605) while ranking fifth in the league in blocked shots and eighth in the league in steals. He was selected to the All-Rookie Team and the All-Defensive Team. The Nuggets raced to a 65-19 record, the best mark in the ABA, but lost in seven games to the Indiana Pacers in the Western Division finals.
"He was long, a very good athlete, he ran well," Mel Daniels, the center on those great Pacers teams who currently serves as that franchise’s director of player personnel, says of Jones. "He understood how to play. His biggest attribute was the fact that he knew how to play basketball effectively and efficiently."
The Nuggets added rookie David Thompson and veteran All-Star center Dan Issel in 1975-76 and the two future Hall of Famers combined with Jones to form an impressive frontcourt trio. Jones again led the ABA in field goal percentage (.581) while ranking among the leaders in blocked shots (fifth) and steals (fifth). The Nuggets finished with the league’s best record, 60-24, and faced the New York Nets in the ABA Finals.
Denver had the better, deeper team on paper; that season’s ABA All-Star Game consisted of the Nuggets versus All-Stars from the rest of the league’s teams – and Denver won 144-138, with Thompson earning MVP honors. What Denver didn’t have was a way to stop the incomparable Julius Erving, who carried the Nets to a six-game triumph with one of the greatest performances in basketball history. Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) – and he did a lot of the damage versus Jones, who was probably the best defensive forward in pro basketball.
"Julius had a terrific series," Al Albert, a Nuggets broadcaster at the time, says. "It was really pretty surprising to see somebody able to score that easily against Bobby Jones and it just represented how great Julius Erving was."
Jones remembers the challenge of guarding Erving: "Playing against him as a young rookie and a kid, he had that wild Afro and it looked like he had a scowl on his face. He was a little bit intimidating with his physical presence and what he could do on the court. Julius was really a true triple threat kind of player. He could pass, he could shoot and he could drive to the basket."
The NBA-ABA merger occurred after that season and the Nuggets continued to be successful in the combined league, going 50-32 in 1976-77, winning the Midwest Division and tying Erving’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, for the second best record in the NBA. Jones ranked third in field goal percentage (.570), sixth in steals and just missed the top ten in blocked shots. Denver’s playoff run was again ended by a superstar on a mission – Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Nuggets en route to winning the NBA title.
Denver won the Midwest Division again in 1977-78 and made it to the Western Conference finals. Jones led
"He played the way Larry Brown says – play the game the right way, that was Bobby Jones," Albert recalls. "He was among the greatest teammates that you could ever have and everything revolved around him on the defensive end. The Nuggets were a fast-breaking team because they could go on the break after he either made a stop or came up with a rebound."
Asked recently about Jones’ impact defensively at that time, Brown says: "He had a pretty good beginning being with Coach Smith and understanding the importance of defending and doing your job and realizing that you win games by doing those things... Every year everybody would say that there was nobody better in the league (defensively) other than the centers, having an impact on the game."
Jones seemed to be a perfect fit in Denver, which made the August 1978 trade that sent him to the 76ers for George McGinnis very puzzling on the surface. What outside observers did not know is how close a combination of medical conditions came to ending Jones’ career.
Jones has battled epilepsy his whole life, but that was not the main problem he faced at the time: "That illness is a brain disorder that really didn’t affect me as far as my playing, except for the medication that I had to take. When I was playing for Denver, I was also taking another medication because of a rapid heartbeat that I developed during my first year with the Nuggets. The combination of those two drugs really had an adverse effect on my lifestyle, not just my performance. It made me really drowsy and sluggish and it really caused me to get traded."
The Nuggets had serious concerns about the long-term implications of his physical maladies.
"They felt like my career was pretty much over and I kind of questioned it, too," Jones says. "I didn’t think that I could play like that. There wasn’t an idea of waiting to see how I would do the next year. It was, ‘Here’s an opportunity to trade for George McGinnis, so let’s go ahead and do that.’ I don’t blame them for that at all. I probably would have done the same thing. You just didn’t know what was going to happen (with his medical condition)."
The trade revitalized Jones’ career: "As it ended up, when I got to Philly, the heart thing went away. I think that maybe it was the altitude or something in Denver. I don’t know. I’ve never had that problem again. So I was able to handle the epilepsy medicine, which was phenobarbital. I could take that – I still take it today – and it didn’t really affect me that badly, so I was able to perform at the level that I had been."
Playing for the 76ers meant teaming up with his old ABA rival Julius Erving and Jones found that it was much more enjoyable playing with Dr. J than against him.
"He was a great teammate, was a great encourager of his teammates. He never put anybody down because they couldn’t rise to his level. He would always just encourage everybody to do what they could do and wouldn’t get on them because they couldn’t do what he could do. I remember that at the end of games guys might throw the ball away or miss the last shot or whatever and feel like they lost the game. He would be the first one in the locker room to put an arm around a guy and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them next time.’ I always really appreciated that about him."
The 76ers made it to the Eastern Conference finals five times in Jones’ seven years with the team, winning three Eastern titles. Philadelphia won an NBA championship in 1983 and the Sixers’ 12-1 playoff dominance was unmatched until the 2000-01 Lakers went 15-1 in the postseason. Erving and newly acquired center Moses Malone were the 1983 team’s headliners and guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney also made the All-Star team that year. Jones failed to average double figures in scoring for the first time in his career, trading All-Star status for an opportunity to win an elusive ring. His sacrifice was honored when he was selected as the winner of the NBA’s inaugural Sixth Man Award, recognizing him as the best non-starter in the league.
The 76ers retained the same core players in 1983-84 but their bid for back-to-back titles ended in a shocking first-round playoff loss to the New Jersey Nets.
Jones explains how the 76ers fell so far so fast: "I think it was a couple things. One, when you’re the champion you’re the target for the other teams and I think that was a motivation for a lot of teams. That hurt us a little bit. Two, we weren’t as prepared to defend our title and I don’t think that we had the same motivation as a team to play unselfishly and to play together. I think that there were some guys who were more concerned about their minutes, their points, their contracts than they were about what they could do to help the team. That was disappointing to me. That was one of the most disappointing parts of my career, really, that 1984 season – especially the playoffs, losing in the first round to New Jersey."
Philadelphia added rookie Charles Barkley in 1984-85 and returned to the Eastern Conference finals, but Boston dispatched the 76ers four games to one. Jones retired after the 1985-86 campaign.
Jones made the All-Defensive Team in 11 of his 12 seasons, missing out only in his last year. He never averaged 20 ppg in a season, but athleticism and good shot selection enabled him to shoot .560 from the field during his ABA/NBA career and win three field goal percentage titles.
Perhaps Albert best explains Jones’ impact: "Some guys are ‘glue’ players. You don’t see it in the boxscore but the team would fall apart without them. They really held the team together. If there are ‘glue’ players, then I would call Bobby Jones ‘Super-Glue.’"
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com