PITTSFIELD — Sam Jones died recently. Only old basketball fans like me will recognize his name.
Along with K.C. Jones, Sam was one of the “Jones Boys” who supplanted Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman as the starting back court for The Boston Celtics. The Celtics dominated the early days of the NBA, winning 11 league championships between 1957 and 1969.
The death of Sam Jones on Dec. 30, at the age of 88, brought back memories of my childhood and one memory that specifically involves him.
For me, growing up in the ’50s was close to idyllic. My father worked for a small local company, a box factory that manufactured silverware and jewelry chests. Lacking education beyond high school, he was chronically underpaid, and my mother didn’t work outside the home, so money was always tight.
When I wasn’t in school or doing my chores, I was playing sports, having been influenced by my mother. Mom was a huge sports fan, proudly informing anyone who cared (and few did) that over the course of the season she’d listen on the radio to every single Red Sox game.
We lived in a rural New England town where my parents were able to build a modest home next to a farm that had gone fallow. The old farmer and his wife soon invited my parents to work the farm. Dad still worked at the box factory, but farming was the job he loved. We all loved life on the farm. My mother was never happier than when she was canning fruit and freezing vegetables and putting away a year’s worth of provisions.
Not many kids lived in the neighborhood, so finding teammates and opponents for me to play sports with was difficult. Thus, basketball was mostly solitary for me. The high school varsity team played in the town hall auditorium, which was so small there was no room for out-of-bounds territory. Any ball that hit the wall resulted in a turnover.
So, I mostly shot hoops by myself after Dad attached a rim to the back wall of the barn. The “court” was hardly level, sloping dramatically away from the barn. I positioned an old RCA Radiola in the barn window so I could listen to Celtics games as I played, dreaming that someday, I’d be a Celtic.
Bill Russell was, of course, my favorite player, but I identified in particular with Sam Jones because we were both shooting guards. I patterned my bank shot after his.
On innumerable occasions, playing the imaginary Knicks and shooting at the crooked hoop attached to our barn, I’d bank in a game-winner at the buzzer: “Sam Jones for the win! Bang!”
My athletic abilities to multitask included dribbling over a rocky surface and making a runner (I didn’t have a jump shot — never did) as time expired, all the while doing the play-by-play in Johnny Most’s gravelly voice.
Shooting was a bit tricky. In addition to being slanted to the right, the rim was 10 feet high underneath, but it was 11 feet high at what would have been the free throw line thanks to the sloping yard. I didn’t always win the game on the first take. Sometimes, it took two or three (or more) shots, but the accommodating Knicks never complained about the extra efforts. They were such losers.
In 1959, when I was 10, my parents conjured up a great adventure for me. Dad had driven to New York City for a meeting relating to his job at the box factory and was coming home the next day. I’d never been on an airplane or outside of New England, so their brainstorm was for me to fly alone to New York early in the morning where I’d meet Dad, visit the city, stay in a hotel (also a first) and we’d drive home together the next day. This was an extravagance unparalleled in my childhood.
An adventure indeed. I recall the day vividly, including lunch at a midtown steakhouse (my first-ever restaurant meal), a tour of the Empire State Building with Dad, exploring Times Square alone while he was working (wow!) and staying at a hotel (room service and elevator operators).
But the flight to New York was the absolute high point.
Mom drove me to Logan and escorted me to the gate. I stood alone in line to board the airplane, a twin engine C-47, the same model of aircraft Dad had flown, dodging Japanese Zero fighter jets for 2 1/2 years in the Pacific theater. I was plenty nervous. Imagine a little blond farmboy — I was small for my age — getting on his first airplane by himself.
And my diminutive stature was accentuated by my fellow passengers who were almost all gigantic men. They towered over me as we walked onto the plane.
Once on board, the stewardess pinned me with Eastern Airlines wings, and found me a seat next to a kind-looking gentleman. He offered to keep an eye on me during the flight.
We were not introduced, but I recognized him immediately. It was Sam Jones. He and the Celtics team were taking an early flight to LaGuardia for a game that night against the New York Knicks.
I got glimpses of most of the players: Cousy, “Jungle Jim” Loscutoff, Sharman and others. Tommy Heinsohn was unforgettable, his voice booming as he ran the poker game in the rear of the plane and hit on the stewardesses. Russell was very serious and quiet.
And Sam kept his word by looking after me. We chatted all the way to New York, and he had a charming, high-pitched North Carolina accent that I can still hear. We’d both grown up on farms, so we had that in common. And, of course, basketball. We were both shooters.