K.C. Jones brings calming influence, winning ways to SuperSonics bench

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE -- Some things are obvious about K.C. Jones. He has a grin that explodes from ear to ear, and his eyes twinkle in lighter moments.

When it gets to harsher times, those eyes narrow and glare with laser force.

"But the one thing you'd better know is K.C. always notices everything," Bernie Bickerstaff said. "You may think he's not paying attention. You may think he's bored. But he's got it. You think he's distracted. But if he sees it or hears it, then he's got it. For good. That's just one of the things that makes K.C. special."

Of course Bickerstaff has a prejudiced viewpoint. The two have been volleying compliments and job opportunities for 17 years. Now it has come to this. Jones has taken over as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics for Bickerstaff, who now is the general manager of the Denver Nuggets, after a six-week interlude as vice president of basketball operations for the Sonics.

"Oh, we're different," Bickerstaff said. "But I'll let other people assess that. All I can say is anyone who has any intelligence at all will stop and listen to what K.C. Jones has to say about basketball. You can't beat his track record."

Yes, the record. Make that 463-193 in his eight years as coach of the Capital-Washington Bullets and the Boston Celtics. His teams finished second only once during that time; the rest were division champions. The detractors said Jones had great teams and did little coaching.

"That's ridiculous," Celtics assistant Jon Jennings said. "We still have offensive plays he devised in our offense. The man is a basketball genius. Anyone who has spent a lot of time with him . . . has to know that."

And that's why Bickerstaff and Sonics president Bob Whitsitt sought Jones prior to last season. He stepped down after six years at the Celtics helm and became vice president of basketball operations for the Celtics for the 1988-89 season. He went off on scouting trips and viewed the league with a different sense of purpose.

"I wanted to get away from coaching," Jones said. "I thought I had had enough. I felt like an old man. Then when I was away for that year, I realized the fires were still burning. I missed being back on the bench. And Bernie was the only guy I knew I could be an assistant for."

Back on the bench he was. While Bickerstaff jabbed and danced with officials, pounded scorers' tables, left every emotion on the floor, Jones would sit on the bench and watch. Think. Occasionally stand up and point something out to Bickerstaff.

If it was the peptic ulcer that drove Bickerstaff out of coaching, it is the sense of calm that has allowed Jones to remain in the game.

"Making a coaching move is like making a major player move, but we're fortunate because K.C. was here a year," Whitsitt said. "What could have been a difficult transition should be an easy one. There won't be that year adjustment period. He knows the players, the referees and all the coaches.

"Everybody has his own personality, but K.C. is obviously more relaxed than Bernie. Where Bernie would react to every play and every call, K.C. will sit there and nod at what's happening. Bernie may not sit down a whole game."

And therein may be the biggest benefit for the Sonics. The continuously anxious Sonics that struggled to a 41-41 mark last year shouldn't be as stressed out.

"It will mean a big difference for me," Sonics reserve center Olden Polynice said. "There were all these promises, and Bernie just jacked me around. I never knew when I would play or what he was thinking. How could I get a comfort zone?"

Said point guard Nate McMillan: "You know there will be a big difference with K.C. There won't be this looking over your shoulder like everybody was doing last year."

Enough about the difference between the two. In his 58 years on this planet, K.C. Jones has spent nearly 50 of those in basketball. Before he was 10 years old, he was moved all over Texas by his father, who found work in oil fields and as a cook whenever and wherever. Softball and football were the games he learned first.

Then everything changed. His mother Eula took the five children to San Francisco where 11-year-old K.C. grew into a man at the recreation center of the projects. That's when he fell in love with basketball, although football remained close behind.

"The rec center gave me a new life and a lot of it centered on basketball," Jones said. "Every day we used to run up this hill at Hunter's Point near Candlestick Park for 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 games. I was developing a natural instinct for hustle and determination that I would never lose. But I never even knew I was doing it."

That was just the start. After high school, he gained a new father-figure in University of San Francisco basketball coach Phil Woolpert, whose son Paul is the Sonics' video coordinator for game films. It was more than just learning the intricacies of the game. Offense. Defense. X's. O's. It was a concept of life. Of sport. To continue learning and grow together with unerring confidence. That's where he first joined forces with Bill Russell, won a National Collegiate Athletic Association title in 1955 and an Olympic gold medal the next year.

"I had the confidence necessary to go down to the Los Angeles Rams and make the team as a defensive back, even though I didn't play college football," Jones said. "But I quit because I realized that I wanted to play basketball. So I went to Boston to play with Russell. I just knew I would make the team."

This second-round draft choice wasn't particularly fast, nor could he jump very well. He definitely couldn't shoot and never averaged in double figures. And yet K.C. Jones started for a good portion of his nine years with the Boston Celtics. They won the National Basketball Association title eight of those season and he was named to the Hall of Fame in 1988.

"Because I didn't have the talent of the other players, I had to be a mental giant on the floor," Jones said. "I had to out-think Oscar [Robertson], or Jerry West, or Lenny Wilkens. That was how I was able to compete. Basketball is completely a mental approach when you get to the NBA.

"Talented players who are smart become legends in this game. The lesser-talented players who are smart can still be very good players."

He didn't exactly explode on the coaching scene after retirement. Three years as the Brandeis coach in Division III preceded a season as an assistant at Harvard.

"That was hard to get adjusted to," Jones said. "But now that I think about it, I know it changed my perspective a little bit. I was at schools that academics were first and basketball was secondary. It gave me a different outlook."

After a one-year stint with the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association, Jones took over the Bullets in 1973. He also hired Bickerstaff as his assistant. They won the Atlantic Division two of those three years together before he was fired. He was an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and for the Celtics before leading the Celtics from 1983-88.

All of it came together: the lessons learned from Woolpert, Russell, and of course, Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Teams are built from the ground-level up. Fundamentals and mutual drive. Teach it hard and teach it well, then step aside.

"We all know it's about fundamentals," Jones said. "The players are bigger than you are. If you get into a competition of egos, you're in big trouble. You coach in practice. Games are for the players."

If the philosophy sounds simplistic in nature, it couldn't be more so. That's the idea. It's the way that both Woolpert Auerbach coached. Why should he have interrupted Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge with lots of screaming and concepts?

"If I had done that," Jones said. "Then I would have been a bad coach.

"It's about commitment. That we're a family. You get everybody into the role they do best, understanding the fundamental concepts, then let them play."

That is what is expected of the Sonics. It's the golden rule of Jones' coaching philosophy. No, there aren't the veteran leadership and on-court smarts that have characterized the Celtics system since the 1950s. But there are other aspects of this team that attracted Jones.

"The talent and desire is here -- that's first in my mind," he said. "We'll instill defense and the offensive fundamentals to get the easiest basket possible -- a fast-break layup. Those who catch on the quickest will play the most. It's simple as that. There's only one thing for sure, we're all here for the same reason -- to win."

Can he pull it off?

With that record, who dares to doubt?

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