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Charlotte’s Bobby Jones earns his rightful spot in basketball’s Hall of Fame

Former NBA player Bobby Jones speaks during a news conference after being named a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2019, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Former NBA player Bobby Jones speaks during a news conference after being named a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2019, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) AP

It took half a lifetime for Bobby Jones to earn induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But on Saturday, it finally happened.

Jones, 67, retired in 1986 after a 12-year pro career in which he was a four-time NBA All-Star and made the All-Defensive first team eight years in a row. He narrowly missed being selected for the game’s ultimate honor several times before but will be enshrined with the Class of 2019, which was announced in Minneapolis a few hours before the Final Four tipped off.

Jones grew up in Charlotte, starred for South Mecklenburg in high school and then was a standout player for North Carolina in college and then for both the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets in the pros. He won an NBA championship with the 1983 76ers. He returned to Charlotte after retiring and has coached youth basketball for decades in the area at various levels. Jones has long been regarded as a prototypical teammate.

“I was driving down to Charleston with my best friend and my wife to see my son when I got the call from the hall,” Jones told the Observer in a phone interview. “I put it on speakerphone. My wife, Tess, was crying. My best friend had both his fists pumping up against the roof. It was special. This just brings back so many memories, so many games. It really has been somewhat emotional, to know you’ve been recognized by your peers like this.”

Jones became the 11th Tar Heel elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He joins, in order of induction: Ben Carnevale, Frank McGuire, Dean Smith, Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Larry Brown, James Worthy, Roy Williams, Michael Jordan and Charlie Scott.

The ‘ideal’ UNC player

The late Woody Durham once told me of Jones: “If you had to draw up the qualifications of the ideal Carolina basketball player, Bobby Jones would be it.”

The longtime Tar Heels play-by-play man then went on to rave about Jones’ combination of athleticism, selflessness and smarts. Jones was one of the stars of UNC’s famous “eight points in 17 seconds” comeback against Duke in 1974 and led the ACC in field-goal percentage for all three of his varsity seasons. Also in 1974, Jones made a steal at Duke with the score tied, hit a left-handed layup at the buzzer and just kept on running into the locker room.

Dean Smith appreciated Jones’ defensive versatility. The late UNC coach told me once in an interview that he would sometimes put Jones on 7-foot-4 Tommy Burleson of N.C. State and sometimes on Burleson’s teammate, the 6-4 dynamic dunker David Thompson.

“And he’d do a great job on either one,” Smith said.

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A natural lefty, Bobby Jones was taught to shoot right-handed by his father. Near the basket, though -- as on this drive against Duke in 1974 -- he often switched the ball to his left hand. 1974 News & Observer archive pho

Jones said that both Smith and Bill Guthridge, then a UNC assistant, were key in his development. “When I was in high school I wanted to play defense,” Jones said. “I was tall and I could block shots. When I got to North Carolina he (Smith) showed me how to play defense, weakside help, how to overplay my man, deny the ball, how to give help. He and Coach Guthridge were instrumental in my development.”

Loving the blocked shot

Jones had been a finalist at least four times before in the Hall’s secretive voting process, but each time he was denied entry. His candidacy was hurt because his offensive stats were mundane for a Hall of Famer – he averaged 12 points and six rebounds per game during his pro career.

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Bobby Jones’ favorite play in basketball was a blocked shot, like this one he executed against N.C. State’s Mo Rivers in 1974. 1974 News & Observer archive pho

Where Jones made the difference on the court was harder to quantify – he is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s all-time elite defenders. His favorite basketball play was not a dunk or a 3-pointer – Jones was an admittedly limited offensive player who didn’t make a single 3-pointer during his entire pro career (he was 0-for-17).

What Jones loved most, though, was the blocked shot.

At 6-foot-9, with leaping ability that made him a two-time state high-jump champion in high school, Jones had a natural talent for defense. He combined that with a fierce desire to chase down every loose ball. In fact, the sculpture the 76ers unveiled of him in December showed him not in the act of shooting, but instead in the act of diving for a loose ball.

“If you look at it from a distance, you’ll think that it’s broken,” Jones said of the sculpture. “But I think it’s really neat.”

In the Class of 2019, Jones will be joined by 11 other individuals or teams, including fellow former NBA stars Jack Sikma, Paul Westphal, Sidney Moncrief and former Charlotte Hornet Vlade Divac, who played for Charlotte for two of his 16 NBA seasons and was elected partly because of his superb international career. The official enshrinement will be in Springfield, Mass., in September.

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The sculpture of Bobby Jones outside the Philadelphia 76ers’ arena depicts him diving for a loose ball. Jones was part of Philadelphia’s 1983 championship team, which featured fellow hall of famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Mo Cheeks.

“It’s also special because I played against Sikma, Westphal and Moncrief,” Jones said. “They were my contemporaries. So that’s neat.”

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Chris Webber and Ben Wallace were among the more prominent former NBA players who were finalists this year but didn’t make it.

A devout Christian, Jones never drew a technical foul in his 12-year NBA career. Although he has always said he doesn’t care much for individual awards, Jones did hope to receive the honor, believing it would increase his platform for sharing his faith.

Jones mentioned Saturday at the Hall of Fame press conference in Minneapolis that he didn’t like basketball at first.

“My dad made me play when I was in middle school,” he said. “I was very uncoordinated, had big feet, and I just didn’t like the game. But he had played, and he got me to go in the backyard and start doing some drills. Through that, I started to enjoy the game because I started to have some success at it. For me in high school, as a quiet person, it was kind of my way in to be a part of a group. So I concentrated on that and had good coaches. And I think the love of the game developed in high school.”

The 47-cent hotel bill

Jones has never minded telling a joke on himself. When I asked him recently about his various nicknames in the NBA – White Shadow and White Lightning were among them – he told me one I hadn’t heard before: “Nickel Bob,” given to him by former teammate Doug Collins to tease Jones about his thriftiness.

Once while with the 76ers, Jones said: “We were playing the Nets. You’d get your incidentals bill at the hotel at checkout. I had brought my own lunch so I didn’t have to pay for lunch. I had made one phone call, so my incidentals bill was 47 cents. And when my teammates saw that, they just went crazy: ‘Oh, you’re such a big spender!’”

The “big spender” got into an exclusive club Saturday, a place so exclusive that neither 47 cents nor 47 million dollars can get you in there. You must have the credentials.

Jones has had those credentials for a long time. On Saturday, basketball’s Hall of Fame finally recognized it.

Kansas City Star staff writer Blair Kerkhoff contributed.

Former North Carolina Tar Heels and NBA star Bobby Jones is up for nomination to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Jones starred in the ABA for the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”

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