Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a nine-part series on the 2013 inductees to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Induction ceremonies will be held Saturday in Natchitoches.
Larry Wright almost fell out of his chair.
When told that James “Jimmy” Jones was a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class of 2013, Wright exclaimed: “You mean Jimmy isn’t there already? You have to be kidding me. He should’ve been in there sooner.”
To which a multitude of Jimmy Jones fans, be they spread out from North Louisiana to the professional ranks, would surely agree.
As is sometimes the case with newly elected members of the state’s most prestigious landmark for athletic greatness, sometimes the honor comes with an ‘why-not-sooner?’ footnote.
It applies to Jones.
Flip back through the pages of his statistical manual from Tallulah’s McCall High, then Grambling and finally the American Basketball Association/National Basketball Association and you’ll make the discovery of a player who seemed to fly under the proverbial radar wherever he performed.
High school: 25.6 scoring average, 6.8 rebounds per game.
College: 20.1 points, 8.2 rebounds per contest.
Pros: 16.6 scoring, 4.3 rebounding, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
Excellent numbers, but usually the publicity and attention didn’t match the production.
Maybe it was his low-key, soft-spoken personality.
Maybe it was the lack of 24/7 coverage from the media as exists today.
Regardless, Jimmy Jones is undeniably worthy, and long overdue, for being chosen to Louisiana’s basketball-rich Hall of Fame. He will be inducted on Saturday along with eight of the state’s all-time athletic greats.
“You could tell early on he was a skilled player,” recalled two-time NBA MVP and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed, who was a senior at Grambling when Jones was a freshman. “He was an excellent offensive and defensive player and teammate. I wish I had a few years being on the same team with him, but I could tell during the one year there he had a future as a professional.”
At 6-4 and 188 pounds, Jones played as a big guard.
“He could do everything a smaller guard could do,” said Wright, who starred at Monroe-Richwood before earning All-American honors at Grambling. “He could handle the basketball like your smaller guards could do, yet go in and get some rebounds like a forward could do.”
Another state Hall of Fame candidate with impressive stats and honors, yet still waiting on that phone call for induction, Wright is a huge fan and admirer of Jones.
“He and Herschel West were two of the main reasons I went to Grambling State University,” said Wright, now an assistant principal at Rayville High School. “They were two of the greatest players to ever play there and I wanted to be like both of them.”
Offered former Grambling All-American and 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Aaron James: “Jimmy wasn’t just a big guard who could do things like a center, he was also just a good person who was always positive. If you had anything to discuss about the game, Jimmy was one who was always glad to help out.”
Ironically, Jones and Wright would be on the same Washington Bullets’ NBA team during its world championship season of 1976-77.
But that arrival in D.C. wouldn’t come until 10 seasons after “JJ” had began his pro career in 1967 with the New Orleans Buccaneers of the old ABA.
He had actually been chosen as the No. 1 pick of the then Baltimore-based Bullets in the 1967 NBA draft.
But at that time, Jones didn’t feel comfortable with his chances of being able to break into quick playing time with the Bullets for a variety of reasons and opted to sign with the Bucs.
“I took less money from the ABA, but felt I could have a better chance of contributing and playing a lot,” he said.
The NBA’s loss was definitely the ABA’s gain.
For seven years, he was one of the league’s premier players, averaging 19.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
After producing for 18.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists as a rookie, Jones avoided the sophomore jinx with a 26.2 scoring average.
He was quickly named to the All-Rookie and All-ABA squads and put down the foundation of a career that would have him eventually chosen to its All-Time teams.
He became only the second player in league history to score 2,000-plus points (2,050 in 1968-69) in a season.
After playing for the Bucs from 1967-70, Jones went to the Memphis Pros (1970-71) and Utah Stars (1971-74).
The six-time ABA All-Star led the league in free throws in 1973-74 with an .884 percentage.
“I loved playing in the ABA,” Jones said. “It was a good league with a lot of great players. I’m honored to currently be on the ballot of former ABA players who are being considered for election to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in the next several years. Considering the quality of players to come out of that league, it’s a huge honor.”
Several years ago, SLAM magazine came out with a list of the most underrated professional players of all time, be it in the NBA or ABA.
Yes, Jimmy Jones made that list.
“He was phenomenal during his time in the ABA,” Wright said. “All-Pro, All-Rookie, outstanding statistics. He was to the ABA what Oscar Robertson was to the NBA, a big guard who could do the things of a small guard.”