N.C. Central reconnected with its basketball royalty this week in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Sam Jones, a Hall of Famer whose jersey No. 41 is retired and hanging inside the Eagles’ gym, surprised the team and coach LeVelle Moton with a visit and inspirational message after their victory Monday at Bethune-Cookman.
The current Eagles were born decades after Jones won 10 NBA championships with Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics and weren’t even in elementary school when he was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players during 1996.
They know Jones’ name and history – Moton has made sure of that – but they had no idea who the elderly man was chatting with their coach.
“They see Sam Jones every single day,” Moton joked, “but he was in his 20s in the photos.”
So Moton connected the generations and introduced Jones to the team.
“They gave him a standing ovation,” Moton said.
The visit was rare – Jones lives in Orlando, Fla., and plays golf as often as possible, Moton said – but their friendship has stayed constant for two decades.
Moton is from Boston, a Celtics fan with a particular admiration for Jones. Without prompting, he recounted Jones’ largely anonymous role in John Havlicek’s steal that clinched Game 7 of a 1965 Eastern Conference finals. Havlicek tipped the inbounds pass that led to one of the most famous radio calls in sports history, but it was Jones who beat 76ers forward Chet Walker to secure the loose ball.
Moton, a star guard with N.C. Central during the mid-1990s, met his hero almost by accident. Jones was back on campus, visiting coaches, when Moton walked into the basketball office.
“I literally almost collapsed,” Moton said. “I shook his hand and wouldn’t let go. … I was star-struck.”
Moton sensed a similar sentiment from his players Monday.
“This generation is funny,” Moton said. “Their basketball history begins with Michael Jordan. My goal since I got here was to recreate the history … connect the dots. Every player who walks through those doors needs to know that history.”
Jones addressed the team with a life lesson: N.C. Central’s campus sits in the shadows of three college basketball giants, but zip codes don’t determine success. He told them it’s not about North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State or even Wake Forest. It’s about making the most wherever you are.
Jones regaled the team with a story about how he was drafted. North Carolina star Lennie Rosenbluth scored 20 points as the Tar Heels knocked off Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas to win the 1957 NCAA championship.
Boston’s Red Auerbach took a scouting trip south with the intent of drafting a Tar Heel. Bones McKinney, a former Wake Forest coach, told Auerbach he could visit Chapel Hill, but the best player in the state was a few miles away.
The Philadelphia Warriors selected Rosenbluth with the sixth pick. Boston made its choice two picks later.
“Red drafted Sam Jones without ever seeing him play,” Moton said.