Barry Saunders

Bank on it: NCCU’s Sam Jones ruled

NC Central coach LeVelle Moton, left, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, center, and NCCU alumnus and former Boston Celtics player Sam Jones gather for the retirement of Jones' jersey numberin Durham.
NC Central coach LeVelle Moton, left, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, center, and NCCU alumnus and former Boston Celtics player Sam Jones gather for the retirement of Jones' jersey numberin Durham. AP

Even casual fans know who was the most successful professional basketball player from North Carolina.

If you were spotted the fact that he is from Wilmington, you’d definitely consider the answer a slam dunk, right?

Yep. Sam Jones.

Whatchutalkinbout, Willis?

That other Wilmington baller was pretty successful, of course. Michael Jordan won six championships in the 1980s and ’90s and is considered among the five greatest NBA players ever. Jones, though, played on 10 championship teams with the Boston Celtics during the 1950s and ’60s. That is second only to Bill Russell, his teammate and the most successful player in NBA history.

Jones was the first N.C. College at Durham player drafted into the NBA and last week became the first alumnus to have his jersey retired.

Despite his success as a player at N.C. College – it didn’t become N.C. Central University until 1969 – he will still always be regarded as only the second-best player even from his hometown.

Of course, despite being selected as one of the NBA’s top 50 players of all time, he was never even the best player on his team. Jones – poor fellow – had the misfortune to play with 10 hall-of-famers during his 12 years with the Celtics.

When he was honored at his alma mater last Thursday prior to NCCU’s beating N.C. A&T State University, he spoke of being depressed when he was drafted by the Celtics and looked at the team’s roster full of great players. Who wouldn’t be depressed knowing you were going to be competing for a job against Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones and Tommy Heinsohn?

Jones, though, who also attended Laurinburg Institute, bided his time and eventually became an integral part of the Celtics dynasty.

I painfully remember Jones from his NBA days, when I hated the Celtics and his bank-shot-shooting self because during the 1960s they beat the teams for which I rooted every year but one. From a remove of almost 50 years, it’s hard to figure out why my buddies and I didn’t root for the Celtics. The team had Red Auerbach, a coach and general manager who didn’t care what color a player was if he was good. Auerbach not only hired the first black head coach in the NBA, but he himself was the first coach to start five black players.

That’s hard to comprehend now, when an all-bro team doesn’t even merit a mention in college or the pros.

The black players on the Celtics – Russell, Jones, Satch Sanders, among others – carried themselves with unassailable dignity, even though they were still sometimes assailed even in Boston.

(Perhaps we hated them because of those short socks they wore.)

Jones didn’t invent the bank shot, but he was the No. 1 practitioner of it. He could dribble down the court at full speed, stop suddenly and bank the ball in off the backboard.

It was, even to us Celtics haters, a thing of beauty.

Dr. Larry Silverberg, a professor of engineering at N.C. State University, thinks so, too.

“The bank shot is an incredible shot” which can increase your chances of making a shot by 20 percent or more, Silverberg said when I talked with him Thursday.

Because he is an engineer who has actually studied and dissected the physics of a basketball shot, Silverberg had to use phrases such as “depending upon the consistency of launch.”

“It’s pretty much a lost art,” he said, although he said his department has designed a training aid to help Wolfpack players master that skill.

NCCU’s coach, Lavelle Moton, is an alum and is in the conversation when talk turns to the best NCCU Eagles ever. Moton might want to enlist the aid – or YouTube highlight clips, since Jones is 81 – of the indisputable best, an alumnus who rode the bank shot all the way to the bank and to the Hall of Fame.