Remembering Jo Jo, a Celtic who always put it all on the line

There are players we call overrated and undeserving to be in the Hall of Fame. Then there are those we remember as underrated and having taken too long to get in. This is the story of the latter.

The Boston Celtics had just completed winning 11 NBA titles in a 13-year span. Bill Russell and Sam Jones were calling it quits and the burden of a rebuild was placed upon their new rookie, the ninth pick in the 1969 draft. He was such a great athlete that in addition to being drafted by the Celtics, he was also drafted by the Dallas Cowboys to play football and the Cincinnati Reds to play baseball.

Jo Jo White was born on November 14th, 1946 in St. Louis, only five months after the founding of the franchise he would eventually star for. The son of a Baptist minister and the youngest of seven children, he was introduced to sports at the age of six. His close-knit community taught him to value teamwork, discipline and commitment, traits he would lead the Celtics with throughout the 1970s.

As a Kansas Jayhawk freshman, he had the distinction of playing a key role in a story that became a hit movie. “Glory Road” was about a Texas Western starting lineup of five black players defeating an all-white Kentucky team for the 1966 national championship. On the way though, in the final four, they had to get past a Kansas team in a double overtime thriller.

It was during the first overtime of the game that he made a 35-foot shot to win the game as the buzzer sounded, only to have the referees rule that he stepped out of bounds. Years later, he insisted the movie never should have happened. His Jayhawks deserved to play for the title.

A NCAA Second Team All-American in 1968 and 1969, he would lead the 1968 USA Olympic team, together with Spencer Haywood, to the last in a streak of seven consecutive gold medals.

Afterwards, White was mandated to complete a two-year commitment to the US Marine Corps. The Celtics still had John Havlicek and Don Nelson from the Russell years and Red Auerbach had different ideas. He needed a replacement for Jones at guard. Somehow, he negotiated to get White’s service shortened so he could play the 1969-70 season. Though White made the NBA All-Rookie Team, that season was the Celtics first losing season since 1950.

Then Dave Cowens was drafted, and they were back to their winning ways with a 44-38 record. By the 1971-72 season, they were back in the playoffs. Paul Silas joined the team and in 1974, Boston was again NBA Champions defeating a Bucks team led by NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.

They were back in the finals again for the 1975-76 season. White was named MVP of the series and played 60 minutes in what has often been called the greatest game in NBA history, a triple overtime win over the Phoenix Suns.

Wedged between the golden years of Bill Russell and a 1980s team led by Larry Bird, the Celtics teams of the seventies do not get talked about as much, despite being led by five players (Cowens, Silas, Nelson, White and Charlie Scott) that would get inducted into the Hall of Fame.

As for Jo Jo White, he played in all 82 games for five consecutive seasons and set a franchise record playing in 488 consecutive games. For a seven year stretch White did not miss an all-star appearance putting up averages of 19.9 points 4.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

Having suffered an injury during the 1977-78 season, White could not return to his previous level of play. His tenure with the Celtics ended after he and then player-coach Cowens had a dispute over White’s future with the team.“What displeased me,” White would say later, “was the way it was done. We (Cowens and himself) were both captains. I learned he had been named coach at practice. I thought at least I might have been given a call to see what I thought.”

In January 1979, White was traded to the Warriors. That same year, the Celtics would draft Bird and another dynasty was put in place.

White’s contribution as the leading guard of that great Boston Celtic team in the seventies continued to go unnoticed until 2015 when he was finally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Missouri Hall of Fame, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. His number 10 Celtic jersey was retired only one year after his retirement in 1981 and in 2003 the Kansas Jayhawks retired his number 15.

After the NBA, White dabbed a little in the restaurant business and movie industry. In 1994, he started the Jo Jo White Growth League for children in middle school. In 2010, after previously having a tumor removed on the back of his brain, White started the Jo Jo White Foundation to provide support for brain cancer research. He died in Boston on January 16, 2018, from complications of his dementia.

The ultimate competitor, a symbol of consistency, Joseph Henry “Jo Jo” White was the perfect soldier to start rebuilding a dynasty. If we could ask him, he would still insist that his foot was not on the line that day in 1966.