By: Rich Anselmo - Director of Scouting for AND Sports & Former Rockets Scout
Former Boston Celtics great Jo Jo White passed away on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He died from complications from dementia and pneumonia that was brought on by the removal of a benign brain tumor in 2010.
White was a two time All American and three time team MVP at the University of Kansas and won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1968. White and Spencer Haywood led the underdog U.S. Olympic team to an upset win in Mexico City as the U.S. played without stars Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Pete Maravich and Wes Unseld.
After a stellar amateur career White was drafted in the first round of the 1969 NBA Draft by the defending champion Boston Celtics with the ninth pick. White was available so late in the round (he was widely considered the second best player in the draft) due to him being a reservist and on the selective service list. He would have been unavailable for eighteen months, but Celtics President Red Auerbach made sure he was there during his rookie season.
It took White a couple of seasons to adjust to the NBA game. Not being available for a part of his first season didn’t help, and adjusting to the way defense was played at that level took its toll. He improved every season and had an excellent career with the Celtics. He played ten of his twelve NBA seasons in Boston, winning two NBA titles and was Finals MVP in 1976. White never was a first team all-star and made the second team only once. He was a forgotten man in a widely forgotten decade.
After 10 seasons in Boston, where he remains 10 on the franchise's all-time scoring list and holds the Celtics record with 488 consecutive games played, White finished his 12-season NBA career playing for Golden State and Kansas City. White averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 assists and 4.0 rebounds over 12 NBA seasons and played in seven all-star games. His number 10 was retired in Boston in 1982 and was finally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, way too late for a man who deserved this honor years earlier.
White had a major and interesting hand in the 12th and 13th Celtics titles. In 1974, White closed out a tough series against the Buffalo Braves with two free throws after time expired, then had his best series to date in a five game Eastern Conference final win over the Knicks. White showed the lessons learned in the Finals as the Celtics defense outworked the Milwaukee Bucks to win the title in a grueling 7 game series.
Only the brilliance of Kareem Abdul Jabbar made this series go that long. The Celtics were so dominant they likely would have swept any other team.
In the 1976 Finals against the Phoenix Suns, White was the Finals MVP. It was a tough 6 game series but game 5 was an all-time classic, and still ranks as the greatest Finals game ever played. Early on the game looked like a blowout as the Celtics raced to a 26 point lead late in the third quarter, but the Suns kept fighting back and eventually tied the game. It was back and forth in the first overtime and remained tied. The Celtics took a lead in the second overtime with no time on the clock as the fans stormed the court. They had to clear the court and play the final second, where Suns forward Gar Heard caught and hit a log jumper to send it into the third overtime. The Celtics opened up a 6 point lead and had to hold the Suns off in the last seconds to secure a 128-126 win with White playing 60 of the games’ 63 minutes. The Celtics finished Phoenix off two days later.
As good of a player as White was, he was an even better person. He always spent time with this inquisitive youngster in Buffalo, patiently talking and answering my many questions. After retirement he became an ambassador to the game and settled in Rochester, New York for a time. It was there I bumped into White on many occasions, and we always talked as if we had just seen each other the day before. We usually “discussed” those two free throws in Buffalo (to this day I say he wasn’t fouled and the game should have gone to OT) as well as the state of the game in general. Jo Jo was always a gentleman and made time for everyone. Those are moments that will never be forgotten.
Rest well good sir, many have enjoyed your journey and will carry your legacy on with them. I am proudly one of them. Say hello to former Celtics Dennis Johnson and Pete Maravich for us. Jo Jo, DJ and the Pistol – that is one hell of a backcourt you’ll have.
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