(Part 2 of a 9-part series on the 2013 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction class)
(Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association)
Larry Wright almost fell out of his chair.
Told about James "Jimmy" Jones being 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 State University 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 scoring mark, 8.2 boards each 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 Saturday, June 29, at the sold-out ceremony in Natchitoches.
"You could tell early on that he was a skilled player," recalled two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed, who was a senior at Grambling State when Jones was a freshman. "He was an excellent offensive and defensive player and teammate. I wish I had had a few years being on the same team with him at Grambling, but I could tell during the one year there that he had a future as a professional."
At 6-4 and 188 pounds, Jones played as a big guard.
"But he could do everything a smaller guard could do," remembered Wright, who starred at Monroe Richwood High before earning All-American and All-Southwestern Athletic Conference and league MVP accolades at Grambling State. "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 why 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. It was Jimmy and Herschel who were the guys I thought the world of at Grambling."
Offered former GSU All-American and 2012 state 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 now defunct American Basketball Association.
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 thus opted to sign on 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."
And 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."
Jones honed his skills at an early age in his hometown of Rayville, albeit despite having a love for a different sport.
"My first love was baseball," he said. "I played shortstop and was the No.3 hitter on our baseball team and felt as if I had the tools to make a career out of it.
When I got to Grambling I begged 'Prez' (Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, then university president and head baseball coach) to let me play baseball and basketball."
Then Tigers' hoops coaching legend Fred Hobdy, however, had different plans.
"Coach Hobdy said I could only play basketball," Jones recalled with a chuckle. "He didn't want me playing any other sport. So with that, I started developing a great love for the game. That's where my love of the game began and didn't end until I quit playing."
While with the Tigers, Grambliing won three consecutive SWAC championships.
Jones and Hobdy hit it off quickly.
"I can never think of a time when he got mad at me or anything," he said. "He would yell at some of the other players, but not me. I think he could see that I loved playing and would do anything to help the team."
That's how Reed remembered Jones as a freshman.
"You never had to worry about Jimmy," said one of the sport's most decorated and revered players. "There were never any problems with him at all. He was a good teammate."
Likewise, Jones has fond memories of how much Reed meant to him in the maturation process as both an athlete and person.
"Willils encouraged me to be a leader as a guard, that it wasn't all about the big men on the team," said Jones, who now has his own marketing firm and lives in Henderson, Nev. (where he's known to get in plenty of golf).
"That stuck with me because I knew that if the guards did their job right and got the basketball into our big men, then we would all be successful. Back then, we also had Wilbur Frazier, who we called 'The King' and he was like Willis in that you wanted to get the ball into him so we could win. But the leadership aspect of my career at Grambling, it developed because of what Willis taught me."
James remembered the times — surely, too many to count — that he wouldn't get many shot attempts with the New Orleans Jazz because there was this other player on the team who would fire 'em up once the team bus stopped.
Guy by the name of Pistol Pete Maravich.
"I told Jimmy about it once and asked him what I should do," James said with a chuckle. "He said to let Pete get double-teamed as much as possible and then he'd have no other choice but to get me the basketball."
When Jones is inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he'll join an impressive group of hoops' legends from Grambling — Bob Hopkins, Hobdy, Reed and James.
"Jimmy has never gotten the recognition he deserves as one of Louisiana's all-time greatest players," Wright said. "He's probably the least known superstar to come out of Grambling State University."
But no longer.
That will all change on the last Saturday night of June in Natchitoches.