Jo Jo White

 

 

http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/jojo_white/jojo_white_page1.htm

POWER POINT

Michael D. McClellan

 

The exquisite jumper and boundless energy were nonpareil, yet these attributes barely tell the story of how Jo Jo White became one of the most important Boston Celtics of all time.  He is perhaps most famous for his role in “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, the triple-overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, and yet his was a career built on the dual pilings of longevity (10 seasons in a Celtic uniform, seven seasons an NBA All-Star) and durability (a team record 488 consecutive games played).  He was the ideal teammate, willing to suppress his considerable offensive talents in order to make those around him better.  He was a superbly conditioned athlete and the catalyst of a vaunted fast–break attack that won two world championships in the mid-70s.   He was, above all else, the consummate Boston Celtic; like Frank Ramsey and Satch Sanders before him, White understood his roll and played it to perfection, and in the process continued the Celtic tradition of placing team-centric accomplishments ahead of individual honors.

 

Jo Jo White was another in a long line of Red Auerbach masterstrokes; while highly coveted in the 1969 NBA Draft, the Kansas All-American slipped to the Celtics because of what was believed to be a two-year military obligation.  White found himself in the Marine Reserve program instead, and Auerbach suddenly had the foundation on which to build a post-Russell title winner.  A year later, Auerbach would add swashbuckling center Dave Cowens to the mix; by 1974 the Boston Celtics were once again atop the basketball world.

 

White, who grew up playing sports in St. Louis, was such a gifted all-around athlete that both the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Reds drafted him.  A consensus All-American at Kansas, White helped the United States to Olympic gold in Mexico City as the U.S. erupted for 17 unanswered points to begin the second half against the Yugoslavians.  (White would score eight points in the onslaught.)

 

Still, his name will forever be linked to "The Greatest Game Ever Played", and on that sweat-box of a stage otherwise known as Boston Garden, Jo Jo White came to play.  Thirty-three points.  Hellish defense.  Sixty-plus minutes on the court in a pivotal, triple-overtime Game 5 that put the Celtics up 3-2 in the series.  White's performance catapulted Boston to its 13th NBA title, guaranteed him the NBA Finals MVP award, and solidified his place in the pantheon of Celtic immortals.

 

I had the good fortune of speaking with Mr. White just hours before his beloved Jayhawks were to square off against Syracuse for the NCAA Championship in New Orleans.  He was very accommodating despite a hectic schedule that includes his role as Director of Special Projects and Community Relations with the Boston Celtics.  Intelligent, articulate and thoughtful, Jo Jo White epitomizes what Celtic greatness is all about.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your Kansas Jayhawks play Syracuse tonight for the national championship.  Congratulations are certainly in order – you must certainly be thrilled.  Please give me your thoughts on this Kansas team and its coach, Roy Williams.

 JO JO WHITE
This Kansas team has jelled tremendously as the season has progressed.  I’m very impressed by the way that they’ve pulled together, and I’m hoping that they can win the national championship tonight.  I don’t want to jinx them [laughs], because I’ve picked Kansas to win it all before and they’ve fallen short.

While this KU squad might not have as much talent as some of the Kansas teams of the past, it’s an experienced group that plays well together.  That says a great deal about the players, and it also speaks volumes about Coach Williams.

It should be a competitive game regardless of the outcome.  Both teams are extremely well-coached, and very deserving of the championship.  I’m looking forward to it.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Any plans to watch the game with Celtic star and fellow KU alum Paul Pierce?

 JO JO WHITE
No – after that tough loss yesterday (against the Wizards), I’m sure that Paul will be focused on Boston’s next game in Washington.

 

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were born on November 14th, 1946 – just five months after Walter Brown founded the Boston Celtics.  Please tell me a little about your childhood – where you lived, and some of the things that helped to shape you as a person.

 JO JO WHITE
I was born and raised in St. Louis.  Although I was playing basketball by the age of six, sports in general had a big influence on my childhood.  They taught me many valuable lessons, such as teamwork, discipline and commitment.  So, sports – all sports, not just basketball – were a very large part of my life.  Sports also brought our community closer together.  By that I mean everyone in the neighborhood played.

Still, I always found myself migrating back to basketball.  It was a great game to play, and as I developed, I just got more and more into it.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Who were some of the role models that you looked up to during your childhood?

 JO JO WHITE
I didn’t have to look far for role models.  I was the youngest of seven – I have three brothers and three sisters – and my parents were the ones that I looked up to and emulated.  They were the ones who had the most influence on me.

I attribute my success to the good upbringing and raising from my parents.  They always talked with us about expectations for ourselves, how we should carry ourselves, and how to treat people.  Obviously, they were very important in my development.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Being a St. Louis native, did you follow the St. Louis Hawks growing up?

 JO JO WHITE
Oh yes, I followed the Hawks closely.  There were some excellent basketball players on those teams, players like Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagen and Chico Vaughn.  Paul Silas, my former teammate and a member of two Celtic championship teams, also played for the Hawks.  This was a little later on, mid-sixties timeframe.  I was a Hawk fan, so I was very aware of the players and their accomplishments.

 

 CELTIC-NATION
In 1956 Walter Brown and Red Auerbach pulled off one of the biggest trades in NBA history, sending “Easy” Ed Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagen to the Hawks in exchange for the right to draft Bill Russell.  Do you remember that trade, and did you follow the Celtics during their incredible run throughout the 1960s?

 JO JO WHITE
I remember the trade, but I was very young at that time and didn’t understand the historical significance of it.  Looking back years later, I could see the prominent role that the trade had in creating the Boston Celtic dynasty.

I was in high school when the Celtics were winning all of those NBA championships.  Russell was such a dominant player, especially on the defensive end.  Obviously, it was a great, great trade for the Celtics.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Let’s talk about your career at Kansas, starting with the recruiting process.  While visiting Lawrence on a recruiting trip you watched the Kansas football team knock off nationally ranked Oklahoma, 15-14.  How big an influence was that trip in your decision to play basketball at Kansas?

 JO JO WHITE
It was big in terms of seeing Gale Sayers play.  I was in awe of him, and watching him perform was a huge thrill for me.  That game was definitely a big influence in my decision to attend Kansas, but there were a number of other factors that played into it as well.

Kansas was the right place for me in terms of both athletics and academics.  Also, I didn't want to go to a school so far away that my parents couldn't attend the games and I couldn't get back home.  Kansas was within that radius, which carried a lot of weight in the decision-making process.  The tradition was very high in basketball, and at the same time they never had an All-American guard to graduate from KU.  This became a goal for me, which in turn became another reason to go there.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your coach at Kansas was Ted Owens.  What was it like to play for him?

 JO JO WHITE
Coach Owens was a tremendous individual.  He was a very astute coach, and a great teacher of the fundamentals.  He was also politically involved within the college basketball community and well-versed when it came to the issues surrounding the game.  Coach Owens contributed greatly to my growth as a basketball player.  I enjoyed playing for him and I learned a lot from being a part of his program.

 

CELTIC-NATION
In 1966, you became eligible to play at the start of the second semester.  Your abilities helped KU win seven straight games and claim the Jayhawks' first outright conference title in nine years.   What was it like to come in and contribute to the rebirth of Kansas basketball?

 JO JO WHITE
I was very excited to have that opportunity.  I wanted to play as soon as I became eligible but I realized that the decision was in the hands of the coaching staff.  They could have opted to sit me out until the next year but didn’t, so I was very fortunate in that regard.

Basically, the decision came down to our chances of winning it all that year.  Coach Owens felt that we had a legitimate shot at winning the NCAA championship, and he also felt that those chances improved with me on the floor.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
It seems as if that KU team was truly close.  When then-captain Riney Lochmann was told that he may lose his starting job when you became eligible, here is what he had to say:  “Coach, it doesn’t matter whether I start or not.  We think Jo Jo can help us win the national championship and we want him to play.”  Please comment.

 
JO JO WHITE
I’m a big Riney Lochmann fan.  Riney is a solid individual and certainly worthy of being our captain.  He was always willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team, even if this meant putting others ahead of himself.  The situation you just described is a perfect example of the leadership that Riney brought to the team.

And yes, we were a closely knit group.  This camaraderie certainly played a large part in the success that we enjoyed.   Not only did it help us win our conference championship, it allowed us to enjoy success in the NCAA tournament.

CELTIC-NATION
Which is a perfect lead-in to my next question.  You helped Kansas reach the 1966 NCAA regional finals against eventual champion Texas Western.  In that game you hit that dramatic jumper at the end of overtime that would have given Kansas a huge victory.  The shot was disallowed because the official ruled that your foot was out of bounds.  Please take me back to that game and what you remember most about it.

 JO JO WHITE
I have so many memories about that game – it’s still very vivid for me.  I remember having the ball in my hands and taking that final shot.  I fell back into a woman’s lap after the release, and I remember the crowd and my teammates celebrating after the shot went in.  Then the official ruled that my foot was out of bounds.  The call gave the game to Texas Western, who went on to defeat Kentucky (for the NCAA Championship) in that historic game against Rupp’s Runts.  To this day my teammates kid me about my shoe size being too big and that costing us the game [laughs].

The official who made the call is certainly entitled to his opinion, but game film shows that I was inbounds when I released that last shot.  I have the sequence framed on my wall at home, three photographs that show the position of my feet.  The photos also clearly show that I’m inbounds when I take the shot.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were on the U.S. team at both the University Games and Pan-American Games.  However, it was your performance on the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team that brought you international fame.  Please tell me about your Olympic experience and what it means to you.
 

 JO JO WHITE
Being a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team and representing my country were great honors.  The experience was important to me in a number of ways, in part because it was my first championship in organized sports, and this in a sense validated what I was doing as a basketball player.  Also, I didn’t feel as though I were a true champion until I’d actually won in Mexico City.  So the gold medal, playing for my country – these things that brought with them a real sense of accomplishment.

Going into the Olympic Games we weren’t the overwhelming favorites to win the gold medal.  We weren’t even considered the strongest team in the tournament.  That billing went to the Russians, who was upset by Yugoslavia in the semifinals.  But we were the more determined team, and I think that’s what set us apart.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Let’s talk about that gold medal game.  At the half, Yugoslavia trailed the U.S. by a mere three point margin, 32-29.  The U.S. reeled off 17 unanswered points to start the second half, taking a commanding 49-29 lead.  That run was fueled by eight points each from Spencer Haywood and yourself.  Please take me back to that game, specifically the start of the second half.

 JO JO WHITE
There was no panic, no sense of urgency in the locker room at halftime.  Coach (Henry) Iba didn’t give a dramatic speech as many might suspect.  It was more a matter of us doing our jobs and playing our game, which meant pushing the ball up the court and playing an up-tempo, fast-breaking style of basketball.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You joined the Celtics as the team’s first round pick in 1969, following your superb All-American career at Kansas.  With the retirement of Bill Russell and Sam Jones following the ‘69 season, this also marked the beginning of a new era of Boston Celtic basketball.  In what ways did it help having several key players from the Russell Dynasty – Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek and Satch Sanders come to mind – either coaching or playing when you arrived in 1969?

 JO JO WHITE
It was very instrumental in my growth as a professional basketball player.  Also, having these individuals involved helped to accelerate the rebuilding process.  They were the mentors for the next generation of Boston Celtics, and I was fortunate to learn from them.  They helped me to understand the philosophy of the organization and what being a Boston Celtic is all about.

I think that this type of mentoring is sorely lacking in the league today.  The NBA, to a large extent, is missing the presence of retired players and veterans who could truly impact its teams in a positive way.   I think back to when I started with the Celtics, for example, and how I was able to benefit from the stability of our organization.  Heinsohn was our coach.  Red was there.  Russell had retired but he was still a part of the Celtic family.  I think this stability helped expedite our rise to the top.
 

CELTIC-NATION
Your first Celtic training camp – please tell me about that experience.

 JO JO WHITE
Was it as hard or as difficult as I thought it would be?  It was a tough camp, very demanding, but I was ready for it.  I was a Marine, so I had been through all the physical and mental challenges that comes with military training.  Plus I was in excellent condition because of my military obligation, so I feel that this gave me an added advantage.

 

CELTIC-NATION
What was it like to meet Red Auerbach for the first time?

 JO JO WHITE
Until you actually meet a legend like Red you can only go on what you hear.  Then you spend time with him and realize that he understands the game, that he’s one of the most knowledgeable basketball minds in the game.  I have the utmost respect for Red.  He’s outlasted players, coaches, general managers and just about everyone else in this league.  Red Auerbach is a true genius.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The rebuilding process continued in 1970, with the selection of Florida State center Dave Cowens in the first round, number four overall.  What did Cowens mean to the team in terms of rejoining the NBA’s elite?

 JO JO WHITE
There was so much to like about Dave’s game.  He played with a tremendous amount of tenacity, which I think was a huge key to his success.  He also brought a lot to the table in terms of his versatility.  For example, he was able to utilize his quickness to full advantage against the other centers in the league, while also using his speed to jump outside and guard the little guys when the situation called for it.

Dave was tall, but he certainly wasn’t the tallest player at the center position.  He was 6’-9” and a fiery rebounder.  He had an excellent outside shot. His desire was unmatched.  When you take all of these things together you realize what made him so special.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics won a franchise record 68 games during the 1972-73 season.  However, the team suffered a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Please take me back to that series.

 JO JO WHITE
John (Havlicek) hurt his shoulder and we fell behind 3-1 in that series.  Heinsohn adjusted the rotation by giving Don Nelson and Paul Silas more minutes, a move that significantly reduced Bill Bradley’s effectiveness.  The strategy worked to perfection and allowed us to tie the series at 3-3.

Game seven was back in the Boston Garden, and Tommy decided to start John instead of staying with the hot lineup.  I can certainly understand the logic because John was our go-to guy, but I didn’t feel that it was a wise move given the shoulder injury.  John gave it everything he had but he just wasn’t the same player.  It was a tough loss for us, especially after having such a successful season.
 

CELTIC-NATION
On September 9th of that season, the Celtics acquired Paul Silas in a trade with the Phoenix Suns.  Please tell me about Paul.

 JO JO WHITE
Paul Silas was as good as any player at the power forward position.  He was a fierce rebounder who brought a ton of experience to our team.  He joined the Celtics and dropped about twenty pounds, and from that point on he became our dancing bear [laughs].

Paul was a fantastic teammate.  He set those bone-rattling picks, so I loved working to his side of the floor [laughs].  He was always on the boards.  The addition of Paul made us a tougher, smarter, more physical team.

 

CELTIC-NATION
A year later you win your first NBA Championship, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.  Perhaps the most memorable game in the series was Game 6, in which Kareem’s skyhook at the buzzer defeated the Celtics 102-101.  Please tell me about that game.

 JO JO WHITE
There were eight seconds left in the game, and we were ahead by one point.  We knew we were eight seconds from winning the championship, just one big stop away from the title.  During the timeout we talked about putting pressure on the ball.  Once play resumed, (Hank) Finkel and (Don) Chaney did a great job of pushing Kareem away from the basket.  Kareem had that awesome skyhook.  He was almost automatic, but from that distance I didn’t think the shot would go in – which, of course, it did.  To this day I can still see the ball going through the basket [laughs].

It was an intense game, very demanding, and when it was over I remember looking at Oscar Robertson, who was at the point of exhaustion.  Right then I knew that we had these guys, and that we were going to win that seventh game.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Going back to Milwaukee for Game 7, what was the mood of the team?  Were there any thoughts of the Game 7 loss to New York in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, and how did the Celtics prepare for that huge Game 7 on the road?

 JO JO WHITE
The loss to New York really didn’t affect us, nor did it change our preparation for the Bucks.  We knew that conditioning was going to be the primary factor, and we felt that we were the better conditioned group.  Our goal was to wear them down.  We knew that their legs were gone, and that we would have the advantage in the later stages of the game.

This isn’t to say that we took the Bucks lightly.  Kareem was a player that we truly feared.  We knew what he could do because we’d seen it firsthand in this series.  We knew he could beat us, so that’s another reason we wanted to run.  We wanted to soften him up, make him work for his shots, slow him down.

We wanted to apply constant pressure and to contest every shot.  Oscar Robertson was Milwaukee’s only true ball handler, so we hounded Oscar and made it as difficult as possible for him to bring the ball up the court.  As a result, the Bucks were battling the shot clock and forcing bad shots.  We ran at every opportunity, and then pressured the ball on defense.  This approach took its toll on the Bucks and we won the championship in convincing fashion.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Two years later you were the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, and a key participant in the NBA’s “Greatest Game Ever Played”.  During that triple-overtime game against Phoenix you scored 33 points and played more than 60 minutes in the Boston Garden heat.  Please share some of your memories from this game.

 JO JO WHITE
It was a very fast-paced game, so early on I realized that conditioning was going to be key .  This played into my strengths because I felt as if I were the best-conditioned athlete on the floor.  My mental approach was, “If I’m tired then everyone else on the court must be dead tired.”
 
After the second overtime we thought the game was over, so we immediately started towards the tunnel.  There were only two seconds left and I had already cut the tape off my foot.  My thought was, “What can happen in two seconds?"  We came back out in time to see Gar Heard hit his shot and we go to another overtime.  Thankfully there wasn’t a three-point line at the time [laughs].
 
Charlie Scott was ejected early and this really hurt us.  It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because he was fresh and full of energy for that next game in Phoenix.  He had a big game and we went back to Boston as world champions.
 

CELTIC-NATION
You hold the Celtic record for consecutive games played at 488.  To what do you attribute your iron man streak?

 JO JO WHITE
Again, it all comes back to conditioning.  John Havlicek is another example.  He was always in phenomenal shape.  You watched the way he took care of himself and you understood why he was such a great athlete.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Please tell me about your current role as Director of Special Projects and Community Relations with the Celtics.

 JO JO WHITE
It’s a multi-role position that keeps me close to the community.  I enjoy that interaction, yet at the same time I realize that there is a big need to mentor our players.  They need to know what it means to be a Boston Celtic.  They also need a solid understanding of the fundamentals, which has really been lost with players entering the league early.  In today’s NBA, we're paying for potential instead of the proven end product, and that has really caused problems.  We need to go back and teach them those things that will help them be successful in life.  These types of things lend themselves to the title of Director of Player Development, which would certainly be an interesting role to explore.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You have always stressed the value of education, and at one time considered becoming a doctor.  Please tell me about the Jo Jo White Growth League.

 JO JO WHITE
I started this league in 1981 as a way of working with young people and making a positive impact in their lives.  I wanted our youth to have a sense being connected to their community, and for them to see how they could make a difference in their environments.

The program partnered with corporate sponsorship and offered a point system to reward our youth for community projects.  For example, we took a school and broke it into teams.  Each team was given a project to improve their school and their community.  Points were given to each team member for completion of these projects, which they could exchange for shoes, apparel, etc.  The winning team then received a trip to Disney World as recognition for all of their hard work.

 

CELTIC-NATION
On April 9th, 1982 the Boston Celtics retired your Number 10 to the Boston Garden rafters.  On January 27th of this year, Kansas honored you in similar fashion, retiring your jersey in a special ceremony at halftime of the game against Texas.  What did each of these ceremonies mean to you?

 JO JO WHITE
Anytime you are recognized for your accomplishments it’s truly an honor.  To have my jersey retired to the Boston Garden rafters was a very special moment for me.

Being honored at Kansas was also a thrill, and something that will always be very special.  It was a privilege to be a part of that.  The whole experience of being on the campus took me back to a very special time in my life.  My mother was able to attend – she’s 90-years old – so she was there for both ceremonies.  I’m very thankful for that.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life, and you’ve done so with a great deal of dignity, pride and class.  You are universally respected and admired by many people (both inside and outside of the NBA).  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
 
 
JO JO WHITE
Always be yourself.  Know who you are, and always follow your inner-voice.

 

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