Thursday, December 31, 2020

Good Riddance to a Bad Year

Mercifully, calendar year 2020 has finally come to a close. And we are all better off for it. 

Not everything that happened this year was bad. After waiting 35 years, after my diagnosis, I finally got my first hip replacement. I'm still waiting on the second, for reasons I won't get into here, but that should happen early next year, probably in March. And I was finally able to move out of a residence that I did not like, to say the least, and into a much better place. 

It was not an especially good year for my teams. Arsenal won the FA Cup, but in the next season, they have gotten off to the worst start in a League season in 46 years. The Yankees and the Red Bulls made the Playoffs, but flopped once they got there. East Brunswick football notched a .500 season. The Devils and Rutgers football would have been lucky to even do that well. 

The big story of 2020, of course, was the Coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of over 350,000 Americans. What's even scarier that, had he shown just the slightest bit more of caring about it, Donald Trump probably would have gotten a 2nd term as President.

But he didn't, and America finally had enough revulsion of him to elect Joe Biden as our new President. No matter what Trump wants done, or believes can be done, Biden will become President on January 20th, 2021.

Notable deaths in sports included some victims of the Coronavirus, and many others that weren't:

* From baseball: Don Larsen, Tony Fernández, Johnny Antonelli, Jimmy Wynn, Al Kaline, Jim Frey, Bob Watson, Claudell Washington, John McNamara, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Jay Johnstone, Bob Gibson, Ron Perranoski, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro.

* From football: Sam Wyche, Jerry Norton, Chris Doleman, Willie Wood, Del Shofner, Timmy Brown, Tom Dempsey, Bobby Mitchell, Pete Retzlaff, Willie Davis, Mike Curtis, Don Shula, Ken Riley, Jim Kiick, Larry Wilson, Gale Sayers, Fred Dean, Herb Adderley, Ray Perkins, Paul Hornung, Jake Scott and Kevin Greene.

* From basketball: David Stern, Dick Schnittker, Morgan Wootten, Kobe Bryant, Bora Stanković, Curly Neal, Les Hunter, Jim Tucker, Jerry Sloan, Eddie Sutton, Wes Unseld, Harry Glickman, Lou Henson, Lute Olson, John Thompson, Billy Tubbs, Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones.

* From hockey: Pete Babando, Henri Richard, Pat Stapleton, Dale Hawerchuk and Eddie Shack.

* From soccer: Hans Tilkowski, Rob Rensenbrink, Norman Hunter, Trevor Cherry, Tony Dunne, Jack Charlton, Wim Suurbier, Nobby Stiles, Ray Clemence, Diego Maradona, Papa Bouba Diop, Viktor Ponedelnik, Paolo Rossi and Gérard Houllier.

* From tennis: Ashley Cooper.

* Olympic Gold Medalists: 1952 Hungarian swimmer Éva Székely, 1960 Soviet (Georgian) high jumper Robert Shavlakadze, 1952 Czech javelin thrower Dana Zátopková, 1968 Soviet (Latvian) javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis, 1956 American sprinter Bobby Morrow, 1956 American boxer Pete Rademacher, 1964 German decathlete Willi Holdorf, 1952 American hurdler Charles Moore, and 1960 American decathlete Rafer Johnson.

* And Ben Cross, who played 1924 British Olympic Champion runner Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire; and Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42.

There have been Wi-Fi problems at my new residence, making it very difficult to write these new entries, and all but impossible, for now, to write the necessary obituary posts for K.C. Jones and Phil Niekro. When my Wi-Fi is restored, I will write said posts, and backdate them so it looks like they appeared when they should have.

In the meantime, congratulations: You have gotten out of 2020 alive. My condolences to you for anyone close to you who didn't.

Have a happy, and safe, new year.

*

The details of this countdown are dependent on COVID restrictions:

Days until the next game of the U.S. National Soccer Team: Unknown. There are no games scheduled, for either the men's or the women's team.

Days until the next Arsenal game: 2, this Saturday, at 3:00 PM New York time, away to Birmingham-area team West Bromwich Albion.

Days until the New Jersey Devils start their 2021 season: 14, on Thursday night, January 14, home to the Boston Bruins.

Days until the Devils again play a local rival: 19, on Tuesday, January 19, against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Days until Joe Biden is elected the 46th President of the United States, and Donald Trump becomes eligible for criminal prosecution: 20.

Days until the next New York Red Bulls game: Unknown. MLS has yet to release a schedule for the 2021 season.

Days until the Red Bulls again play a local rival: See the previous answer.

Days until the next North London Derby: 72, on Saturday, March 13, at 10:00 AM New York time, at the Emirates Stadium. A little over 10 weeks. The British TV networks may have the time and/or the date changed in order to get better ratings, or so they believe.

Days until the New York Yankees open the 2021 season: 91, on Thursday, 1:00 PM, home to the Toronto Blue Jays. Just 3 months.

Days until the next Yankees series against the Boston Red Sox begins: 155, on Friday, June 4, at 7:00 PM, at Yankee Stadium II.

Days until the COVID-delayed Euro 2020 opens: 177, on Friday, June 26. Under 6 months. Games will be played all over Europe, with the Semifinals and the Final at the new Wembley Stadium in London.

Days until the COVID-delayed 2020 Olympics open in Tokyo, Japan: 204, on Friday, July 23. Under 7 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick High School football game: 246, on Friday, September 3, at 7:00 PM, home to arch-rival Old Bridge. A little over 8 months.

Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge football game: See the previous answer.

Days until the next Rutgers University football game: 247, on Saturday, September 4, at 12:00 noon, home to Temple University.

Days until the next election for Governor of New Jersey and Mayor of New York City: 306, on Tuesday, November 2. A little over 10 months.

Days until the next Rutgers-Penn State football game: 331, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 27, at 12:00 noon, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Under 11 months.

Days until the 1st Baseball Hall of Fame election for which Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz will be eligible, and we will know for sure whether steroid use keeps a player out, or if it's only perception that does: 390, on Tuesday, January 25, 2022. Under 13 months.

Days until the next Winter Olympics open in Beijing, China: 400, on Friday, February 4, 2022. A little over 13 months.

Days until the next elections for Congress and for Governor of most States, including New York and Pennsylvania: 677, on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Under 2 years, or a  little over 22 months.

Days until the next World Cup opens: 690, on Friday, November 21, 2022, in Doha, Qatar. Under 2 years, or under 23 months.

Days until the next Women's World Cup opens: 921, on Friday, July 10, 2023, jointly held in the neighboring nations of Australia and New Zealand. A little over 2 and a half years, or a little over 30 months.

Days until the next Presidential election: 1,405, on Tuesday, November 5, 2024. Under 4 years, or a little over 46 months.

Scores On This Historic Day: December 31, 1999 & January 1, 2000, the Millennium

December 31, 1999: The Millennium arrives. The people of planet Earth made it. At a terrible cost. But we hadn't destroyed ourselves. It felt like a great achievement.

January 1, 2000: As time zone after time zone turned over from 11:59 to 12:00, there was great joy -- literally, all over the world.

It didn't last. So far, the 21st Century has been a bust. In words that have been attributed to Yankee Legend Yogi Berra, then 74 years old, "The future ain't what it used to be."

December 31 was a Friday. Baseball was out of season, and no NFL games were played. As it turned out, no NBA games were scheduled for the day, either.

There were 2 games scheduled in the NHL. One was, by NHL standards, an ancient rivalry, going back to 1926. At the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the host Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blachkawks played to a 4-4 tie. (There would be no shootouts in the NHL until the 2005-06 season.)

And in a matchup that had only been possible for 6 years, the Dallas Stars beat the team thenknown as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 5-4 at the Reunion Arena in Dallas.

January 1 was a Saturday. Still no baseball, and still no NFL games. But there were 7 NHL games, about a half-full slate:

* One team in the New York Tri-State Area was in action: The New Jersey Devils traveled to what's now named the TD Garden, and played the Boston Bruins to a 2-2 tie.

* The St. Louis Blues and the Washington Capitals played to a 1-1 tie at what's now named the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

* In a regional rivalry, the Buffalo Sabres beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 8-1 at what's now named the KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

* In a regional rivalry, the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Atlanta Thrashers, 4-2 at what's now State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (The Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets in 2011.)

* In not just a regional but an intrastate rivalry, the Florida Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-5 at what's now named the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.

* The Nashville Predators beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2 at what's now named the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

* And the Edmonton Oilers beat the Phoenix Coyotes, 5-4 at what's currently (presumably, temporarily) named the Phoenix Suns Arena in downtown Phoenix. (The Coyotes were renamed the Arizona Coyotes in 2014.)

And 6 college football bowl games were played:

* At 11:00 AM Eastern Time, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the Outback Bowl was played: Number 21 Georgia beat Number 19 Purdue, 28-25.

* Also at 11 Eastern, 10:00 AM Central Time, at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas, the Cotton Bowl Classic was played: Number 24 Arkansas beat Number 14 Texas, 27-6. This was once an intense rivalry, but Arkansas' 1992 move from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference moved it to the back burner.

* At 12:30 PM Eastern Time, at Alltel Stadium (now TIAA Bank Field) in Jacksonville, the Gator Bowl was played: Number 23 Miami beat Number 17 Georgia Tech, 28-13.

* At 1:00 PM Eastern Time, at the Florida Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium) in Orlando, the Florida Citrus Bowl was played: Number 9 Michigan State beat Number 10 Florida, 37-34.

* At 4:30 PM Eastern Time, 1:30 Pacific Time, at the Rose Bowl in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, the game of the same name was played: Number 4 Wisconsin beat Number 22 Stanford, 17-9.

* And at 8:30 PM Eastern Time, at Pro Player Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium) in Miami Gardens, the Orange Bowl was played: Number 8 Michigan beat Number 5 Alabama, 35-34.

It was a bit strange for it to be New Year's Day, and see Michigan playing in a game other than the Rose Bowl, and also to see Alabama playing on the day, but not in the Sugar Bowl.

Under the format then in place, the Bowl Championship Series, the Fiesta Bowl was played on January 2, at Sun Devil Stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. Number 3 Nebraska beat Number 6 Tennessee, 31-21.

And the matchup that the BCS was intended to set up? It was hard to argue that these 2 undefeated teams weren't the top 2 teams in the country. At the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl was played between Number 1 Florida State and Number 2 Virginia Tech. Florida State won, 46-29.

Scores On This Historic Day: December 31, 1972, Roberto Clemente Is Killed

December 31, 1972: Roberto Clemente is killed in a plane crash, trying to get relief supplies from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

Eight days earlier -- the same day as the football play known as the "Immaculate Reception" -- an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.

As with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, there were fires started, and the city's firefighting equipment was damaged. Between the initial quake and the fires, the disaster killed about 11,000 people, and left about 300,000 of the city's 1 million or so people homeless. The city's top 4 hospitals were destroyed, and there were food shortages.

The world responded with relief, but the country's right-wing dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle -- my autocorrect poignantly tried to turn that into "Debacle" -- had it distributed according to his own purposes, much like an old-style American city "machine politician."

Enter Roberto Clemente. The right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates had just completed his 18th major league season. At age 38, he showed no signs of slowing down. That season, he batted .312, helped the Pirates win their 3rd straight National League Eastern Division title, was named to his 15th All-Star game, was awarded his 12th Gold Glove, and collected his 3,000th career hit. 

He had won 4 NL batting titles, was named the NL's Most Valuable Player in 1966, and had helped the Pirates win the World Series in 1960 and 1971, being named the Series MVP in the ladder. 

He was not the first black Hispanic player in the major leagues, but, at this point, he was easily the greatest. Indeed, like actor-comedian Jackie Gleason was, and hockey star Wayne Gretzky later would be, he was nicknamed "The Great One." He was a point of pride for baseball fans all over Latin America, not just in his native Puerto Rico.

Already heavily involved in charities all over Latin America, Clemente had visited Managua only a few weeks before the earthquake. He organized three planeloads of relief supplies, but heard they had all been diverted by the Somoza government. He decided to accompany the fourth light himself, to make sure that it didn't happen again.

The plane was a McDonnell-Douglas cargo plane, a DC-7. This particular plane was a bad choice, as it had a history of mechanical problems. On December 31, 1972, New Year's Eve, it was loaded up at Isla Verde International Airport outside the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.
A DC-7, similar to the Clemente relief plane

Between cargo, and regular supplies like fuel, the plane ended up 4,200 pounds over its recommended limit. The plane took off at 9:20 PM, for a 4-hour flight from San Juan to Managua -- meaning the New Year of 1973 would have begun for them in midflight.

But within 3 minutes, the pilot, Jerry Hill, realized he couldn't get the plane high enough due to the weight, and told the San Juan control tower that he had begun to turn around. Just afterward, one of the plane's four engines exploded, and it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Although most pieces of the plane were found, Hill was a the only one of the five people on board whose body was found. There is no grand memorial for Roberto Clemente at any cemetery: He still lies somewhere off the coast of his homeland. He left behind a wife and three sons.
For baseball fans, January 1, 1973 did not present a "Happy New Year." The Pirates retired Clemente's Number 21, and wore that number on their sleeves all season long. It would be the only season from 1970 to 1975 that they didn't win the NL East title. On March 20, a special election was held for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the five-year waiting period after a player's last game was waived, making Clemente eligible. He was elected with nearly 93 percent of the vote.

The Pirates dedicated a statue of him outside Three Rivers Stadium. When they moved to the adjacent PNC Park in 2001, the statue went with them, and the neighboring 6th Street Bridge connecting the North Side with downtown Pittsburgh was renamed the Roberto Clemente Bridge.

An arena that was nearly ready to open in San Juan at the time ofnhisndeath wss named the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. The San Juan Airport is now named for longtime Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, as is my parent's former junior high school in Newark, as their old neighborhood is now mostly Hispanic. Newark and New York City have also named schools after Clemente. New York City named a park across from the Bronx apartment building where Hank Greenberg grew up after a member of the Hall of Fame -- not Greenberg, but, reflecting that this neighborhood is now mostly Puerto Rican, Clemente.

On December 31, 1985, 13 years later, another New Year's Eve would be struck by air travel tragedy, as the crash outside Dallas of another McDonnell-Douglas plane with a troubled history, this one an old DC-3, killed seven people including early rock and roll star Ricky Nelson. 

*

December 31, 1972 was a Sunday. It was the off-season for baseball. The NFL played its Conference Championship Games:

* Although the Miami Dolphins had an undefeated regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium, because the NFL was still using a rotating system for hosting the title game, not home field advantage.

Eight days after the franchise's 1st-ever Playoff win, on the Franco Harris "Immaculate Reception," the Steelers led 10-7 in the 3rd quarter. But the Dolphins came from behind to win, 21-17.

* The Washington Redskins dominated the defending NFL Champions, the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Head coach George Allen led his veteran "Over-the-Hill Gang" to the team's 1st Playoff win in 30 years. 

But the Dolphins would complete the perfect season by beating the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, 2 weeks later at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

There were no games played in the NBA or the ABA on New Year's Eve 1972. There were 3 NHL games played that day:

* The New York Rangers beat the St. Louis Blues, 6-1 at Madison Square Garden. 

* The Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota North Stars played to a tie, 4-4 at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit. 

* And the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Buffalo Sabres, 4-2 at Chicago Stadium. 

And there were 3 games played in the World Hockey Association, which was in its 1st season:

* The New England Whalers beat the New York Raiders, 3-0 in the other game played on Madison Square Garden ice that day.

* The Quebec Nordiques beat the Ottawa Nationals, 8-4 at Le Colisee de Quebec. Rene Levesque must have loved that.

* And the Philadelphia Blazers beat the Los Angeles Sharks, 3-1 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Scores On This Historic Day: December 28, 1958, Pro Football's "Greatest Game"

Alan Ameche scores the winning touchdown.
Lenny Moore (24) provides the key block on Emlen Tunnell.
Johnny Unitas (19) watches.

December 28, 1958: The NFL Championship Game is held at Yankee Stadium. The New York Giants, Champions of the NFL Eastern Division, play the Baltimore Colts, Champions of the Western Division. It is the 1st Championship Game for the Colts, the 10th for the Giants, who had previously won it in 1934, 1938 and 1956. (Why Baltimore, a Northeastern city, was placed in the League's Western Division, I don't know.)

The Giants had Charlie Conerly as their quarterback, and the biggest football star of the time, Frank Gifford, at running back. They were the 1st team to really make defense a priority, led by future Hall-of-Famers Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli and Emlen Tunnell. Two years earlier, they had destroyed the Chicago Bears in the Championship Game, 47-7.
The pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium, set up for football


But the Colts were on the rise. Their quarterback was Johnny Unitas. He had Raymond Berry to throw to, Lenny Moore in his backfield, and Jim Parker to block for him. All 4 would make the Hall of Fame. His defense was led by Hall-of-Famers Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan.

The 1st half was a bit sloppy, and didn't live up to the legend. Pat Summerall, future broadcasting legend, began the scoring with a field goal in the 1st quarter, putting the Giants up 3-0. In the 2nd quarter, Alan Ameche, who won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Wisconsin in 1954, scored a touchdown to put the Colts ahead. Unitas threw a touchdown pass to Berry, giving the Colts a 14-13 lead at the half.

In the 3rd quarter, Mel Triplett snuck the ball over the goal line to put the Giants back in it. Early in the 4th quarter, Conerly threw a touchdown pass to Gifford, giving the Giants a 17-14 lead. As the clock wound down, Unitas drove the Colts, but couldn't get them over. So Steve Myhra was sent in to kick a field goal as time expired. With the clock reading 0:00, the scoreboard read 17-17.

No NFL Championship Game had ever ended in a tie. Overtime was needed, for the 1st time in NFL history. (The League didn't institute overtime for the regular season until 1974.) The Giants won the toss, but couldn't score. Unitas led an inspiring drive, toward what would have been left field in The Stadium's baseball setup, which finally ended with Ameche scoring from the 1-yard line -- appropriately where Monument Park would later be in The Stadium's post-renovation period (1976-2008).

Bob Wolff, who had been in the same Stadium 2 years earlier to call Don Larsen's perfect game for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, was at the microphone for NBC again, and had the call: "Unitas gives to Ameche... The Colts are the World Champions! Ameche scores!" He later said he was glad he didn't "bury the lead" by saying, "Ameche scores!" first.

This game had the largest TV audience in NFL history to that point, 45 million people. The fact that it was in New York, and involved a New York team, helped it loom large in the public consciousness. This was the game that launched the NFL on a path to becoming, at least in perception, more popular than Major League Baseball.

It made legends of the Colts, and Unitas in particular. He would go on to be recognized as the greatest quarterback of all time. It's been 62 years, and some people still think he is. And the Colts, playing in a city that didn't have a big college football team -- Morgan State University is a historically black school, the U.S. Naval Academy is a national school, and the University of Maryland is closer to Washington -- became known as the team of America's working class, an "America's Team" in a way that felt artificial when the Dallas Cowboys later called themselves that.
Johnny Unitas

It also became known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." It has been noted that it would never have been called that had the Colts beaten, say, the Philadelphia Eagles. But every so often, polls are taken that show this game as the "greatest." The most recent was in 2019, for the NFL's 100th Anniversary.

The teams had a rematch in the 1959 NFL Championship Game. In those days, home field was rotated between the Eastern and Western Champions, and the Colts hosted it at Memorial Stadium, beating the Giants again.

*

December 28, 1958, as you may have guessed, was a Sunday. There were no more NFL games to be played. It was the off-season for baseball.

There was only 1 NBA game played that day: The Cincinnati Royals beat the Minneapolis Lakers, 120-116 at the Cincinnati Gardens. Jack Twyman of the Royals scored 32 to lead all players in this game. Bob "Slick" Leonard, later to coach the Indiana Pacers to 3 ABA Championships, led the Lakers with 20 points.

The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960. The Royals moved to Kansas City, becoming the Kings, in 1972, and to Sacramento in 1985.

All of the NHL's "Original Six" were in action that day:

* The New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens, 5-3 at the old Madison Square Garden. This was an anomaly, as the Canadiens were in the middle of a run of 5 straight Stanley Cups, and the Rangers were in a down period.

* The Detroit Red Wings, beat the Boston Bruins, 5-3 at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit.

* And the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-3 at the Chicago Stadium. ("Black Hawks" was written as 2 words until 1986, when the team's original charter document was found, and it was discovered that "Blackhawks" was written as one word, and it has officially been so ever since.)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Phil Niekro, 1939-2020

The knuckleball is the oddest pitch in baseball. It is also the hardest to catch, and catchers hate trying. Nobody has thrown a knuckleball in the major leagues longer, and perhaps no one threw it better, then Phil Niekro.

Philip Henry Niekro was born on April 1st, 1939, in Blaine, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Lansing, Ohio. Both towns are close to the Ohio River, near Wheeling, West Virginia, and about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

He attended Bridgeport High School, in the nearby town of Bridgeport. Among its other alumni have been Phil's brother Joe Niekro, Boston Celtics basketball legend John Havlicek, Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bill Jobko, and legendary Iowa State University wrestling coach Bobby Douglas.

All 5 were born between 1935 and 1944, and Phil Niekro and Havlicek grew up as close friends.

In 1988, Sports Illustrated published an article by Ron Fimrite titled "The Valley Boys," focusing on the Wheeling Valley, centering on the town of Martins Ferry:

Old-time Pro Football Hall of Famer Clarke Hinkle was a Valley boy. So were Bob Gain and Calvin Jones, Outland Trophy winners as the nation's best college linemen in 1950 and 1955. Chuck Howley, the Dallas linebacker who is the only member of a losing team to have ever won the Super Bowl MVP award, was another one. Bill Jobko (Ohio State) and Bob Jeter (Iowa), both of whom played in the Rose Bowl and later starred in the NFL, were Valley boys. Gene Freese, a big league infielder for many years, was one. And so was Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.

But there are six Valley boys who stand above the rest, giants in their sports. Two of them are already Hall of Famers; a third has only to wait his requisite five years for induction; and a fourth, grievously overlooked in the past, may yet get his just due. Another would surely have made the Hall of Fame of his sport were it not for one terrible mistake in his life. The sixth, until early this month, was still playing.

There are two brother combinations in this distinguished group, and all six grew up within seven miles of one another. Four, in fact, were born in Martins Ferry, and though three different high schools are involved, the schools are only minutes apart by car. Two were teammates and best friends.

They all came from immigrant mining families, and they were raised, by today's standards, in primitive circumstances. There were no fast cars in this crowd. No televisions. No rock concerts. Nor, for many years, indoor plumbing. And yet there is not one of them who would trade away the gift of his childhood. They are the pride of the Valley. And they, better than any, reveal the source of its indomitable spirit.

The brothers were Phil and Joe Niekro, and Lou and Alex Groza. Lou was an All-Pro offensive tackle and placekicker for the Cleveland Browns. Alex was a center who helped the University of Kentucky's "Fabulous Five" win the 1948 and 1949 National Championships, and the U.S. Olympic team win the Gold Medal at the 1948 Olympics in London. He was the 1950 NBA Rookie of the Year. The others were Havlicek and Pittsburgh Pirates 2nd baseman Bill Mazeroski.

Havlicek and Lou Groza were already in their respective sports' Hall of Fame. Phil Niekro was elected in 1997, in his 5th year of eligibility. Mazeroski, long hailed as the best defensive 2nd baseman of all time, and the hitter of the home run that won the 1960 World Series, continued to wait until 2001, and was finally elected.

Alex Groza looked like he was on course for the Hall of Fame, before the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball in 1951 ensnared Kentucky. Groza and his UK and Indianapolis Olympians teammates Ralph Beard and Dale Barnstable were banned for life by NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff. He never worked in the NBA again.

With no other pro league available, he went into coaching, at Bellarmine University in Louisville. His NBA ban did not apply to the ABA, nor did that league respect that ban. Their Kentucky Colonels and San Diego Conquistadors hired him.

Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rollie Fingers was also born nearby, in Steubenville, Ohio, also the hometown of singer-actor Dean Martin. However, when he was a boy, his father moved the family to California, so he did not remain a "Valley Boy."

*

The Niekro brothers' father was a coal miner of Polish descent, who had pitched in semi-pro baseball. A fellow miner taught him how to throw a knuckleball, and he taught his sons. In 1959, Phil signed with the Milwaukee Braves. In 1965, Major League Baseball instituted a draft, and Joe, then attending West Liberty University in West Virginia, was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1966. He chose not to sign with them, and was drafted again later in the year, this time by the Chicago Cubs. He made his debut for them in 1967.

By that point, Phil had already made his major league debut, having lost a season by serving in the U.S. Army in 1963, the dawn of the Vietnam War era, although not in combat. It was on April 15, 1964, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

He wore the Number 35 that he would wear for every game of his career. In a disaster of an inning for the Braves, the San Francisco Giants scored 10 runs. Phil was the 3rd pitcher the Braves used in the inning, and pitched to 1 batter, Jim Davenport, inducing an inning-ending groundout. The Braves tried to come back, but they didn't make it, and lost 10-8.

He appeared with the Braves in 10 games in 1964, without a decision. He appeared in 41 games in 1965, all but 1 in relief, going 2-3 with 6 saves. The Braves moved to Atlanta for the 1966, and Phil turned out to be not only the last remaining Brave who had played for them in Milwaukee, but the last active player for any team who had played for the Milwaukee Braves.

He split his time between starting and relief in 1966 and 1967, and became a full-time starter in 1968, going 14-12. In 1969, he became the Braves' ace, going 23-13, making his 1st All-Star Game, and helping them win the 1st-ever National League Western Division title. However, he ran out of gas in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, and lost to the Mets.

The '69 Division title was an outlier for the Braves, as they were generally out of contention from 1965 to 1981. In spite of that, Phil went 15-14 in 1971, and 16-12 in 1972. In 1973, he went 13-10, and on August 5, pitched the 1st no-hitter for the Braves after the move to Atlanta, against the San Diego Padres.

In 1974, a season which began for the Braves with the record-breaking 715th career home run by Hank Aaron, Phil led the NL with 20 wins, 18 complete games and 302 1/3rd innings pitched. He finished 3rd in the voting for the NL's Cy Young Award, the closest he would come to winning it. In 1973 and '74, Phil and his brother Joe were teammates on the Braves.
Joe (left) and Phil, but knuckleballers

Phil was only 15-15 in 1975, but, with Aaron having gone back to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers, the Braves needed someone as a representative in the All-Star Game -- which was held in Milwaukee -- and Phil was selected.

He went 17-11 in 1976. On May 29, he gave up a home run to his brother Joe, the only home run Joe would ever hit in the major leagues. Joe's son, Lance Niekro, appeared as a 1st baseman with the Giants in the 2003, '05, '06 and '07 seasons. He is now the head coach at Florida Southern University.

With with little support, Phil went 16-20 in 1977. He went 19-18 in 1978, but, despite that win total, led the NL in losses. In 1979, having turned 40, he led it in both wins and losses: With a 21-20 record, he will, most likely, remain the last pitcher in MLB history both win 20 games and lose 20 games in the same season.

Only 5 pitchers in the 150-year history of Major League Baseball have won 20 games in a season after turning 40. Cy Young did it in 1907 and 1908. In the 100 years of the Lively Ball Era, there have been only 4. Grover Cleveland Alexander did it in 1927. In the 60 years of the Expansion Era, there have been only 3. Warren Spahn did it in 1961 and 1963. In the 50+ years of the Divisional Play Era, there have been only 2. Phil Niekro did it in 1979. In the 20 years of the 21st Century, there has been only 1: Jamie Moyer in 2003. So it's that rare.

We have seen a few pitchers hang on longer than most, due to throwing the knuckleball, which puts less stress on the human arm than any other widely-known pitch. These include Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield. They also include Wilbur Wood, who went 24-20 for the Chicago White Sox in 1972, making him the last pitcher in the American League to both win and lose 20 in the same season.

But only 4 pitchers have gotten to the Hall of Fame having relied on the knuckler: Wilhelm, Jesse Haines, Ted Lyons, and Phil Niekro. Why so few? There are 2 reasons. One is that, because the ball moves around so much, catchers have such trouble catching it. Catchers then complain to their coaches, who tell their managers, who then tend to use pitchers who throw it less.

The other reason is that, if you don't throw it just right, it straightens out, and, as the slowest widely-known pitch, it becomes the easiest to hit. Wakefield used it to great effect for the Boston Red Sox in beating the Yankees in Games 1 and 4 of the 2003 ALCS, but proved the other side of it in relief in Game 7, giving up a Pennant-winning home run on a 69-mile-per-hour pitch to Aaron Boone.

Jim Bouton, who switched to the knuckler after losing his fastball by wrecking his elbow, said, "Coaches don't respect it. You can pitch 7 good innings with a knuckleball, and as soon as you walk a guy, they go, 'See, there's that damn knuckleball." R.A. Dickey, who won the NL Cy Young Award for the Mets in 2012, mainly using it, has said, "It takes a special manager to be able to really trust it, the bad and the good of it. Coaches are quick to banish the pitch after one bad outing."

Charlie Lau, later to be better known as baseball's foremost hitting instructor, once said, "There are two theories about catching the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them work." And Bob Uecker, later to become a great broadcaster, and a good defensive catcher, but couldn't hit to save anybody's life, once said, "The best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until the ball stops rolling, and pick it up."

In his last season as a major league player, 1967, Uecker was on the Braves, and related this experience in catching Phil: "Niekro struck out a hitter once, and I never touched the ball. It hit me in the shinguard, bounced out to Clete Boyer at 3rd base, and he threw out the runner at 1st. Talk about a weird assist: 2–5–3 on a strikeout."

"Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner to throw the knuckleball at all times, and he would try to catch it," Phil said years later. "I led the league in ERA (1.87), and he led the league in passed balls."
Classically, the knuckleball is gripped not with the knuckles,
but with the tips of the index and middle fingers.


Phil kept pitching, and pitching well. Pete Rose, for once not loving being a big-league ballplayer, once said, "I work for 3 weeks to get my swing down pat, and Phil messes it up in one night... Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living."

Phil kept pitching, and kept getting insufficient support. In 1980, he went 15-18, leading the NL in losses. He was injured for a big chunk of 1981, and went just 7-7. Dale Murphy said, "When we weren't in the hunt, which was more times than not, that didn't stop his attitude and willingness to get out there. I just really admired him and loved being around him."

Bob Hope, a longtime Braves executive -- and no relation to the legendary entertainer of the same name, once a part-owner of the Indians -- said, "During that time frame, the teams weren't always very good. In fact, they were very bad sometimes. But we probably had the three highest-character athletes I've ever met: Phil Niekro, Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy... If you were a charity in Atlanta, you could always count on Phil Niekro participating in some way."

Finally, in 1982, the Braves got going. The team was then owned by broadcast executive Ted Turner, who put them on his network, "SuperStation" WTBS, and he gave them the nickname that somebody gave to the NFL's Dallas Cowboys: "America's Team." As the Chicago Cubs soon would as well, on "superstation" WGN, the Braves developed a national following, not just a regional one. And the revenue came in, allowing Turner to buy better players.

With Murphy coming into his own, winning the 1st of back-to-back NL Most Valuable Player awards, the Braves won the NL West, and Phil went 17-4, leading the NL with an .810 winning percentage. Unfortunately, just 2 outs from Game 1 of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals being an official game, the rain came, and it was suspended, ending Phil's good pitching. It was started from the beginning, and the Cards went on to sweep the Braves, ending their 1st postseason series in 13 years. It would be 9 years before they had another.

Phil went 11-10 for the Braves in 1983. He pitched 201 1/3rd innings. He was 44 years old. And yet, after the season, the Braves released him. He had pitched 20 seasons for them, winning 268 games. In the 150 seasons that this franchise has existed, going back to the 1871 Boston Red Stockings of the National Association, only Warren Spahn (356) and Kid Nichols (331) have won more games for them. No, Greg Maddux didn't, nor did Tom Glavine: Although both won over 300 games, both of their totals are noticeably split with other teams.

*

But the Braves let him go. And the Yankees, needing pitching, signed him for the 1984 season. He went 16-8, making his 5th and last All-Star Game. On July 4, at Arlington Stadium outside Dallas, he struck Larry Parrish of the Texas Rangers out, for his 3,000th career strikeout. He pitched 8 innings, with Jay Howell finishing up, and the Yankees won, 5-0.
In spite of the date posted on this photo,
the milestone was achieved on the road.

In 1985, at age 46, he went 16-12, helping to keep the Yankees in the AL Eastern Division race. On September 15, after 10 seasons with them, the Houston Astros traded Phil's brother Joe Niekro to the Yankees, and they were teammates for a few days. Joe went 2-1 for the Yankees down the stretch.

The Yankees they needed to sweep a season-ending series with the Toronto Blue Jays, at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, to set up a Playoff for the Division title. They won on Friday night, but lost on Saturday afternoon, to give the Jays the title.

In the Sunday finale, on October 6, he went the distance against the Toronto Blue Jays, gaining his 300th win. The Yankees won, 8-0, with home runs by Don Mattingly, Mike Pagliarulo and Henry Cotto. He allowed only 4 hits, and became the oldest pitcher ever to throw a shutout, a record that stood until Jamie Moyer did it at 47 in 2010. Phil admitted that he did not throw a knuckleball until the last batter, Jeff Burroughs -- himself a longtime veteran, and the AL MVP in 1974.

It was the last game he pitched for the Yankees, as his 2-year contract ran out. Just before the season began, he signed with the Cleveland Indians -- not the closest team to his hometown (that would be the Pittsburgh Pirates), but a team in his home State. The Cleveland metro area still has a significant Polish community, and it really took to "Knucksie."
"Cleveland Rocks"? Cleveland knuckles.

He went 11-11 in 1986. In 1987, he was 7-11, and was traded in midseason for the Blue Jays. He made 3 starts, going 0-2, and was released. He was brought back by the Braves, and, on September 27, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, he made one last start. Although he allowed 5 runs in 3 innings, he did not factor in the decision. Oddly, like his 1st appearance, his last appearance was for the Braves in a bad loss to the Giants, albeit at home this time: The Giants won, 15-6.

Phil then retired. At 48, he was the oldest regular player in major league history. This record would hold until 2007, when Julio Franco did so at 49 -- also for the Braves. His 24 seasons without appearing in a World Series is a record, breaking the 23 of Carl Yastrzemski.

He finished his career with 318 wins, more than any knuckleballer, and 274 losses. He ended up winning 121 games after his 40th birthday, more than any other pitcher. His career ERA was 3.35, and his ERA+ was 115. He had 3,342 strikeouts, more than all but 6 pitchers before him, and a WHIP of 1.268. His 5,404 1/3rd innings pitched is the most by any pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era.

For comparison's sake: Joe, who last appeared in an MLB game in early 1988, finished 221-204 -- giving them a combined total of 539 wins, the most of any brother combination in MLB history. His ERA was 3.59, and his ERA+ was 98. His WHIP was 1.319, and he had 1,747 strikeouts. He appeared in only 1 All-Star Game, in Seattle with the Astros in 1979.

However, in that 1979 season, Joe came in 2nd in the NL's Cy Young Award voting, behind Bruce Sutter. He finished 6th in the NL MVP voting that year, closer than Joe ever came. And, unlike Phil, Joe appeared in a World Series, finally doing so in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins, shortly before his 43rd birthday. He also appeared in the postseason with the 1972 Detroit Tigers and the 1980 and '81 Astros.

*

The Braves elected Phil to their team Hall of Fame, retired his Number 35, and dedicated a statue of him outside Fulton County Stadium. It was moved to Turner Field, and now to Truist Park. Their farm team, the Gwinnett Braves, play at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and it has a restaurant named Niekro's. It features the Knucksie Sandwich. Pig's knuckles? No, rather, it is something he was known to enjoy: Barbecued pork and cole slaw atop a corn muffin.

The brothers' alma mater, Bridgeport High School in Ohio, named its baseball field The Niekro Diamond, after both of them. They supported the school system with The Niekro Classic, a celebrity golf tournament.
From 1994 to 1997, Phil managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, a women's baseball team sponsored by Colorado-based Coors beer, which has nicknamed is Coors Light beer "the Silver Bullet." He hired Joe as a coach. In their last season, 1997, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in his 5th year of eligibility, and the Silver Bullet players accompanied him to Cooperstown for the celebrations.

Like his fellow late Hall-of-Famer, Tom Seaver, and also like Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro was married to a woman named Nancy. They had sons Philip, John and Michael, and grandchildren Chase and Emma. Joe died of a brain aneurysm in 2006, shortly before his 62nd birthday.

MLB Network ran a special, Icons Lost, honoring 6 members of the Hall of Fame who died in 2020: Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline and Joe Morgan. It aired too soon to include Phil Niekro. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and died on December 26, 2020, at his home in Flowery Branch, Georgia. He was 81 years old.

Dale Murphy, Braves legend: "Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the news today of the passing of Phil Niekro. Knucksie was one of a kind. Friend, teammate, father and husband. Our hearts go out to Nancy Niekro, the kids and grandkids. So thankful for our memories and time together. We'll miss you, Knucksie."

Tom Glavine, another Hall of Fame pitcher for the Braves: "He is, for sur,e one of the most beloved Braves of all time. There's no question about that... I've never heard anybody say they didn't like Knucksie. That says a lot. When you're an athlete or celebrity to some extent, there will inevitably be people who don't like you for whatever reason, even though they don't know you. But you never heard that about Knucksie. Everybody loved him."

John Smoltz, yet another Hall of Fame pitcher for the Braves: "Phil made you feel like you were the only Hall-of-Famer in the building. That is something that he will always be known for... the way he made you smile, the way he made you feel."

Dave Winfield, Hall-of-Famer and Yankee teammate in 1984 and '85: "You get beaten down to learn another Hall of Fame friend Phil Niekro passed away. He was kind, a gentleman, family man, master of his trade and teammate."

Phil Niekro was one of the most distinctive legends in baseball history. And he was exactly the kind of man you would hope such a legend would be.


Scores On This Historic Day: December 26, 1947, The Northeast Blizzard of '47

December 26, 1947: The North American Blizzard of 1947 -- or the Northeast Blizzard of '47 -- falls on the Northeastern United States. When it's over, the snowfall at New York City's official measuring point, in Central Park, reads 26.4 inches. (While it was a record, that Daily News headline was a tad premature as to the total amount.)

The previous iconic blizzard in New York, from March 11 to 14, 1888, paralyzed the City for days, and led to the construction of the Subway system, and to the City's electric company, Consolidated Edison, moving most electrical lines underground as well. The snowfall was officially measured at 21 inches, so the Blizzard of '47 broke this record. Fortunately, by 1947, snow removal equipment was mechanized, so the City's paralysis didn't last nearly as long.

The '47 record would hold until January 6 to 8, 1996, 30 inches. That remains the record. But the Blizzard of '47 gained a life of its own. My mother was a baby at the time, and she told me that, for the rest of her life, her mother griped about having to take care of a baby in that Blizzard.

*

December 26, 1947 was a Friday. The day after Christmas is celebrated as Boxing Day in Britain, and England's Football League plays games on the day. But not every team did this time. Liverpool F.C., defending Champions, and North London team Arsenal, who would go on to win the title, played each other the day before, on Christmas, at Liverpool's home of Anfield, and Arsenal won, 3-1. But on the 27th, at Arsenal's home of Highbury, Liverpool avenged that defeat, winning 2-1.

It was the off-season for Major League Baseball. The NFL Championship Game was played 2 days later, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and the Chicago Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21. The Eagles beat the Cardinals in the Championship Game the next year. The Cardinals moved to St. Louis in 1960 and Arizona in 1988, but have never won another NFL Championship, either before or after the title game began to be called the Super Bowl.

There were no games scheduled for the National Hockey League that day. There was 1 game played that night in the Basketball Association of America, the league that became the National Basketball Association in 1949, upon its merger with the National Basketball League. It was in the Northeast, but in Philadelphia, where the snowfall wasn't nearly as severe: 6 1/2 inches.

So the game was played. The Philadelphia Warriors beat the Providence Steamrollers, 89-61 at the Philadelphia Arena, at 46th & Market Streets in West Philadelphia. No attendance is listed in the box score.

Joe Fulks scored 24 points for the Warriors, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1962, and are now known as the Golden State Warriors. The Rollers, named for the football team that won the NFL Championship in 1928 before being doomed by the Great Depression, folded in 1949, and never entered the merged NBA. They remain the last major league sports team based in Rhode Island.

Scores On This Historic Day: December 26, 1919, The Yankees Purchase Babe Ruth

Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert,
manager Miller Huggins, and slugger Babe Ruth

December 26, 1919: The New York Yankees purchase the contract of outfielder George Herman "Babe" Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. It is the most famous transaction in the history of North American professional sports -- or, if you're a Red Sox fan, the most infamous.

Let's take a step back, to properly set it up: On July 30, 1919, Harry Frazee, owner of the Red Sox, traded pitcher Carl Mays to the Yankees for pitchers Bob McGraw and Allen Russell (neither of whom ever did much for either club) and $40,000. There was a hell of a to-do about this, as Mays had left, or "jumped" the Sox and gone home, and was suspended. At the time, the rules said you couldn't trade a suspended player.

This trade pretty much split the American League: Frazee, Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert, and Chicago White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey were on one side; on the other were AL founder and President Ban Johnson and the owners of the other 5 clubs. They were the brothers John and Ben Shibe and Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, former Yankee manager Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, Frank Navin and Walter Briggs of the Detroit Tigers, Phil Ball of the St. Louis Browns, and Sunny Jim Dunn of the Cleveland Indians.

The National Commission, which oversaw baseball in those days, ruled in favor of Frazee and Ruppert, and Mays became the 1st major player to go from Frazee's Sox to Ruppert's Yanks. There would be more. (Mays' role in the death of Cleveland Indians player Ray Chapman is a story for another time.)

As a result of the Mays contretemps, Frazee, Ruppert, and Comiskey, now known as "the Insurrectos," could pretty much now only make deals with each other, as the other AL owners, "the Loyal Five," wanted nothing to do with them.

Due to circumstances that Frazee should have been able to control, but didn't, he had to get rid of Babe Ruth, who, in 1918 and '19, had gone from being baseball's best lefthanded pitcher to being the biggest power hitter in the game, but also the biggest headache. He was already a carouser, and he was demanding that his salary be doubled from $10,000 to $20,000 for the 1920 season.

So Frazee sold the Babe to the Yankees, mainly because Ruppert was willing to pay $125,000 for Ruth's contract; while the other possibility, the White Sox, were run by Comiskey, a notorious cheapskate. (His parsimony led to a problem with that year's World Series, as you may be aware.)

So if you're a Red Sox fan, don't blame Frazee for what happened: He didn't have much choice, unless he wanted the press and the public to think Ruth was running the team.

The deal was announced on January 5, 1920. People in Boston weren't happy about it. But nobody could have foreseen what would result from it. Ruth revolutionized the game with the Yankees, turning the home run from a rare thing into a common occurrence. And there would be more deals between Ruppert and Frazee, as Mays would be joined on the Yankee pitching staff by former Sox Waite Hoyt, "Bullet Joe" Bush and "Sad Sam" Jones.

From 1918 to the present... Yankees 27, Red Sox 0. Without cheating, anyway.

*

December 26, 1919 was a Friday. It was the off-season for baseball, The NFL and the NBA did not yet exist. The NHL did, but it held no games that day.

In Western Canada, there was 1 game in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The Victoria Cougars beat the Seattle Metropolitans, 2-1, at the Patrick Arena, built by the hockey-playing brothers Lester and Frank Patrick, in Victoria, the capital of the Province of British Columbia. 

This was no mean feat, as the Metros had won the PCHA title and reached the Stanley Cup Final in the previous season, against the NHL Champion Montreal Canadiens, but it was called off due to the Spanish Flu epidemic. In 1917, they had beaten the Canadiens to become the 1st American-based team to win the Stanley Cup. They would go on to win the PCHA title again in 1920, but lose the Stanley Cup Final to the Ottawa Senators, and fold in 1924.

The Cougars would win the West Coast Hockey League title in 1925, and beat the Canadiens, making them the last team from outside the NHL to win the Stanley Cup. They moved to the Western Hockey League, and won their title in 1926, but lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Montreal Maroons. Along with their league, they folded, but the bulk of their players were signed for a new team in the NHL. While not officially true, it can legitimately said that the Victoria Cougars still exist today, as the Detroit Red Wings.

K.C. Jones, 1932-2020

It's never good to see someone die on Christmas Day. As B.J. Hunnicutt (played by Mike Farrell) said on M*A*S*H, people's Christmas wreaths should be green, not black.

K.C. Jones -- as far as both Wikipedia and Basketball-Reference.com know, that was his his full name, named for his father -- was born on May 25, 1932 in Taylor, Texas. When he was 9, his parents split up, and his mother took him his siblings to San Francisco, part of "The Great Migration" of black people out of the South.

His basketball teammate Bill Russell, football star Ollie Matson, and baseball stars Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell and Joe Morgan were all born in the South, but moved to the San Francisco Bay Area as boys. The family of football legend turned criminal O.J. Simpson, before he was born, also did so.

After starring in basketball and football at Commerce High School, he went to the University of San Francisco, a Catholic school, where the guard became teammates with Russell, a center out of McClymonds High School, across the Bay in Oakland.

There, they won the NCAA Tournament in 1955 and 1956, winning 47 straight games, a streak that would reach 60 straight after their graduation. (They would reach what's now known as the Final Four again in 1957.) They would also be teammates on the U.S. team that won the Gold Medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Russell went straight to the NBA's Boston Celtics. Jones spent 2 years in the U.S. Army, and was then drafted by the Celtics in 1958. The Celtics had won their 1st NBA Championship in 1956-57, Russell's 1st season, but lost the Finals in 1958, due to an injury that Russell tried to play through.

With a starting lineup of Russell at center, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn as forwards, and Cousy and Sam Jones (no relation to K.C.), and with a bench led by K.C., Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff, the Celtics began the greatest run in the history of major league sports in North America. They won the next 8 NBA Championships: They beat the Minneapolis Lakers in the Finals in 1959; the St. Louis Hawks in 1960 and '61; the Los Angeles version of the Lakers in 1962, '63, '65 and '66; and the San Francisco Warriors in 1964.

By the 1961-62 season, Cousy's minutes had begun to decline, and K.C. became a starter. "The Jones Boys" backcourt featured Sam as the offensive guard, and K.C. as the defensive one. In 1965, Russell said, "K.C. Jones does not have a bagful of defensive moves. He has a whole truckload of defensive moves. He will pester a guy so much that the guy will start to look for K.C. even when he's not there."

Red Auerbach left his post as the Celtics' head coach after the 1966 title, but remained the general manager, and appointed Russell as head coach. The 1966-67 season saw the Philadelphia 76ers finally overcome the Celtics, and then beat the Warriors in the Finals.

At age 35, K.C. Jones retired as a player. He is 1 of only 8 players to win an NCAA Championship, an Olympic Gold Medal and an NBA Championship. The others are Russell, Sam Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Jerry Lucas, Quinn Buckner, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Anthony Davis.

*

K.C. immediately went into coaching, at Brandeis University outside Boston. He was the head coach there for 3 seasons, and then an assistant at Harvard University, also outside Boston, in 1970-71. He got his 1st NBA coaching job with the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, under his former Celtic teammate Sharman, and they set a North American major league sports record that still stands with a 33-game winning streak. They won 69 games, a single-season NBA record until 1996, and won the Lakers' 1st title since moving to Los Angeles.

That earned him his 1st pro head coaching job, with the San Diego Conquistadors of the ABA. They only went 30-54, but it was enough to get them into the Playoffs. That earned him his 1st NBA head coaching job, with the Washington Bullets. In 3 seasons, he led them to 1st, 1st and 2nd place in the NBA Central Division, and the 1975 Eastern Conference title. But they lost to the now-Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

In 1976-77, he was an assistant to former Celtic teammate Wayne Embry on the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1978, he rejoined the Celtics as an assistant coach, earning another NBA Championship ring under Bill Fitch in 1981. He was named head coach for the 1983-84 season, and won the title in his 1st season, with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge beating the Lakers.

He was a player's coach: "I prefer my players come across as geniuses. Mine is a subtle, quiet approach." On another occasion, in a similar vein, he said, "People want to see a coach who has a whip in one hand and a chair in the other. "I don't fit that mold. I prefer not to embarrass my players in front of 15,000 people just to impress the world."

He got the Celtics to the Finals again in 1985, but lost to the Lakers. He got them back in 1986, and beat the Houston Rockets.
Jones, talking to Larry Bird and Scott Wedman

Shortly after the 1986 title, K.C. appeared in a commercial for Jones Sausage, even though he had nothing to do with the company before. Also in the commercial was actress-dancer Janet Jones, then engaged to tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis, but later to call it off, and marry hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

He got them back to the Finals in 1987, but lost to the Lakers. After a 5th straight Atlantic Division title in 1988, but a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, he retired, becoming the Celtics' vice president for basketball operations.

In 1989, he joined the staff of Bernie Bickerstaff on the SuperSonics, and became their head coach in 1990. He remained head coach through 1992. He later served as an assistant to the Pistons, and back with the Celtics in the 1996-97 season. His last head coaching job was in 1997-98, with the New England Blizzard, the Hartford team in the American Basketball League, a women's league.

Overall, his coaching record was 552-306, for a .643 winning percentage. In 12 seasons as a head coach, he made the Playoffs 11 times, won 7 Division titles, made 5 NBA Finals, and won 2 NBA Championships. Between playing and coaching, he won 12 NBA titles. His uniform number was retired by USF (4) and the Celtics (25). He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1989.

After coaching the Blizzard, he remained in Connecticut, where he died yesterday, Christmas Day, December 25, 2020, at a nursing home, where he had been living with Alzheimer's disease. He was 88 years old. Obituaries made no mention of a wife or children. Tributes, however, have rolled in:

Alex English, Hall-of-Famer: "I remember playing for K.C. Jones when he assisted Don Nelson coaching with Milwaukee Bucks in 1978-79. He was such an easy soul to get along with."

Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards, formerly the Bullets; and also the NHL's Washington Capitals: "True NBA gentlemen-leader and winner passes; league and fans mourn K.C. Jones. K.C. was the Bullets coach while I was in college. I knew him more from his Boston Celtics playing and coaching career. He was a man of great grace -- and skills and talents.

Cedric Maxwell, who played on K.C.'s 1984 title-winning Celtics: "The quiet genius. #RIP my friend."

Red Auerbach died in 2006, but he said, "The biggest thing you can say about K.C. is that he's a winner."

Of that, there is no doubt.

UPDATE: With Tommy Heinsohn also having recently died, the Celtics will be wearing black bands on their left shoulder straps, reading "TOMMY / K.C." The University of San Francisco are wearing "KC 4" patches on their jerseys.

With his death, there are now: 

* 3 surviving members of the 1955 and '56 University of San Francisco National Champions: Bill Russell, Mike Farmer and Mike Preaseau.

* 5 surviving members of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team: Russell, Carl Cain, Burdie Haldorson, Ron Tomsic and Chuck Darling.

From the Celtics' title teams on which K.C. played:

* 1959, 3 players: Russell, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.

* 1960, same 3 players.

* 1961, same 3 players, plus Tom "Satch" Sanders.

* 1962, same 4 players as '61, plus Gary Phillips.

* 1963, 4 players: Cousy, Russell, Sanders and Sam Jones.

* 1964, 3 players: Russell, Sanders and Sam Jones.

* 1965, 5 players: Russell, Sanders, Sam Jones, Gerry Ward and Mel Counts.

* And 1966, 6 players: Russell, Sanders, Sam Jones, Ron Bonham, Ron Watts and Don Nelson.