To tell the story of Jim “Sweets” Chones is to tell the story of “If only…” If only he hadn’t Broken His Foot, if only he hadn’t Grown Up Poor, if only he hadn’t, well, I’ll let the Nets’ long-time scorer Herb Turetzky tell that one:
Scoring the pre-season game in 1972 at the Nassau Coliseum against the New York Knicks and watching as Nets’ rookie Jim Chones dove over the Nets’ bench while chasing a loose ball and accidentally ran into my wife Jane, who was sitting in the front row, and knocked her unconscious
If only Chones, in the 1976 Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, hadn’t jumped for a ball in practice and landed on a teammate’s foot, causing the injury heard round the county.
“I heard a snap like when someone snaps a finger,” said Chones.
Broken hearted fans are still broken hearted:
In these parts, it is an article of faith that the Cavs would have won the NBA championship if Chones had not been hurt. With Chones, the Cavs had no weaknesses.
The Akron Beacon Journal insists Chones’ injury remains one of the cruelest blows in Cavs history.
Eric Cassano’s Weblog puts it into perspective:
If you are a Cleveland sports fan, “hurt” was probably the third word you learned to speak after “no” and “mama.”
Cleveland’s 10 worst injuries; 2. Jim Chones’ broken foot, 1976. No other injury on this list was more cruelly-timed.
Factors outside of his control shaped Jim’s early life decisions; a gravely ill father, younger siblings needing care, both practical and brotherly, a soon-to-be widowed mom who wanted a college education for her baby and knew in her heart it was going to have to wait.
After playing ball for St Catherine’s high school in Racine, Wisconsin, under John McGuire, the man credited with creating St. Cat’s basketball powerhouse (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin, June 12, 2001), Jim headed for Marquette and the experience of his life, playing for a McGuire called Al.
Jim, who lost his McGuires in the same sad year, held both in high esteem:
“He [John] was as great as any coach I had. It was funny that he and Al McGuire were both named McGuire, because they were the best coaches I ever had.
I’ll bet I had 20 to 25 coaches, and they got the most out of me. (John) was even-tempered, never swore . . .There was nothing fancy about him, but he played to win. He was a great strategist.”
Coming from Chones, that was high praise. . . Among Chones’ coaches were Lou Carnesecca, a former coaching legend at St. John’s University, and Larry Brown, Bill Fitch and Gene Shue, all three of whom rank among the NBA’s 10 winningest coaches. (Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin, June 12, 2001)
Reflecting on Al’s influence, Jim mused, “He was an example for my life.”
Chones once said he had met only two color-blind people in his life: Dean Smith and Al McGuire.
And though Al’s speech often teetered on the politically incorrect, there was no mistaking his pure intentions:
We don’t run a plantation here. I want and expect my players to get degrees, even if it takes more than four years.
Jim secured his reputation at Marquette in a hurry. A consensus Associated Press, Converse and UPI All-American in 1972, Chones amassed 952 points, 583 rebounds and led Marquette to a 49-1 record during his 50-game Marquette career. Called by many the most complete big man in the country entering his junior season, Chones ranks fourth all-time at Marquette in scoring average (19.0 ppg), rebounding average (11.7 rpg), and field-goal percentage (54.7 percent).
In 1971, he helped lead Marquette to a program best 28-1 record and berth in the NCAA Tournament. Chones led Marquette to a perfect 21-0 start to the 1971-72 campaign by averaging a team-high 20.5 points and 11.9 rebounds.
And then the if only’s reared their head. If only Jim had been born a decade later or into different financial circumstances, he would not have been forced to make a private decision in a public spotlight.
In November of 1971, calling Spencer Haywood a “noted scofflaw” after his successful US Supreme court bid for undergraduate access to the NBA, Sports Illustrated (SI) reported:
Along with several other college sophomores and juniors, [Jim] Chones, Marquette’s 6’11″ center, was being deluged with offers from both professional leagues to leave school and sign a contract worth close to a million dollars.
Sl was on a mission. Check out Jim Chone’s refrigerator and document the anti-Spencer:
For some time now the refrigerator in Jim Chones’ 17th-floor apartment on the edge of the Marquette University campus in downtown Milwaukee has been a subject of considerable interest as well as an object containing questionable nourishment. A few months ago Marquette Coach Al McGuire looked into Chones’ icebox, as he called it, and made the numbing assertion that “If I were him I’d take the money and run.”
What McGuire saw in there was something along the lines of Chones’ everyday stock: citrus punch, tomato catsup, orange juice, milk, mayonnaise, a can of ham, Manischewitz Cream White Concord, picked-over ground beef, fresh cucumber dill pickles and a dish of dried noodles.
The article ran in November of 1971 as “The Big One That Stayed,” glorifying Jim Chones as the most prominent college player to reject cash offers from professional basketball associations.
SI describes the relationship between Al and Jim in detail. Al, the story says, depended on:
. . . short, quick men who could outrun, outsky and, when the occasion demanded, out-punch the opposition . . .
never started a center over 6’6″—not one who could shoot anything more than a layup, make rebounding look easy and effectively tend the basket on defense.
tall and graceful, . . . Jim Chones, a thoughtful, intelligent, jazz-loving 22-year-old junior . . . the nearest thing to an established superstar one can expect to see in 1971-72; by personality as well as through circumstance, a very special young man.
SI reports McGuire discovered a man endowed with strength, agility and the ability to do all Al required of his players and was momentarily befuddled:
He wasn’t sure what to do with him.
Momentary setback. Al, ever innovative, coined the phrase “aircraft carrier” and ended up with a whole fleet. “Immense bulky craft” like Jim Chones and Jerome Whitehead did their best offensive work from less than 10 feet out and patrolled the middle, daring smaller guards to invade their territory. (Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 1, 1997)
Unfortunately, the glowing golden-boy-who-stayed article appeared just a few months before Jim, whose skills improved rapidly while the family finances did not, made the biggest decision of his young life. Here is why:
“It was not easy for our family. My dad worked in a foundry pouring steel for 26 years.
He died of cancer when I was 19 [Editor’s note: freshman year]. From the time I was 11 years old, I worked to help keep our family together. I worked three summers at Piper Farms outside Racine. I got 20 cents for picking a bushel of onion sets, $1.98 an hour for picking cabbage and $1.25 for digging out a bag of potatoes.
During the summers when I was in high school, I got $88 a week working at Johnson Wax. I gave $75 to my mom. I looked at all this as a way to help make ends meet.
Jim often worked in extreme conditions, describing the cold weather under which he picked cabbage:
I remember looking at my fingers sometimes to see if I had cut them off,” he said. “They were so cold, you couldn’t tell by feeling them.
According to the Syracuse Post-Standard (New York, January 1, 2004), finances forced the family to move nine times in his 18 years in Racine, including three times in one year.
The shortage of food in his early life was constant.
I often say that my kids don’t know me, don’t know how poor I was when I grew up . . . many days all we had to eat was biscuits with sugar and gravy. The only thing I really had was the love of my mother and father. (Source: The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY, January 1, 2004)
Promising Mamie Chones and Al McGuire that someday he would finish his degree, and following a path blazed by Spencer Haywood, Jim applied to enter the ABA draft early under a hardship exception. The frightened jumping center from Racine, Wisconsin, who wanted nothing more than to play ball, feed his family and learn stuff:
“I want to be the old guy on the porch swing and the kids all surrounding me. And when they ask, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ I want to tell them the truth” (Source: The Associated Press State & Local Wire, May 24, 1999)
found himself at the center of a suddenly ugly controversy.
Today, when it’s necessary to modify “sophomore” with “college” or “high school” when talking about early NBA entry, it’s difficult to imagine the controversy engendered by Spencer’s bold move. Clearly, the historical four year waiting period after high school was held sacred by many in the sport; interestingly, completion of a degree was not part of the equation.
Michael Tillery, interviewing Spencer Haywood in 2006 for Black Sports Network, documents this exchange:
Blacksports: Can you put into the words the challenges of going up against the NBA establishment?
Haywood:I took on the NCAA, ABA and the NBA. People were hitting me in my stomach, hitting me in my face, sucker punching me when I was going through this whole court case. Throwing bottles at me when I would walk on the floor during games.
They would be like: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor and he must be escorted off!” Because the NBA got an injunction. All kinds of things would happen. They put me out in the snow with just my uniform.
Al McGuire, knowing full well the decision might cost him a championship season, insisted Jim Chones take a somewhat cruel mid-season offer from the Nets which disqualified Jim from finishing the season with the Warriors.
6’11″ Jim Chones . . . agreed to take $1.5 million in cash Thursday night from the ABA’s New York Nets.
Chones . . . unquestionably needs the money, since his father died two years ago and his mother has been supporting her five other children on a $1.85-per-hour job as a “salad lady.”
But even in these turbulent days it is surprising for a college player to quit an undefeated team. . .
According to the Boston Globe, Al had no patience for people second guessing his player’s lives and motives, whether it be the NBA or the NCAA:
. . . the NCAA committees [are] a waste of time . . . If they held the meetings in a tenement building in Brooklyn, I guarantee they would come up with solutions. (Source: The Boston Globe, March 26, 2000)
Telling Jim it would be no different than if he was injured, and telling the press that he looked into his own refrigerator and then Jim’s and realized there was no decision to make, Al McGuire never once professed regret.
A Sports Illustrated reader summed up the fan’s frustrations:
While reading your article on a fine Marquette team, I heard over the radio that Jim Chones had signed with the New York Nets.
Quite a blow to Marquette fans, but even more of a blow to the coaches across the nation who have spent money and countless hours recruiting such players only to have them lured away by the raiding ABA.
Since the merger between the two leagues is not in sight, perhaps the ABA would like to send one of its teams to the NCAA playoffs. -William Hawthorne, Chapel Hill, N.C.
For Jim Chones, years of financial worry were over with the stroke of a pen:
“When I signed,” Chones said, “I heard angels singing and water running off a mountain.”
Marquette lost the championship; Jim went on to a stellar 10-year professional career.
What did he do with all that money? According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in a fond look at Jim’s life on his May, 1999, graduation day, Jim:
. . . sent his family money all the time, and treated himself to a Schwinn bicycle — which is still in his garage, hands off to anyone but him.
After blindsiding Herb’s wife and jumping within the ABA from the Nets to the Carolina Cougars, Jim left a lasting impression with Cougar fans:
During a Rockets vs. Cougars game, Carolina’s Jim Chones went up for one of those monster slam dunks. He hit the back of the rim with the ball which went about 20 feet straight up into the air. The backboard shattered into a million pieces, but stayed intact. Players ran for cover. Eventually, all the glass came down and spread out over that entire end of the court. After about an hour (in true ABA style) they replaced the backboard with a wooden one and continued the game.
And then he found his true home. Sure, he would leave Cleveland briefly to run over to the silly Lakers where he was part of the slim line (Magic up front with Wilkes and Chones, with Cooper and Norm Nixon in the backcourt) and win a championship ring and off to Washington to see if he could help out the Bullets and over to Europe to spread the basketball love in Italy, but he came back to us and he is here still.
Oh ok, a couple of good stories happened after Cleveland; let’s get them out of the way. On January 29, 1980, the Lakers came to town. 13,820 people stormed the Coliseum, most likely to see the now-West coast centric Jim Chones’ new friends, Kareem and Magic. The Cavs were 22-31 so there would be no suspense. Just sit back and watch the show.
The show that never ends. Four overtimes. Then-coach Stan Albeck’s brother sat in the parking lot, too nervous to watch. Stan himself, out of control during the fourth and final OT, shouted to the press:
They ought to kill (James) Naismith for inventing this game.”
Cavs are trailing by one point, less than 5 seconds remaining in OT #4 and former Cav Jim Chones fouls current Cav Mike Mitchell. Make one shot and we’re on to OT #5. Make no shots and we lose. Make both and the unthinkable happens. And then the unthinkable happened. Mike Mitchell makes both shots.
“I just had to stop this game,” Mitchell said.
Joe Tait wouldn’t get off the air after the game. He interviewed everybody for hours, from Sam Rutigliano (Browns coach) to Dave Garcia (Indians manager) to the sweepers and custodians.
How wonderful if Jim could have celebrated with us. If only he wasn’t a Laker . . .
Tired of the West Coast, Jim skipped town and ended up in Washington with the Bullets. If you’re wondering what Jim Chones was like in 1982 DC, try The Washington Post:
Jim Chones–Wears football shoes–the kind for artificial turf–and a baseball cap on backward. Constantly shaking his head in agreement to everything, adding “Yep, dig it.”
A pop quiz from the same paper offers yet another clue:
Question. What player has been assessed the most technical fouls in the last 10 years?
Answer. The Bullets’ Jim Chones has been slapped with 73 technical fouls in the past decade and no player is even close.
Playing for the Cavs from ‘74-‘75 through ‘78-’79, Jim averaged double-figure scoring each season. His 3,790 rebounds still rank No. 3 on the Cavs’ all-time list.
His Miracle of Richfield injury, mentioned previously, is a legend among local legends.
Chones, who heard a snap, knew it was much worse. He had suffered a break in the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot, and his foot was placed in a cast.
Tait remembers meeting up with head coach Bill Fitch at the airport the next day for the flight to Boston.
“Fitch was looking like his entire family had just been wiped out,” Tait said. “I said, ‘What the hell’s wrong?’ Then he told me about Chones’ foot.”
Guard Austin Carr never will forget how he felt.
The only other time I remember feeling like that was when Kennedy got shot. I felt helpless. (Source: Akron Beacon Journal, April 29, 2001)
Jim remembers the Miracle of Richfield game:
. . . so loud, we couldn’t even keep chalk on the portable blackboards, because it kept bouncing off. We couldn’t hear ourselves talk. We ran our offence with hand signals.
Bill Fitch coached those early Cavs and Jim remembers him vividly:
Once, after playing a very poor afternoon game at Chicago, the players figured they would be heading home after the plane touched down that evening in Cleveland. They figured wrong.
“He [Fitch] took us to Baldwin-Wallace, where we used to practice in this gym that was so dark that it was like a dungeon,” said Chones, who was with the Cavs from 1974-79. “We had a 4-hour practice. I remember (forward) Jim Brewer saying, ‘We ain’t mules.’”
Carr and Chones weren’t always smiling during Fitch’s workouts. But, as time went on, both realized that Fitch’s emphasis on defense and precision running of plays made them better. Bird soon found out the same in Boston.
“I remember seeing Larry Bird in a Marriott right after Bill went to the Celtics (in 1979),” Chones said. “He said to me, ‘How in the hell did you play for Fitch all of those years?’ Well, when Bird retired, he said the best coach he ever played for was Bill Fitch.” (Source: Akron Beacon Journal, January 7, 2002)
Ever practical, Jim Chones was quoted, when asked his opinion of a dispute between Terry Fulrow and Coach Bill Fitch:
“If they’re going to fight,” said the Cavaliers’ center Jim Chones, who has no hole in his head, “I’m going to root for the guy who signs the checks.” (Source: The Washington Post April 29, 1979)
In 2002, because we love him, Jim was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2004, because they love him, Jim was inducted into the Marquette University Hall of Fame.
His kids, because they love him, still watch the old tapes:
We have the old-fashioned reels, and he will bust them out and we will all sit there and laugh at him because his shorts are so tight and he has socks up to his knees. (Source: News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, January 29, 2003)
Pete Vecsey, because he loves him, forgives Jim for never returning “Foul” (autographed by author David Wolf and Connie Hawkins).
Jim, because he loves his kids, tells them “Use sports, don’t let sports use you.” (Source: Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, July 20, 1996)
It’s time. Every carnival has an end. Circuses close. Honeymoons come to an end sooner or later. It’s been super, but now it’s time. — Al McGuire
- Harry Davis looked to Jim Chones for shopping recommendations when he arrived at the Cavs:
He really knew clothes.
- In 1999, with an elderly Mamie on dialysis and unable to attend the ceremony, Jim received a degree in Philosophy (Source: Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, May 27, 1999):
That degree is for her.
- firstname.lastname@example.org, a Cavs fan online at The Plain Dealer, believes the early ’70s Cavaliers wine and gold uniforms were designed by Jim Chones, patterned after the Marquette uniforms of the day. Can anyone confirm or deny this rumor? Plain Dealer Fan Lines November 26, 2001
- According to Plain Dealer reporter Burt Graeff (December 1, 2001), Jim is off the hook for the Cleveland curse:
Austin Carr started it all.
Thirty years ago, Carr reported to Cavaliers training camp and promptly broke a bone in his right foot.
- After his Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title in 1980, Jim Chones did the usual celebrating on the court and in the locker room. But later in the evening, Chones sat alone in his hotel room and began to reflect.
“I started to cry,” Chones said.
“I was just thinking that this is the same momentum we had in Cleveland, and we should have won the championship.”
Akron Beacon Journal
April 29, 2001
- Jim Chones passed idle NBA hours in 1982 by playing backgammon. (The Washington Post March 21, 1982)
- Jim is a member of the Cavaliers Legends – an auxiliary arm of the Cavs organization that performs community outreach and includes stars such as Campy Russell, Austin Carr, Elmore Smith, Bingo Smith and Barry Clemens.
- Jim likes to help local entrepreneurs – Louis Hohl invented a basketball visor long enough to block the view of the ball but short enough not to interfere with the shot. Chones has already used some at the Cuyahoga Community College summer basketball day camp and intends to by more.
- Played stock broker at First Union for a while
- Provided color commentary for the Cavs.
- Chones’ daughter ran suicides – “We have an easement right next to our house, and it’s 60 yards long,” Chones said. “I’d have her run ‘suicides.’ Up and down was one. I’d have her run five of them. Then, I’d have her do more ‘Mikans.’ That’s where she learned her touch around the basket.
- Worked as Coordinator of Sport and Leagues for the City of Bedford Heights.
- Teamed with former NBA 7-footer Elmore Smith to form perhaps the nation’s tallest tandem of executives; Smith’s Cavalier Construction & Industrial Corp.
- Chones coached his triplet sons at Orange High School.
- Filled the imagination of at least one Amish child:
. . . a young Amish boy listening to my AM pocket radio hidden under the mattress, with an earphone attached to one ear, locked in permanently to 3WE in the mid-70′s listening to Joe Tait calling the Cavs games . . .
. . . having never been to a game and never seen one on TV, trying to picture the action like [top of the key] or [to the line to the lane] or [in to Brewer, back out to Carr over to Russell in under to Chones, WHAM] or Hayes under to Unseld, up for the slam, blocked by Chones, out to Walker, down the floor . . .