Jo Jo White entered the NBA in 1969 as the 9th overall pick in that year’s draft. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics – the year that Bill Russell retired. Imagine that, getting drafted by the most dominant franchise in NBA history the same year that the team’s leader decides to retire.
With Russell gone, and with the competing ABA underway, where some of the sport’s best players were torn between the two leagues, an aging Wilt Chamberlain was chasing his first championship victory as a part of the Los Angeles Lakers organization, and a young talent named Lew Alcindor began his NBA career in Milwaukee. What remained of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s was star, utility swingman John Havlicek. He had proven to be the team’s best player during their final two championship runs. As long as Russell remained, Havlicek was unable to emerge as the team’s primary leader. With Russell gone, he would transition into that role, albeit, not without facing some bumps in the road along the way.
Jo Jo White was essentially filling the void left behind by 10-time NBA Champion and 5-time NBA All-Star guard Sam Jones. Larry Siegfried, the other starting guard from that aging Celtics dynasty was approaching 30 years old. White soon became an All-Star. In just his second year in the NBA, White nearly doubled his previous season’s output, scoring more than 21 points per game, while also collecting 5 rebounds per game and dishing out nearly 5 assists per game. That season, he would begin a streak of seven consecutive All-Star appearances.
The 1970s were a strange era in basketball history. As the competing gridiron football leagues in North America had finally merged into one National Football League (Combining the American Football League and the National Football League, and forming two conferences: the AFC and NFC), the competition the NBA was facing from the ABA began to intensify.
As star center Lew Alcindor began to transform into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still to this day the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a star was beginning to emerge in the ABA by the name of Julius Erving (a.k.a. Dr. J). The NFL had already realized the best way to remedy their conflict with their competition was literally to join them. The NBA, on the other hand, had yet to seize the opportunity to pursue a similar route. The NBA was still the dominant attraction; but, the ABA was filling seats with an attraction by the nickname of Dr. J. Between Doc’s highlight-reel dunks and a more free-flowing, higher scoring game that included the added element of a 3-point shot, the ABA was proving to be serious competition for the NBA, an organization that had just seen stars like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain either enter the twilight stages of their careers or retire.
The old Celtics dynasty had all but disappeared. The Lakers were a dominant force; but, they were still not ready to totally take over and win championships year in and year out. They faced competition in the form of young star Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks, as well as a rivalry with the New York Knicks and their style of team-first basketball led by All-NBA guard Walt Frazier.
Frazier remembers White fondly, but admits the two were never very close:
“In those days there was no camaraderie. Certainly not like it is now. Out of respect we’d speak to them but no fraternizing. The rivalry was that intense.”
Boston would struggle their first year without Bill Russell and Sam Jones. They won 34 games and missed the playoffs for the first time since before Bob Cousy’s arrival in 1950. The next season they improved their win total to 44 games, but still missed the playoffs. This was not Russell’s Celtics, that was clear. With their number four overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, the team selected future-MVP center Dave Cowens. This would be the moment the franchise would turn back around and begin to dominate the league once again. It would take one season; but, before too long, the Celtics were back on top.
While the arrival of Dave Cowens would prove to be the icing on the cake, John Havlicek was also asserting himself as a 1st-Team All-NBA player, and deservedly so. He was filling in the box score with numbers similar to those posted by LeBron James before LeBron James was ever even born. Over a three-year stretch between 1971 and 1973, Havlicek averaged 27, 8, and 7. During this time, Jo Jo White was becoming a lethal scorer who could be counted on during crunch time. Not only would his workload increase during the postseason, his efficiency and productivity would increase as well.
During his seven seasons as an All-Star, Jo Jo White would miss 10 games and average 19.8 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, and 5.5 assists per game, while playing primarily as the team’s point guard. At one point, he even competed in 488 consecutive games, sill a franchise record to this day. The Celtics were leading a balanced attack led by their big 3. In 1975, for example, the team’s three leading scorers were all averaging between 18 and 21 points per game, while all averaging between 17 and 19 field goal attempts per game. White’s numbers, during the postseason, would improve to 21.5 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, and 5.7 assists per game. During the regular season, over that same span, his shooting percentage was 44% on 19 field goal attempts per game. During the postseason, his field goal attempts per game would increase to 20.4 while his shooting percentage would increase to 45%.
The culmination of all of Jo Jo White’s hard work would come together in the spring of 1976, at the age of 29 years old. During Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, a game many fans and basketball historians would consider to be among the greatest games ever played, Jo Jo White competed in 60 out of a possible 63 minutes, as the game finally concluded at the end of its third overtime period. Two attributes White will be remembered for: his conditioning and his ability to pull up on a dime and hit a clutch jump shot were both on display during this outing. White finished the game as its leading scorer, scoring 33 points, making 15 of 29 field goal attempts. He was given double duty in this series, having to also guard the opposing team’s best player in Paul Westphal. While Westphal scored 25 points, in game 5, he was only able to contribute 2 rebounds and 2 assists, while White, on the other hand, finished the game with 6 rebounds and 9 assists, even though Havlicek handled a bulk of the team’s point guard responsibilities playing as a point forward in order to slow the pace and set up White as a shooter. The Celtics would prevail at home, winning game 5 128 – 126. They would go on to win the series two nights later in Phoenix. This was the second championship victory for White and this 1970s version of the Boston Celtics. They won it two years prior in 1974. White was named MVP of the 1976 series.
Game 5 in its entirety can still be found on YouTube.
On Tuesday, January 16th, 2018, Jo Jo White passed away. The official statement made by his family confirmed that he had died of pneumonia. Unfortunately, at the time of his death, he was already suffering from dementia, brought on as a result of the removal of a brain tumor years ago.
Joseph Henry White was born on November 16th, 1976, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the youngest of seven children. Their father was a Baptist minister. Joseph was accidentally given the nickname, “Jo Jo,” one day in practice while playing for his high school’s basketball team. Jo Jo spent his collegiate years competing at the University of Kansas, where he would become an All-American, and graduate in 1969. Along the way, he would win an Olympic Gold Medal during the 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico City, Mexico. In 1982, White’s number 10 jersey was retired by the Celtics organization. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Jo Jo White is survived by his wife Deborah, as well as his six children and his grandkids. As time moves on, his legacy will live on beyond the basketball court. His presence there, however, is felt even by today’s players. Another Celtics championship-winning guard, remembered for raising his game during the postseason, Rajon Rondo, had this to say about Jo Jo White:
“He always supported me; he always gave me great advice … his family, his wife, (were) very kind to me, as well.”