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.
At the time, Spencer Haywood, the noted scofflaw, had just concluded his full-court press against the NBA on behalf of undergraduate access to professional basketball. Along with several other college sophomores and juniors, 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. And McGuire, as is his wont, was flying full in the face of the prevailing opinion of most college coaches by advising his player to go ahead and take it.
McGuire's motives were simply understood and (in character) harshly realistic: "I recruited Jimmy to pave Marquette's way to the big time," he said. "He's got every right to leave now and do the same for himself." In the end, Chones did not leave. He stayed in school and now his sturdy presence is one of the few established facts of a college basketball season that appears to be one of the most perplexing in years.
November 29, 1971
Haywood's successful defiance has encouraged other underclassmen to travel the new quick route. By hook or by crook, through hail and hardship, the American Basketball Association took Julius Erving from Massachusetts, Johnny Neumann from Mississippi, George McGinnis from Indiana and Mickey Davis from Duquesne, while the NBA made off with Tom Payne of Kentucky, Nate Williams of Utah State and Phil Chenier of California. All were undergraduates with, one presumes, neglected iceboxes.
Such wholesale raids added more empty space to a season which will feel the effects of losing the most talented group of seniors in a decade. The largest void has been created by the departures of the Big Men: Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore and Western Kentucky's Jim McDaniels, who are expected to turn the ABA all the way around; Elmore Smith of Kentucky State and Sidney Wicks of UCLA, who led their teams to national titles and then became sudden saviors of still-infant NBA franchises.
The star system somehow always manages to replenish itself, however, and an inordinate number of new giants will arrive in the front court next month. Such sophomores as Maryland's Tom McMillen, Houston's Dwight Jones, UCLA's Bill Walton, New Mexico State's Roland (Tree) Grant, Northern Illinois' Jim Bradley, Jacksonville's Dave Brent—some of whom are pictured on the succeeding pages and only one of whom is as short as 6'8"—lead what undoubtedly is the largest and possibly most talented class of big men ever to enter college basketball. Still, good as they are, they are green and unweaned. A gap remains.
Which still leaves—in the middle of all of these comings and goings and providing a certain continuity between old and new—Jim Chones, a thoughtful, intelligent, jazz-loving 22-year-old junior. After such a massive exodus he is 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.
In the past five years the Warriors of Marquette have won 21, 23, 24, 26 and 28 games while reaching the NCAA Mideast Regional three times and the NIT finals twice. It is a record surpassed during that time only by UCLA and North Carolina and one that must surely stand alone in the annals of Jesuit five-year plans. Yet because of McGuire's playing style and offensive philosophy, the emergence of Chones has been as near a sneaking-up process as a man of his size can get away with.
Throughout his years at Marquette the abrasive, colorful McGuire depended on short, quick men who could outrun, outsky and, when the occasion demanded, out-punch the opposition. He had 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. When the tall, graceful Chones arrived on campus from down the freeway in Racine, McGuire discovered a man endowed with strength, agility and the ability to do all these things. He wasn't sure what to do with him.
"I didn't truly understand the use of a big man on offense," he says now. "I was accustomed to guys climbing all the time with every basket a fight. We had proved we could win without a center. I couldn't change the offense just to suit one sophomore."
Since the coach also headlines his seniors, giving them the opportunity to, as he puts it, "make the sweet gravy" from the pros, there was no compulsion to bring Chones out from under his wraps. As a result the young rookie played last year in the shadow of Dean Meminger (now making gravy with the New York Knickerbockers) and bided his time in the learning process. Chones set up in the normal position for a Marquette center—the high post. He seldom went low on a drive to the basket, took most of his shots on a turnaround jump from the 10-foot range and was able to dominate only on defense. Because the Marquette offense is neither guard-oriented nor particularly forward-minded but relies rather on movements initiated by its own pressing defense, Chones was, in his own words, "a man almost without a game" when the Warriors got the ball.
Their proclivity for hiding their big man did not keep the Warrior coaches—McGuire and his assistant, Hank Raymonds—from acknowledging Chones' ample talents. "Jimmy is probably the best shooter I've ever had," McGuire said privately before the start of last season. "He's strong enough, unbelievably mobile sideline to sideline and maybe the fastest big man in the game." He told the somewhat unsure Chones himself, "Nobody knows you now, so enjoy it. In two years you won't go anywhere without the autographs."
Still, Chones asserted himself early in the year with an 18-point, 10-rebound second half against Minnesota and its own good sophomore, Jim Brewer. He had played an undistinguished first half comprised mostly of standing around, but at intermission he decided to "just do it." The Warriors ended up winning the game 70-61, and from then on it was apparent that Chones saved doing it for the big ones. Playing in a deliberate, low-shot offense, he made over 20 points in only nine games, but five of those were against tournament teams. In an 85-80 overtime victory over Fordham in Madison Square Garden, Chones had 22 points (seven of them in the extra period) and 15 rebounds. Against Kentucky in the consolation game of the Mideast Regional he embarrassed the Wildcats' Payne 27 points to one and 12 rebounds to two as Marquette won 91-74. Chones finished the season with modest averages of 17.9 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting .574 from the field. Unfortunately, it was three shots he missed in Marquette's 60-59 loss to Ohio State that are best remembered.
In that contest he battled Luke Witte, still another exceptional Big Ten sophomore center, to a standstill. But with about 45 seconds to go and the Warriors behind by a point, Chones jerked the trigger on two turnaround jump shots from 15 feet. After a Marquette time out he was set up again from 12 feet, and with 24 seconds left, fired once more. All three shots hit the front of the rim and bounced away; finally the Warriors turned the ball over and, with it, their 39-game winning streak.
"I could make those shots with my eyes closed," Chones says today. "You think I haven't dreamed about that plenty of times since? On two I had room to drive and was too stupid to go in. I might have been too confident and pulled the string each time. I know I never tightened up like that before."
In the months to follow, Chones received precious little time to dwell on the defeat. When he wasn't traveling over two continents as the starting pivotman for the U.S. Pan-American team, he was fending off requests for conferences with representatives of professional clubs. He talked the situation over with his coaches, his family, envoys from the legal profession and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He made up his mind to reject the offers, wavered on a few later occasions and, with pressure mounting, put his foot down. He decided to stay at least one more year at Marquette.
The reasons for his decision included loyalty to his team and the deathbed wish of his father that he gain a college education. Most importantly, the experience demonstrated to Chones his own maturity in handling a difficult situation and revealed to him the kind of problems awaiting him beyond the concrete sidewalks of Marquette.
"I can't go anywhere without people bringing up this professional business," he says. "But I weighed the negative and positive aspects and I've done the right thing. People from the ghetto say I blew it, but they don't know how much my father wanted me to get an education. Or how much money Spencer Haywood and Ralph Simpson actually lost by leaving school. On the other side, businessmen downtown say, 'Oh, you've made a fine choice.' But they never had to watch their mother sweep up roaches and piles of rats in the summer, or had to eat biscuits for two weeks because their father was on strike. I'll admit I'm still confused. I just want to forget about it now, play this year and try to win the national championship. Kareem told me to remember one important thing—if you're big and you're good, you'll get your money no matter what happens."
What happened long ago back in Racine was that a family grew up under remarkable close domestic and religious ties, providing the major influence on Chones even after he left home. He is the oldest among six children whose father, J.W., toiled for 20 years at the J.I. Case foundry and felt so strongly that his older son should improve upon the job that he refused ever to let young Jim go near the place, not even to pick up the weekly paycheck when J.W. took sick.
Members of the Chones family still pronounce their name the correct way—Kones—several years after Jim told the public-address man at a high school game that Kones was not "sporty" enough and please say it Chones, just like it is spelled. By then the family had lived in eight different houses in Racine but never severed their roots at the First Church of God, a Baptist house of worship on the north side that originated in the garage of a neighbor. The senior Chones always made sure his brood was neat and clean, ate on time and stayed away from likely sources of impending mischief.
Barbara McNair, a local girl who was to make a name for herself on the musical stage and in the pages of Playboy, once rocked Jim in her lap while baby-sitting. Later, he sang in the church choir through junior high school. He seemed a model child until J.W. found his son's absences from home increasing every day after school. When the old man investigated, he found Jim playing basketball on the playgrounds. His doubts dispelled, he went to a high school game where his son received an ovation. That night Mr. Chones came to the boy's bedside, confessed great pride and broke down in tears.
Young Jim had started basketball only after withstanding extreme embarrassment over his skinny arms and legs. In the 10th grade he was 6'6" but weighed only 155 pounds. As a result he never went without long sleeves even in 105° temperatures. Heavier, and with that obstacle surmounted, he had a fairly successful junior year at Washington Park High before suddenly transferring in the spring to St. Catherine's, a much smaller parochial school whose teams played in the tough Milwaukee Catholic League. Rumors abound about the switch: Chones was flat-out recruited, stolen away; Chones left after being beaten up by a gang of racist toughs when he wouldn't contribute to some turmoil they were planning; Chones was disgusted at the unequal opportunities afforded black and white athletes at the public school.
"Some of this is true," he says. "The black guys I hung with got no motivation, no encouragement to try and make it at a big college somewhere. Our white athletes always got a chance to go to Big Ten schools. I was being hindered and held back." It is also true, however, that Chones was not applying himself at the public school; where about one-third of the student body was black. Neglecting studies was something J.W. would not stand for, so he packed Jim off to the nearest nuns and the discipline at St. Catherine's.
Over the following summer, as a counselor at Ed Macauley's camp at Oneida, Wis. he met and played against pros: Oscar Robertson, Terry Dischinger, Guy Rodgers. "It was the first time I'd been away from home and had exposure to white people," he says. "You get these misconceptions and I was afraid. I'd never been around them before. I met different people. We'd spend every evening talking about social problems. It opened up a whole new world for me." (Chones was so taken by his camping experience that two years later he spurned a birthday party that was to be given him by the neighborhood and used the money instead for an annual Campership Fund for underprivileged kids in Racine. Financed by local businesses, he is now able to send 10 to 15 children to camp every summer.)
Chones returned to St. Catherine's his senior year and led the team to a 26-0 record and the state championship. His ability was no longer a secret. Several major universities beckoned and it looked like Chones would go to Michigan State. But J.W. had become seriously ill with lung cancer and Jim was feeling the responsibilities demanded of the head of a family. He decided that he couldn't go far from home and began to think seriously of Marquette, only 30 miles away.
"One night I drove up to Milwaukee and talked for hours with George Thompson about the school," Chones says. "I remember he kicked his girl friend out of the room just to talk to me. He touched everything—classes, campus, Coach Al, winning seasons, the intensity of the games here. I decided right then. I felt such a weight off my back I sat down and cried. The next October my father died and I thought about leaving school. Marquette couldn't solve all my problems. We needed stability and my sisters weren't too worldly. I didn't want them going wild or my mother falling apart or my brother going into a shell. I didn't see how we'd make it if I stayed here, but we have."
Presently Marvin Chones is a 6-foot sophomore guard at St. Catherine's. Mrs. Mamie Chones has learned to drive a car for transportation to her job at a Racine restaurant and to watch her son play in Milwaukee. Sherry, the second of Jim's four sisters, has reached the age (19) where her presence is in demand at the same parties Jim frequents—a difficult situation that is made more so by Sherry's striking 6'2" beauty and the inevitable wails of "Fox, Fox" every time she enters a room. The remaining sisters are equally attractive.
When Mrs. Chones drives her family up the highway to the Milwaukee Arena this season, they will see a vastly improved version of their famous relation. The sharpest change should come at the free-throw line where Chones shot a miserable 53% last season. He blames this particular failure on a lack of concentration. "I was always thinking about defense on the inbounds play," Chones says. "Half the time I didn't know who to take; in the middle of my shots I was always asking somebody, 'Man, where do I go after this?' I got better the second half of the season—at least I was over 50 percent. The game is going to be easier this year."
There will be progress in other areas as well, McGuire says. "In the two months following the end of last season, Jim improved every part of his game by double," he says. "I don't know what it was—the confidence from the tournament or what. But he's heavier now (230 pounds), stronger, and he's starting to go to the steel. There were only sprinkles of authority last season but now Jimmy knows he's the man. When we first got him, his biggest fault was a lack of instinct. He had to think first about everything, then go. This year he'll be starting down lower and driving a lot more. He's beginning to do it all naturally and when that happens, look out. The man is my aircraft carrier and he's smelling the roses." As usual, McGuire's metaphor is mixed but the general idea is there.
Raymonds, the assistant coach who played with Macauley in his years at St. Louis U. and who has taught Chones most of what he knows about the pivot, says: "He's no Jabbar, that's not fair. He isn't anywhere near the size of Jabbar, either. But Jimmy is learning how to conduct and influence a game the way Jabbar does. He's one of the few big men I've seen who gets stronger as the game goes on."
The pros who have seen and played with Chones are of a like opinion. Jon McGlocklin of the Milwaukee Bucks thinks he "could be a superstar in our league. He's got the offense, the defense, the size and the head for it. Could he turn a franchise around? We can't tell that yet. He has the ability to score, but there's no way to tell if he can make everything else happen. For that matter, how many players can?"
One NBA general manager was so impressed with Chones last year he had him first on his draft list ahead of all the eligible big-name seniors. A scout for another pro team—Jerry Krause of the Phoenix Suns—calls the Marquette center quite simply "the finest amateur basketball player in the world."
If nothing else, this kind of talk has made Chones intent on proving himself. "I don't think I had that good a year as a sophomore," he says, "and then we ended up losing when we shouldn't have. I may not look intense on the court but losing a game is like a year out of my life. I was hesitating most of last season but now I know I can be dominant. I've perfected the jumper from 15 feet. I've got the left-hand hook now, stationary or on the dribble. I'm practicing the power move down the middle. I'm going baseline more and leaning on people. I'm getting mean, you know?
"What I'm trying to do is take the best things from everyone and put them together. Kareem's hook. Hayes' turnaround. Russell's blocking shots. Chamberlain's team defense. Especially, I want to play the all-round game, smooth it, get a rhythm and a beat to it. Like Spencer Haywood—he's patient and mean at the same time. He plays the total game; it's a smooth passage from beginning to end."
Fortunately, Marquette will have Jim Chones from beginning to end this season. Luckily for the Warriors and all college basketball, he has elected to follow Spencer Haywood's performance on the court rather than off it.