In an oil painting, he’d have been part of the background scenery. As part of a comedy team, he’d have been the straight man who set up the other guy for the jokes and applause.
Caldwell Jones spent most of his 17 seasons in the ABA and NBA out of the spotlight reserved for the superstars, but always in the middle of the dirty work that needed to be done.
The 64-year-old center, one of four Jones brothers — along with Wil, Major and Charles — to play in the NBA, has died of a heart attack.
He was tall (6-foot-11) and spindly and often looked like he’d been constructed out of pipe cleaners twisted together. He’d occasionally take the court wearing a rubber cushion to protect a sore elbow, two big knee pads and one high-top and one low-cut shoe to deal with foot injuries and then just go about his business against the bigger, bulkier big men in the game.
It took him 1,227 games in both leagues to cross the 10,000-point plateau, never averaging double figures. But scoring and getting headlines weren’t as important to Jones as doing what was necessary.
I first met him when he was probably the least-known member of the flamboyant 76ers team with Julius Erving, Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Jones was content to be a defensive tentpole that quietly held things up in the middle.
“Everybody likes to look at the glory part of the game, the scoring points,” he once said. “But there is a lot more to the game. I look at myself like an offensive lineman. Someone has to open the holes for the 1,000-yard rushers.”
He loved to watch old Westerns (Lash LaRue, Cisco Kid) and cartoons (Woody Woodpecker, the Flintstones) and had a laugh that was as genuine and down-to-earth as the hardscrabble roots in McGehee, Ark., that produced the Jones clan.
He ate chili dogs for breakfast, chugged beers in the locker room after a hard night’s work and when Oregonian reporter Dwight Jaynes once asked him to name his favorite seafood, replied: “Salt water taffy.”
Jones was always self-deprecating about his own talents.
“You know how you stop Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?” he once told me. “You push him and you push him and you push and you push him. And then you hope he just steps out of bounds.”
In the prime of his career, Jones was a mentor to the likes of young Sixers guards Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney, teaching them what it took to be a professional. In his final NBA season, he was still showing those ropes to a rookie named David Robinson in San Antonio.
After six seasons in Philadelphia, battling alongside Dr. J for Eastern Conference supremacy, but never winning a championship, Jones was traded to Houston for Moses Malone in 1982 and the Sixers won it all the next season while the Rockets finished 14-68.
I had moved to Houston myself about six months before the trade and Rockets equipment manager David Nordstrom asked me what he could do to make Jones feel welcome. I told him that a bucket filled with ice and a six-pack in front of his locker after every game would go a long way.
On the night Jones played his first game in Houston, I walked through the door just as C.J. was twisting the top off a bottle. He pointed it at me.
“They don’t guarantee what uniform you’re always gonna wear in this league” he said. “But they pay me very well to come to work and do a job.”