Outlets’ unceasing quest to innovate sports broadcasts with techniques that bring the audience closer: Mic’d up players, in-game interviews, fly-on-the-wall cameras that catch teams leaving the playing floor. We may not think much of it now, but nearly 50 years ago, one such technique may have been the impetus behind the firing of a basketball legend.
Cameras going behind-the-scenes, either into the locker room or the huddle, offers an illuminating perspective on how teams tick. NBA coverage has, in many ways, been at the forefront.
Other leagues have gone further than NBA broadcasts, like the XFL Ver. 3.0 granting sideline reporters access in-game. The results don’t always produce the most compelling television, but it beats the hell out of Vince McMahon’s promises to take audiences into the cheerleaders’ locker room as viewership flagged during the original XFL.
Certainly the NBA has never gone as far as the XFL — which, to be frank, is done as a gimmick to attract viewers to a fledgling product. But when the NBA was still trying to gain a foothold with the public in the 1970s, one of the more enduring gimmicks of basketball broadcasting emerged that is a staple still today.
With the upcoming NBA Playoffs, you’ll see plenty of quick snippets taken from team huddles during pivotal situations — a broadcasting addition that’s so ubiquitous today, the audience only really seems to notice huddle shots when something especially remarkable happens. Rudy Gobert serving a one-game suspension for punching Kyle Anderson in the Minnesota Timberwolves huddle is a prime example.
Gobert was suspended for the Timberwolves’ play-in-game against the Los Angeles Lakers. And while his future in Minnesota is uncertain, huddle photography or access may never impact anyone quite as profoundly as it did Hall of Famer K.C. Jones.
Jones stands out as one of the game’s most unconventional stars. He finished his playing career with the Boston Celtics averaging 7.4 points per game, and never put up more than 9.2 in a season, but as examined in the outstanding Netflix docuseries Bill Russell: Legend, Jones was important enough that Russell campaigned for Boston to add Bill’s former University of San Francisco teammate.
And Jones became a central figure during the Celtics’ dynasty of the 1960s, functioning as the consummate glue guy. Jones could even be considered basketball’s first glue guy.
Given his unorthodox path to playing stardom and his role bonding a team, Jones having a similar approach to coaching is no surprise. As head coach of the Washington Bullets in the mid-1970s, Jones brought the franchise on the cusp of NBA titles — including in 1975 when Washington faced the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
The ‘75 series is historically noteworthy for featuring two Black head coaches, with Al Attles leading the Warriors. It’s also a point of focus in American University professor Theresa Runstedtler’s newly released book, Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA.
Runstedtler’s well-researched book includes a portion on the ahead-of-its-time access CBS, broadcast partner for the 1975 Finals, had — and the role it played in Jones being fired from his coaching post.
“CBS cameras had also covered both teams’ huddles during their timeouts in the closing minutes,” writes Runstedtler. “During one such timeout, Jones had called the play and let Bickerstaff diagram it for the players. Coming back from commercial, the screen had cut to the Bullets’ huddle, where Bicksteraff was outlining the play while Jones watched. Although it seemed harmless enough at the time, this footage haunted Jones in the years to come.”
The haunting began immediately. From Dick Mackey’s column in the May 22, 1975 Kansas City Times, after the Bay Area underdogs took a 2-0 lead in the series:
Thanks to an excellent technical job by CBS the viewer is being taken into team huddles during critical timeouts. What CBS is showing and what the viewer is being privileged to hear tells a lot about the two teams, particular the coaching talents of Al Attles of Golden State and K.C. Jones of Washington.
A perfect example came the other night when Golden State hung on for a 92-91 decision. With 23 seconds to play and Washington down by one, the Bullets called time to set up the hoped-for winning shot.
Setting up that play, however, was a classic study in wholesale indecisiveness. While K.C., Bernie Bickerstaff, his assistant, and the Bullet players held a 3-way debate, Attles’s instructions were direct: “Play defense, stick to your man, switch if you have to but don’t sag off to help out. If Kevin [Porter] beats us with a jumper, he beats us with a jumper.”
Mackey’s version of events seemingly reflects the prevailing sentiment. Jones was fired a year later, nearly to the day, when the Bullets bowed out of the 1976 Playoffs unceremoniously.
Jones’ glue-guy approach may have made him a winner at various levels of basketball, but his similar coaching style made him an easy scapegoat for critics who were more accustomed to fire-breathing sideline generals.
“K. C. is a man and he treated us like that,” Bullets star center, Hall of Famer and the late Wes Unseld told Sam Goldaper of The New York Times in 1976. “Maybe that was the mistake, expecting everyone to act like a professional. As individuals, we just couldn’t put everything together as a team.”
Jones remarkably went another eight years before landing his next head-coaching job. Upon receiving his next opportunity in 1983, he expressed a commitment to adhere to the glue-guy style that defined his career.
“The Washington experience didn’t change the way I looked at the game,” Jones told the Washington Post in November ‘83. “I believe in being calm because I think that’s what instills confidence in the players. That’s the way I’ve always coached and always will coach.”
Jones also detailed to the Post’s David DuPree that Jones gave Bickerstaff the floor in that critical moment of the 1975 Finals in part because Bickerstaff had been assigned to scouting the Warriors earlier in the Playoffs — context that, while not necessarily enough to keep Jones in Washington after its failed pursuit of the title, may have opened opportunities up for Jones sooner after his departure from the Bullets.
Not that his story didn’t ultimately result in success: Jones’ return as a head coach came with the Celtics, where in his first year, he oversaw the first of two title-winners in his return to Boston.
If nothing else, Jones came away from the experience with his own views on TV’s budding role in the presentation of basketball.
“If there was one thing I learned from it,” Jones told the Post of the CBS huddle kerfuffle, “is to never let a camera or a mike in my huddle. It’s known around the league as the K.C. Jones syndrome.”
Lingering symptoms of “K.C. Jones syndrome” are evident today. Though his San Antonio Spurs missed this season’s Playoffs, coach Gregg Popovich’s attitude toward the NBA’s mandated in-game interviews became a selling point of the broadcast, making Pop the Basketball Crispin Glover.