There are three players responsible for the reconstruction of the Boston Celtics following the retirement of Bill Russell in 1969. The first man had been along for years and years… the indefatigable John Havlicek. The second man came along in the 1970 draft… the indefatigable Dave Cowens. The third man was taken in the 1969 draft, Boston’s first draft pick after Russell retired… the indefatigable Jo Jo White.
It should be no surprise that with three indefatigable players at the core, the 1970s Boston Celtics were a squad of persistence, endurance, and grit. Jo Jo White exemplified all of those qualities. Between 1971 and 1977, White appeared in 564 of 574 possible contests and played 40 minutes a night while doing so. These seasons were White’s peak years and prime averaging 20 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals.
The high-water mark of Jo Jo’s illustrious career came in the 1976 Finals. He played more minutes, scored more points, and made more assists than other player in that series thus earning the Finals MVP award. White’s performance in the series-opener was a harbinger of things to come:
The Celtics lazed through more than three periods until Jo Jo White did a 12-minute hustle Sunday to shoot Boston past Phoenix 98-87 in the opening game of the NBA championship series… White, scoring 12 straight points in a 4:15 span, finished with 22 points – all but two in the final two periods.
To get those 12 points, White knocked down a pair of jumpers, drove for two baskets, and hit four straight free. In Game 5 of the series, which some describe as the greatest game in NBA history, the Suns and Celtics played a triple overtime thriller. John Havlicek hit a supposed game-winner in the second overtime that was instantly topped by Gar Heard’s turnaround jumper.
Jo Jo White astonishingly played almost every moment of the 63-minute contest. Despite the heavy workload, White saved his best for those overtimes scoring 15 of his 33 points in the extra periods and pushed Boston to a 128-126 victory. Exhausted from the marathon affair, White slumped in his seat after the game and simply wondered aloud…
“Would you believe we’ve got another game in Phoenix Sunday?”
No worries for Jo Jo and the Celtics, however, as they won that game and the 1976 NBA championship.
That title run was the just latest display of greatness from White. His scoring rose from 12 PPG his rookie season to 22 his sophomore year and never dipped below 18 until the 1977-78 season. His assist average would settle between 4.5 and 6 during this same span. A deceptively low total for a point guard as great as White, but the Boston offense boasted many fine passers in Cowens, Havlicek and, later, Paul Silas and Paul Westphal. White also brought a stifling, lightning quick defensive pressure in the backcourt.
White’s playoff mettle was quickly evident as well. In his first postseason, White averaged a pretty decent 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49.5% FG and 83.3% FT shooting. Then in 1973, he picked up tremendous slack as the Celtics struggled to stay alive in the Eastern Conference Finals as their captain, John Havlicek, dealt with a shoulder injury.
In Game 4 of the series, minus the hobbled Hondo, White came up huge for Boston scoring 34 points (and Cowens adding 33) as the gang of green forced New York into double overtime before finally losing 117 to 110. Down 3 games to 1, Boston rallied forcing a seventh game that they ultimately lost.
The next season, and at full strength, the Celtics exacted revenge on the Knicks in a demolishing 4-1 Eastern Conference Finals victory. The Celtics then faced off with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1974 NBA Finals. Eventual Finals MVP John Havlicek (26/8/5) did the heavy lifting opposite Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s mammoth performance (33/12/5), but White did his part by beating Oscar Robertson in the point guard match-up. The series went the distance and Boston prevailed on Milwaukee’s home court, securing their first title in 5 years.
By 1977, Cowens and White were the Celtics stalwarts as other players departed or aged. Jo Jo produced perhaps his best season that year, even if Boston was sliding in the standings. Leading the Celtics in points, assists, and steals, White was selected to the All-NBA 2nd Team. Typically, he upped his play during the post season.
Most notable was Game 6 against Philadelphia in the Eastern Semi-Finals, which would prove to be his final act of playoff glory. Pumping in 40 points, White led Boston to a 113-108 victory to tie the series at 3-3. In Game 7, White again led Boston with 17 points, but the 76ers (behind Julius Erving and George McGinnis) were younger and demonstrated they were better with an 84-78 victory.
The 1977-78 season would see Boston turn in its first losing campaign since the aftermath of Bill Russell’s retirement. A huge factor was Jo Jo White missing games for the first time in six seasons. The Iron Man (who played in over 480 straight games) was sidelined for nearly half the season with a heel injury.
Thus began White’s descent into eventual retirement. On the wrong side of 30, White averaged just 11.5 points and 4 assists for the rest of his career which included some mop-up campaigns with the Golden State Warriors and Kansas City Kings.
To best sum up, Jo Jo White’s career is to recognize the regular season was the stuff of child’s play for him. Oh sure, he played hard and well during the 82-game schedule, but his bread and butter was the postseason. His already dazzling play was upped in the playoffs to the tune of 21.5 points, 5.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds. Upon his retirement in 1980, only Jerry West and Oscar Robertson could match those numbers put up by Jo Jo.
Just another measure of White’s greatness.
Years Played: 1969 – 1980
2x Champion (1974, 1976)
Finals MVP (1976)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1975, 1977)
7x All-Star (1971-’77)
NBA Career (1969-70 through 1980-81)
Peak Career Production (1970-71 through 1976-77)
Average and Advanced Stats