In an age dominated by overhyped athletes who are sometimes short on character, JoJo White's story offers a refreshing look back at one athlete's career-a career that was the product of genuine good values. In Make It Count, author Mark C. Bodanza presents a biography of a man who triumphed both on and off the basketball court.
White's story is interwoven with ours as a nation.
His basketball days were shaped by-and in a few cases, helped shape-events of monumental importance. Race relations, the war in Vietnam, and political tumult across the land punctuated White's years as both a Kansas Jayhawk and Boston Celtic. Bodanza shows how, through his years on the court, the point guard from St. Louis, Missouri, maintained a steady contribution to the game that became his passion while still a child. With each passing game, season, or team that formed a part of his playing days, White stayed true to principles learned before he donned his first high-school uniform.
Make It Count narrates a compelling chronicle of a sports career complete with drama, triumphs, and losses, as well as an affirmation that hard work has its reward. In life, as in basketball, JoJo White's approach to each opportunity that a new day presents has always been the same: make it count.
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Make it CountThe Life and Times of Basketball Great JoJo White
By Mark C. Bodanza
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Mark C. Bodanza
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRival Leagues Compete for Talent
As player contracts go, it was an unusual negotiation. Joseph White sat quietly in a conference room of a Kansas City Holiday Inn, having just made the thirty-eight-mile drive down Interstate 70 from the campus of Kansas University in Lawrence. The Kansas All-American was being courted by the NBA and the Dallas Chaparrals of the upstart American Basketball Association.
Founded in February 1967, the ABA burst onto the professional sports scene with color and innovation, featuring novelties that included the three-point shot, the flying dunk, and a red, white, and blue ball. The new league was in search of top-line talent, and the established basketball association took notice. Determined to preserve the top-draft prospects for itself, the NBA initiated a practice of signing prospective players to "league contracts" that would later be honored by the NBA franchise that selected the player in the college draft.
Carl Scheer was in Kansas City to talk to White on behalf of the NBA. In Terry Pluto's testimonial history of the ABA, Loose Balls, Scheer said, "I'm not comfortable saying exactly who signed early like that, but I assure you players did, and I know because I worked as an assistant to NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy from 1968 to '70." Scheer was in on the attempt to sign the sensational Kansas point guard to an NBA deal from the very beginning.
It wasn't long into White's basketball career before he acquired his indelible nickname. One of his earliest basketball mentors was his high school coach Jodie Bailey. At practice Coach Bailey directed him, calling out "Joe." The lack of an immediate reaction from his young player prompted the coach to summon him with a staccato "Joe-Joe" enough times for it to stick. Forever after, most of the world (especially those who came to admire his basketball talent) would know him as JoJo White.
JoJo's impressive play at Kansas and as a member of the US Olympic Basketball Team in 1968 had catapulted him to the top of the 1969 draft class. This was the sort of talent the ABA wanted and the NBA didn't want to lose. The meeting with JoJo was the subject of discussion in the NBA's New York office before Scheer was dispatched to Kansas City. Competition with the ABA created a tense atmosphere. The uncertainty in professional basketball mirrored the upheaval in America. Stability was not the watchword for many of America's institutions during the turbulent sixties. When workmen came into the NBA offices to paint the walls while league officials discussed JoJo White, they were suspected as ABA spies. It took ten minutes of questioning to convince Scheer and others that the painters were solely concerned with the redecorating.
The concerns of the NBA were well founded. The ABA's founder, Dennis Murphy, admitted to having spies in the NBA's offices who supplied information on the players that the established league wanted to preserve for their own franchises. Perhaps it was no surprise that when Scheer went to Kansas City to meet with JoJo White, a representative of the ABA's Dallas team was staked out in the same hotel.
White had the distinct advantage of negotiating a contract with the competing parties in the same building, something of little consequence to the point guard at the time. Money was subordinate to his desire to play a sport that had captured his fascination since he was a young boy. Offers were made and countered with speed and efficiency. He did not have a professional agent. Sufficiently stunned by the salary figures being lobbed back and forth, JoJo was all ears during a process that was unique in professional basketball. He entrusted his basketball future to Ted Owens, his coach at Kansas, and Roy Holiday, a judge who was a former Jayhawks player and a big supporter of the basketball program at Kansas. The bargaining team volunteered to represent him without compensation. Owens reasoned that JoJo need not spend the money for an agent, and the Jayhawks star didn't hesitate to accept Owens' guidance. He trusted his coach; after all, the only real goal was to play basketball in the NBA.
The bond between coach and player was a strong one. Their paths first crossed as each faced new challenges. Ted Owens became the head coach at Kansas while JoJo White was evaluating some 250 college scholarship offers to play not only basketball but baseball and football too. There was never any doubt that he would play basketball—it was his first love, a game that he had a passion for since childhood. While White sifted through the offers, Owens was in the midst of recruiting his first freshman class as the Kansas head coach in the fall of 1964.
Owens had been promoted from within, having served as the Jayhawks assistant coach the prior season. In those days, it was not uncommon for the staff to be limited to a sole assistant—a far cry from today's half bench of coaches. Owens filled the vacancy created by his promotion with Sam Miranda, a former player at Indiana and more recently an assistant coach at New Mexico State. It was Sam who first took notice of JoJo White. He had heard of White's talents through a friend from St. Louis where JoJo played his high-school ball. The new Jayhawks coaching duo placed JoJo White on their short list of prospects.
The recruiting process was blessed from the very start. Any letter of intent from JoJo White would not come without a parental stamp of approval. The future collegian was reared in a close-knit, loving family with no lack of guidance and discipline. The Kansas coaches first met their prospect and his parents at dinner in a St. Louis restaurant. The introduction left Coach Owens with a lasting memory. Reverend George L. White led the group in prayer, a moment that still resonates with Ted Owens today. It was the start of a relationship between coach and player, mentor and charge, marked by trust and an enduring friendship.
Nevertheless, it was Sam Miranda with whom Elizabeth White was taken right away. Sam had a warmth and charm that made an immediate impact. He made Mrs. White comfortable right from the start. JoJo was the first of the White's seven children to attend college. Sending their young son away to school was a decision of true import. For his part, JoJo was interested in attending the University of Cincinnati. Cincinnati was the alma mater of his boyhood idol, Oscar Robertson, and if the school was good enough for "the Big O" it was good enough for him. Unfortunately for the budding basketball star, Cincinnati was in the midst of racial strife in the fall of 1964, a year that witnessed the enactment of a landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2. Despite the historic legislation, the demonstrations and riots that began on the streets of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 continued. The Whites were reluctant to send their son into a difficult environment marked by racial tensions.
By contrast, the initial measure of comfort created by the Jayhawks coaching staff gave JoJo's parents a good deal of confidence in the Kansas program, and not just the basketball side of things. The Whites were very interested in JoJo's academic opportunities, especially since their youngest son was the only child to go to college. A trip to Lawrence by parents and son, the Whites' first airplane flight, did nothing to dissuade their initial positive impressions. It was a foundation that supported both a stellar college basketball career and the faith to entrust the promise of a professional basketball career to Coach Owens.
More than four decades later, the relationship between coach and player remains as strong now as it was during the sixties. Their respective careers were launched while America was changing around them. There is little mystery why their bond has weathered time. Both men were reared in a home filled with love. Ted Owens and his two brothers grew up on a cotton farm in Hollis, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression. When Homer Owens came home after a day of hard work on the land, he mustered the energy to spend time with his boys, whether it was hitting them ground balls or affixing a netless rim to a square wooden backboard for hours of layups and jump shots.
Coach and player had much to reflect on as they convened at the Kansas City Holiday Inn. They were of similar backgrounds, having grown up in families that prioritized values and virtues, and had thrived together. The product of their hard work culminated in a rather special opportunity. Not only was JoJo White one of college basketball's top draft prospects, but he was in the unique position of pitting one rival league against the other for his services.
In retrospect, it wasn't the competition it appeared to be. JoJo wanted to play in the NBA—it was as simple as that. After a series of rejected offers, each bested by Carl Scheer, the ABA's Dallas representative was soon possessed of the notion that his presence in Kansas City served the sole purpose of sweetening the NBA league contract. Dallas gave up. An enthusiastic JoJo was sufficiently satisfied by the offers that accompanied the early bids. He was eager, and the money seemed more than adequate—he just wanted to play professional basketball and the salary was not his first priority. Basketball was his passion. It had been that way since he first picked up a ball and played on neighborhood courts in St. Louis. Now he was on the verge of playing the sport at the highest level, and with the steady guidance of his coach, he was being skillfully represented in what would be a productive negotiation.
Owens and Holiday did their job well, securing their Jayhawks All-American a lucrative NBA contract. The parties left Kansas City near a deal, and a few phone calls that "sweetened the pot" the next day quickly led to a contract. In those heady days of sniping between two brands of professional basketball, JoJo White had secured a part of his future. The NBA loomed, but it still remained for the young star to be drafted. It was a reasonable likelihood that JoJo White would be selected in the first round of the NBA's 1969 draft. What JoJo didn't know was which of the league's fourteen teams would take him. At least one basketball general manager had a strong interest in the point guard's talent but not the slightest hint of that inclination would ever depart his lips. JoJo's future was not yet in full focus; however, that was something not entirely foreign to him. It was an interesting path that led to that day in Kansas City. JoJo White had already experienced much along the journey that defined him and his entry into professional basketball. The year that marked his entry into the NBA was one of America's most eventful. Before JoJo White would play his first professional basketball game in 1969, the nation would experience not only Richard Nixon's inauguration as president and his initial attempts to manage the war in Vietnam and the protests at home, but also Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, and man's first steps on the moon too. The young man who first fell in love with the game while playing into the night on the courts of St. Louis was leaving one chapter for another. His story chronicles not only a career in basketball, but also a life guided by faith and strong values during some of America's most challenging times. It is a story that merits being told.
Chapter TwoYoungest of Seven
The earliest notation in the biography of Joseph White, more often than not, is mistaken. For reasons unknown, White's birth date is usually recorded as November 16, 1946, instead of the correct date two days earlier. JoJo is the youngest of seven children—three girls and four boys. His father, George L. White Sr. from Web, Mississippi, and his mother, Elizabeth Rebecca Guynn from Lake Providence, Louisiana, were wed at Jonestown, Mississippi, on July 4, 1936. The following year, husband and wife moved north to St. Louis where they would raise and educate their children all with an eye to serve God, something the family would put into unequivocal practice.
George White was a stocky, compact man whose 5' 8" frame was muscular and strong. Well respected by those who knew him, he was an honest, reliable man. He wore an endearing smile, which made those around him feel better. He could elevate the darkest of moods. George had an easy, compassionate manner, but his genuine warmth did not interfere with rearing children who were expected to conduct themselves as respectful, God-fearing young people.
The Whites were a very close-knit family. Mother Elizabeth kept all in good order. That never stopped her from delegating household tasks to the children. The younger members of the family were expected to help with the cooking and cleaning. Some of the children learned to cook from step-stools. The boys cut wood and tended a pot-bellied stove that warmed the home. They all inherited their mother's impeccable sense of cleanliness, and Saturdays were reserved for a variety of household cleaning duties, which all of the children were expected to participate in. Today she would be referred to as a "stay-at- home mom." During the years the Whites raised their children, no one would ever have thought to add any description beyond mother and wife, but there was no mistaking that Elizabeth White was anything but an old-fashioned southern Baptist mom. She never drove a car, but no one ever doubted that she was in full charge of the household. Elizabeth, whose mother died while she was still a young child, was educated through the eleventh grade. She was raised by her oldest sister Corena and spent some of her early working days in the field picking cotton.
The first home Mrs. White kept was a two-story house at 3328 Rutger Street. Elizabeth's relatives lived in the basement. Mr. and Mrs. White's bedroom was on the second floor, and there were two more bedrooms on the first level. The three girls, Shirley, Adlean, and Irene, slept in one bed in the girl's room, and the boys, George, Dewitt, Ronald, and Joseph, occupied a single bed in the other room, sleeping two across the top of the bed and two across the bottom. Mother read the children bedtime stories each night. When asked about the cramped sleeping quarters, JoJo doesn't hesitate: "It was fun." It is just one recollection of a boyhood of joyous memories.
The White children kept themselves amused with a wide variety of activities, which usually meant improvising games and a good deal of healthy competition. Nobody was more competitive than JoJo. When school and chores didn't take precedence, the youngsters were outside from sunrise to sunset. The neighborhood pastimes included baseball, marbles, jacks, cards, hopscotch, double-dutch, and counting by tens while bouncing a tethered rubber ball off the paddle of a so-called "bo-lo bat." No one ever beat JoJo, no matter what the game was. In addition to his early will to win, his penchant for basketball was equally apparent. Purchasing a basketball rim and net were not a part of the family budget, and the very first hoop that JoJo played he fashioned himself.
Summers for the White family meant an automobile trip back to Jonestown. Seven children, Mom, and Dad crowded into the family Chevy's two bench seats. The trip was nonstop, except for an occasional time out for discipline. Sometimes restless siblings complained about being touched by their brothers and sisters, and sometimes a commonsense parental explanation that the touching, within the car's confined space, was unavoidable didn't suffice. In those cases, Dad pulled over, cut himself a switch, and meted a bit of discipline that quickly silenced any protests and restored order right on the side of the highway.
Elizabeth packed an ample supply of fried chicken for the trips. Mom would pass back pieces to the children, and the first choice of chicken part was supposed to be by seniority. Despite being the youngest, JoJo almost always got the coveted neck or backs. Adlean was often the one making requests to Mom for more, but as quickly as she got a piece for herself or her sisters, the boys would devour it.
Excerpted from Make it Count by Mark C. Bodanza Copyright © 2012 by Mark C. Bodanza. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Rival Leagues Compete for Talent....................1
2. Youngest of Seven....................7
3. A Talent Recognized....................13
4. Becoming a Jayhawk....................17
5. The Shot That Helped Make History....................21
6. Tournament Play....................25
7. International Play and Competing in the NIT....................31
8. The 1968 Olympics, Uncertain Times....................65
9. A Time of Transition....................73
10. Rookie Season....................81
11. Building the New Celtics....................89
12. Hoisting a Banner....................99
13. The Greatest Game Ever Played....................109
Statistics as of October 2011....................127