Chuck Colson used to say that lasting change in a culture doesn’t come from such places as Washington, Hollywood, or New York. These centers of political, economic, and media power are important. However, Colson argued that interactions between neighbors “over the back fence or around the bar-b-q grill” are also powerful shapers of culture, and powerful instruments of cultural restoration.
I thought of these ideas from Chuck Colson when I heard this week that a basketball player who hasn’t made headlines as a player in more than 30 years was just voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s not to say that Bobby Jones wasn’t a star in his day. He was. After a stellar college career at the University of North Carolina, turned in 12 outstanding years as a pro. He was a five-time all-star, and he led the team he played with to the playoffs every year. In 1983, he earned an NBA championship with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Despite these impressive credentials, Jones was passed over for the Hall of Fame for three decades because he did not put up the kind of gaudy offensive numbers that most hall-of-famers post. He averaged just 12 points per game. His real value was on defense. He was the master of the blocked shot. It’s easy to measure the number of points a player scores, but much harder to measure the points he prevents the other team from scoring.
But something strange happened in the 33 years since Bobby Jones retired from pro basketball. Stories about Bobby Jones as a teammate and as a man started to emerge. Scott Fowler, a sports columnist in Jones’ hometown of Charlotte, N.C., wrote a tribute to Jones when he was named to the Hall of Fame. That tribute contained only one short paragraph about his faith: “A devout Christian, Jones never drew a technical foul in his 12-year NBA career.”
Others have filled out the picture of Bobby Jones. Pat Williams is a former General Manager of the 76ers. Williams is also a committed Christian (and a speaker at The Colson Center’s Colson Fellows program). He said, “If I was going to ask a youngster to model after someone, I would pick Bobby Jones.” One of Bobby Jones’ teammates, Julius Erving, a Hall-of-Famer himself, said, “He’s a player who’s totally selfless, who runs like a deer, jumps like a gazelle, plays with his head and heart each night, and then walks away from the court as if nothing happened.”
Bobby Jones loved basketball, and played and trained with discipline and excellence, but basketball was never everything to him. His height (6’9”) made him a natural in some ways, but he was not a natural athlete. He suffers from asthma, epileptic seizures and a chronic heart disorder, all of which require medication. During his playing days, he had a seizure in his kitchen, fell onto a butcher block, and gashed his head. The incident nearly forced him to quit basketball, but he fought back, and he earned Philadelphia’s Most Courageous Athlete Award in 1983.
The way one played the game mattered. He wanted not just the results, but his style of play to bring glory to God. The ends – wins and points scored – did not justify the means.
“If I have to play defense by holding on, that’s when I quit,” Jones said early in his career. “If I have to use an elbow to get position, then I’m going to have to settle for another position. And if I foul, or if the official makes a mistake, there’s no use screaming about it. It won’t change things or make me happier.”
In fact, one story about Bobby Jones and his interactions with referees has become a part of NBA legend. During a scrum underneath the basket in a hotly contested game, a ref called one of Jones’ teammates for a foul. Jones told the ref that he had committed the foul, not his teammate. It was Jones’ fifth foul, and his honesty meant he had to leave the game. Such behavior caused one of Jones’s coaches, Larry Brown, to say, “Watching Bobby Jones on the basketball court is like watching an honest man in a liars’ poker game.”
Another episode speaks to Jones’s commitment to his principles. Jones was known as a man who neither drank alcohol, smoked, or cursed. So he faced a dilemma when Seagram Distillers wanted to give him an award as the “most consistent and productive player” for the 1976–77 season. The award came with a $10,000 cash prize. Jones knew that if took the prize money, many would call him a hypocrite. But more than that, his own conscious wouldn’t let him take the money. So he said he would be present to accept the award if the whiskey maker would agree to two conditions. The prize money would go not to him, but to charity, and no alcohol would be served at the dinner itself. Seagram complied, and Jones accepted the award and delivered a gracious acceptance speech, though he did make sure everyone in the banquet hall understood his convictions. During his speech, he said, “I’m definitely against whiskey, and I just felt God gave me this money not to keep, but to use.”
In the decades since his playing career ended, Bobby Jones has continued to be a positive force in Christian ministry in his hometown of Charlotte. He is active in his church, coaches local ball teams, and is active in ministry. He is the very epitome of the famous Eugene Peterson expression, “long obedience in the same direction,” He’s led the kind of quiet but faithful life that once led Charles Barkley, an NBA legend of a different type – likeable, loud, but with DUI arrests and gambling problems in his background – to say, “If everyone in the world was like Bobby Jones, the world wouldn’t have any problems.”
Bobby Jones himself would be the first to say that wasn’t true. He would say we are all sinners in need of a savior. That’s why when Bobby Jones received the news that he was being inducted into the hall of fame, his first reaction was to thank God and to ask that the honor would give him additional opportunities to share his faith.
That prayer has already been answered.
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.