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Why Jo Jo White is Going to the Hall of Fame

Manny Rubio/USA TODAY Sports

Jo Jo White finally got into the Hall of Fame. It only took 20 years, but better late than never, as the saying goes. White was a former Finals MVP and one of the greatest Boston Celtics to ever don the jersey.

White’s career stats aren’t the type that pop out at you and scream Hall of Fame, which might be what took him so long to gain entry. He averaged 17.2 and 4.9 dimes over the course of his 13-year career. His lifetime Player Efficiency Rating was a meager 14.2, which certainly wouldn’t scream HOF.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, there are 55 players in history who’ve exceeded his 4,095 assists and 14,399 points. So it’s not like aggregation of numbers is his ticket either. Frankly, if you’re just looking at him statistically, it’s hard to make a great case for him.

But reading up on him, it becomes understandable why and how he got in. First, here’s a snippet from an anonymous entry on Hardwood Paroxysm from back in 2012:

Jo Jo’s ascension was a tremendous part of that. 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.

So, White was a two-way player on a stacked team. Both of those things are consistent with a player whose value is going to be understated by his statistical accomplishments.

White was also one of those guys who elevated his play in the postseason, where he averaged 21.5 points and 5.7 dimes in his career. The most significant of those games came in what many call the “greatest game ever played.”

It was Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and it went into triple overtime. White was the leading scorer in the game with 33 points. He also led both teams in assists with nine. The Celtics won it, and the following game, to secure the championship. White was named the Finals MVP.

But it was in another Finals appearance that might have shown the true colors of White, and why he was more than his numbers or accomplishments could ever assess. In 1974, after the celebration of White’s first championship subsided, something special happened.

Mark C. Bodanza relays the story in his biography on White, Make It Count: The Life and Times of Basketball Great JoJo White:

It was a goal that JoJo White had once only dreamed of. As the celebration subsided, Jojo’s thoughts turned to the years of preparation, to mentors and to heroes. He found his way to the Milwaukee locker room and approached Oscar Robertson. It was a reverent moment for White. He revealed to Robertson what he meant to him as a boy. It was time to drop the stony silence of game-time competition and replace it with a bit of candor from the heart. Jojo told Robertson that, “he was the best I ever played against.” It was a moment he dreamed of growing up on the courts in St. Louis, and all the reality of the NBA championship brought back a flood of memories. White felt very fortunate for the path that brought him to that moment and the coaches and mentors who helped make it all possible.

That takes something special. Many a young man would be inclined to spout off to the former great; few would use that moment to appreciate and respect him. It’s the measure of White’s high character that that is how he responded.

And that was the nature of his legacy. It was the man more than just the player. His career was larger than his numbers implied. His leadership and character were solidifying forces on a two-time championship team.

In some ways, he was a bit of an old-school version of Tony Parker. His numbers weren’t all that special, but his role on a championship team was undeniable, and they both won a Finals MVP to state just how much they meant on their teams. In other ways, he was more of a Tim Duncan-type in the sense that he adapted his game to the great players around him, and that his measure was more than mere numbers.

Granted, White was never a “first-ballot” candidate, but he’s long been overlooked. And it’s good to see voters finally recognizing that there’s more to fame than big stats.

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