CRAWFORD | On the passing of Wah Wah Jones, and UK's Fabulous Five
Wah Wah Jones, the final living member of UK's 'Fabulous Five' 1948 NCAA and Olympic champions, died Sunday at age 88.
Sunday, July 27th 2014, 10:14 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Word drifted out Sunday that Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones had passed away, followed by the somber realization that the last of the University of Kentucky's famed Fabulous Five has passed into legend.
I'm not the one to eulogize Jones. I didn't know him. I interviewed him a time or two. Many others certainly knew him better and can tell all the stories, and will. What struck me in putting together what few thoughts I have on him were that he seemed always to be talking about someone else, never so much about himself.
He wasn't the star of Adolph Rupp's most famous team. He remains to this day the acknowledged best all-around athlete in UK history. He was an All-American for Rupp's basketball team. He was a two-time All-Southeastern Conference end for Bear Bryant's football team. He started for the Wildcats' baseball team and ran track. He's the only player in school history to have his number retired in both basketball and football.
Every championship team needs a Wah Jones type, an enforcer, a strong, selfless presence. He was the physical strength, the power, the willing teammate ready to pass the ball, to grab the rebound, often triggering the then-revolutionary UK fast-break with long outlet passes. A high school star out of Harlan, Ky., he scored 68 points in a game in 1943 and won a state championship in 1944.
But at UK, he took his place beside talented teammates, Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins and Alex Groza. He never averaged more than 10 points a game, though he certainly could have. He went on to average double-figures in three professional seasons.
After the '48 championship, he was among those who would return for the 1949 season and win a second straight NCAA championship. He played in 140 college basketball games. UK won 130 of them.
The last time I mentioned Jones in print, it was to share a story Harry Lancaster wrote about from a game against Bob Cousy's Holy Cross team in the Boston Garden on Dec. 16, 1948.
"Wah sat next to me on the bench and he had barely taken his seat when a fan right behind our bench really started to get on him," Lancaster wrote in his book with Cawood Ledford: Adolph Rupp As I Knew Him. "He kept daring Wah to turn around until it was more than Jones could stand. Just as he turned, the fan threw a wet, wadded cigarette pack hard into Wah's face. Wah was strong as a bull. He turned, grabbed that fan by the tie and shirt front and landed a hard right hand to the man's jaw. Jones knocked him clean out of his clothes. The man was lying on the floor and Wah was standing there holding the man's shirt and tie in his left hand."
Jones was tough. Not five years removed from his UK graduation, he was elected sheriff of Fayette County. It's doubtful anyone in Lexington tangled much with him.
Current UK coach John Calipari, along with condolences, Tweeted a picture Sunday of former UK players from all eras hoisting the school's most recent NCAA championship banner, in 2012. And there among them is Jones, a Wildcat to the last. He lived in Lexington and enjoyed the program.
I'm sure a great deal will be said about Jones over the coming days. Like so many of younger and middle age, I never saw Jones or the Fabulous Five play. But I can tell you from growing up in this state what they mean collectively to people here.
They rose to greatness in the formative years of this state's love affair with the game. And their names, frankly, are synonymous with the excellence it has experienced in the years since.
My dad, Byron Crawford, is a good example. A reporter for WHAS Radio and Television, then a columnist for The Courier-Journal, he grew up in those years in which the exploits of those players reverberated via radio throughout the Bluegrass and even states beyond. I called him up Sunday when I heard the news and we talked about the Fabulous Five.
"I walked into the snack bar at WHAS in 1974 or '75, and there stood all five of them, the whole Fabulous Five and Coach Rupp, waiting to go on TV," he told me. "And I could've gotten their autographs or pictures or anything that I wanted, and man, do I ever wish I had done that."
He was a journalist, but he viewed those men as something more, and I felt the same thing talking to Ralph Beard on many occasions, though I never saw him play.
Few names echo through this state like the name "Wah Wah," the nickname given by a younger sister who couldn't pronounce the name "Wallace."
They will always be the Greatest Kentucky team. Champions in 1948, they comprised half of the U.S. Olympic team that season, and went on to win a Gold Medal in London.
Rupp died in 1977. Groza was the first of the players to pass away, in January of 1995. Cliff Barker, a B-17 pilot and prisoner of war before retuning to play for UK, died in March of 1998, during a championship run by the Wildcats. Beard, one of the most beloved players in UK history, died in November of 2007 and Kenny Rollins in the fall of 2012.
Teams that have come after may have won more games, or more celebrated championships.
But none will match the mystique of this group of Kentuckians who, for one shining season in 1948, not only dominated college basketball, but conquered the basketball world.
They're all gone now. But what they did will live on in this state, for as long as this big ball spins.
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