Wali Jones is Philly basketball. From his high school days in West Philadelphia to his college days at Villanova, Jones defined a city that prides itself on its basketball heritage. And it’s not surprising that Jones rose to the NBA ranks, eventually helping the 1967 Sixers take home an NBA title.
Currently working behind the scenes for the Miami Heat and on the airwaves with a weekly radio show, Jones still lives for the game that gave him so much. And he’s been lucky enough to share it with his four sons and grandchildren as well.
Jones sat down to chat with Metro about the current state of the NBA, the 76ers and the legacy of basketball in Philadelphia.
What are your thoughts about the NBA today, in comparison to what it was like in the 1960’s and 70s what you played?
It’s a different game. I work for the Miami Heat and used to be a scout, for 20 years, and to evaluate talent is important. We were more physical. We were more hands on. We were allowed to hand check . It’s more wide open now. I played in the ABA, for the Utah Stars and they had the three point line and it was more spread out. Doug Collins says ‘guys don’t run to the basket they run to the three point line on a fast break.’ The game has changed. There is a lot of isolation, a lot of one-on-one, it’s a different type game.
Is guard play more important today with less dominating centers to contend with?
When we won the championship it was based around Wilt Chamberlain, in Portland it was based around Bill Walton. Now it’s guards and small forwards — you have scorers like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. I played with Walt Bellamy, Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I played with Moses Malone, Bob Lanier, I have named some of the greatest centers of all time. As a guard you have the ability to press and pick up, because you know the big men are covering you.
With the Heat, their most recent titles didn’t utilize a dominating a big man.
They didn’t have a powerful center with Chris Bosh and Lebron James and them. The Game has changed, it’s guard oriented. The big men in the old days would throw you to the floor, guys like Bill Russell. They don’t get enough credit for their defensive play.
Is that a memory that sticks with you, the great rivalry with the Celtics in the 1960s?
It was a heated rivalry, with only 18 teams, when you see a team dominate for eight years every team in the NBA was so happy we dethroned them. It was total intimidation and domination by a team that played basketball. They played defense and they ran. Sam Jones said he still feels our team was the greatest team of the first 35 years of the NBA or so.
How did those Celtics teams influence you?
When I was growing up watching teams like the Boston Celtics and later competing against them, some of the best ball players ever to play in the NBA, it was an honor to play against those players in that era. I call it the golden era. It set the table and it allowed these players not only to have the game they do now but to also make the money they make now. I think it’s important when you say ‘old school,’ that when I talk to my granddaughter, my sons that played, I talk to them about the importance of character and being professional. When I practiced I practiced like I was playing in a game. So when you are playing in the playoffs at any level it’s all the same because you practiced the way you played.
What do you think of the Sixers approach to their rebuild?
They have talent, they have four or five young men who can play basketball, but they are kids. It takes time, they have to learn how too play the game and win. I like the talent. I was at a game recently, and I watch them whenever they are on TV. They are doing the right thing, they are just kids and it will come around.
All these years later, are you still proud of your days in the Big 5?
I know Fran Dunphy, Phil Martelli, Jay Wright, it means a lot to me because the Big 5 was powerful. That competition that we had was something I will never forget. When I watched them as a scout for the Miami Heat, the opportunity to come to Philly, you see that they have talent. One thing that I see, that I am proud of is that these teams are well coached and have good talent. You see a lot of guys come out of the Big 5 and play in the NBA who are fundamentally sound.
Do you think it’s important for these teams to recruit from Philly?
I was 84-4 at Overbrook and 18-1 at Temple Prep on Temple’s campus, and Harry Litwak tried to recruit me there. I am proud of Philly basketball, I am proud of Philly. Those rivalries growing up in the summer, it groomed me from 12-years-old to be a pro. We played against the best teams from New York, Washington, Baltimore. I am proud of Philly basketball. A lot of people don’t know how historically, the best who’ve ever played the game are from Philadelphia.