The UK legend, and only athlete in the school’s history to have had his jersey retired in both basketball and football, played under both coaches Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant while in school. Besides winning an NCAA basketball championship in 1948 and 1949, Jones also won a gold medal in basketball for the U.S. at the 1948 London Olympics.
In tribute to this unforgettable player, we’re sharing an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wildcat Memories by Doug Brunk; Wah Wah’s chapter may be the last interview he ever gave. Already cemented in the storied history of UK athletics, the Harlan native shared his remembrances and passion for his teams.
from Wildcat Memories: Inside Stories of Kentucky Basketball Greats by Doug Brunk:
I had dreamed about playing basketball at the University of Kentucky for many, many years. When I was growing up in Harlan in the 1940s, our family didn’t have a television set. We had a radio, but the reception on that was not reliable. Sometimes we’d get reception in the attic of our house, but often we’d pile in the car and drive into the nearby mountains to listen to UK basketball games on the car radio.
I was lucky to have been part of a winning basketball program at Harlan High School. Our team went to the state tournament four years in a row (1942 to 1945), and in 1944 our team won the state championship title. At the end of my high school career I had scored 2,398 points, which at the time was the highest total by a single high school player in the United States.
Were it not for the man who went on to become my father-inlaw—Alva Ball of Middlesboro, Kentucky (I married his daughter, Edna)—I might have ended up playing basketball for the University of Tennessee instead of for UK. In the summer of 1945 Mr. Ball overheard that I was considering signing with Tennessee. I don’t know who he called at UK, but the next day a driver arrived in Harlan to transport me to Lexington to meet with Coach Adolph Rupp. After meeting with him I decided to sign at UK, but basketball was not the only sport I played there. I lettered four years in football and three years in baseball.
By the time I arrived in Lexington for my freshman year, the Wildcats had already played one football game. Paul (“Bear”) Bryant was the head football coach, and he played me in the second game of the season, even though I didn’t know any of the plays or the signals. I played all sixty minutes of that game, on both defense and offense! George Blanda played on that team. Coach Rupp didn’t like the fact that I played football. He was worried I would get injured,
and he kind of held me back a little bit. Coach Rupp and Coach Bryant were a lot alike. They both were tough on their players. During a football game against the University of Cincinnati I got some teeth knocked loose. During a break in the game I said something about this to Coach Bryant. “Well, you don’t run on your teeth,” he said to me. “Get back in there!” After the game my teammates had a steak dinner at the Cincinnati Netherland Plaza hotel, and I was sucking on a milkshake.
Coach Rupp and Coach Bryant expected the best out of you. You couldn’t slack off, that’s for sure. I had no trouble with either one of them; they were no-nonsense people. After one of my baseball seasons at UK I was invited to try out with the Boston Braves, which is the Major League Baseball team now known as the Atlanta Braves. I told this to Coach Bryant, and he asked me point blank, “Are you going to play football, or are you going to play baseball?” “I guess I’ll play football, Coach,” I replied. I was scared to say anything.
During my sophomore year in basketball I was matched up in a game against my brother, Hugh, who was a star player at the University of Tennessee. UK won, of course. At that game my mother said she felt like the president of the United States at the army-navy football game; she was ready to move from one side to the other.
I was voted most popular freshman during my first year at UK. A lot of people had followed me from my high school career and rooted for me. I enjoyed their favoritism, but it surprised me to be that popular. That popularity helped me in my later business career and in my bid for election as sheriff of Fayette County, which I won in 1953. I was the first Republican sheriff in Fayette County since the Civil War, and there hasn’t been one since.
Many people helped me during my career at UK, including residents of Harlan. Everybody was so good to me. There were a number of people who would come to our games to cheer me on. Others would send letters of support. I also got to know a lot of people in the Thoroughbred industry. In fact, I had a summer job working the horse sales at Keeneland.
I think the UK fan base is so strong because of the program’s long-standing winning tradition. During my UK career we played all of our home games in Alumni Gym, which could only seat about twenty-eight hundred people. During my four years we won 130 out of 140 games. That kept the winning tradition at UK going. I enjoyed it.