After an incredible decade that ended with the Celtics winning every year save for one (1967), there were lots of questions to be answered and lots of holes to fill following the end of the 1960’s. Bill Russell had retired as player and head coach along with Sam Jones. The Celtics were going to need to replace their dominating big man, but they were also going to need to replace the lead guard as well. In one of his more amazing maneuvers as GM, Red Auerbach drafted Kansas star JoJo White. JoJo was actually in active duty for the military, but Red still had connections with the US military and was able to somehow wiggle White away from the service and into the Garden (that’s an unjust and brief description of how it happened, so I recommend you read JoJo’s book to get all the incredible details).
JoJo went on to have a fantastic career for a decade with the Celtics, culminating in two NBA titles including the 1976 NBA Finals MVP. Today, Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports writes an emotional story of JoJo’s battle with a brain tumor and his struggles with recovery.
In November 2009, White began to feel ill. By two months later, he had lost 30 pounds and had a hard time eating. Doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong, until the Celtics team physician suggested White have an MRI.
White’s wife, Deborah, was driving when she received a call from a doctor who had the MRI results. The doctor first told her to pull over then told her White had a walnut-sized tumor on the back of the left side of his brain, an area that affects motor skills. White would need to have surgery to remove the tumor – which was benign – the following week.
“I remember putting my head on the steering wheel and calling out to God and I asked him to help me,” Deborah White said.
White’s surgery lasted eight hours before the surgeon came out to talk to his family.
“The doctor said, ‘He pulled through. He made it,’ ” Deborah said. “We were like, ‘He made it?’ The doctor then said, ‘Technically speaking, he shouldn’t have made it.’ “
I’ve had season tickets for several years now and JoJo was there essentially for every game. When I stopped noticing him, I hoped everything was ok but as it turned out it was not. Lots of fans were wondering the same thing as me, so it’s good to know that he’s doing better now. It was very noticeable during the memorable 2010 Finals run that he wasn’t there, because the JumboTron would usually show him a few times per game cheering just as hard as any hardcore C’s fan. It’s great to know that Doc and members of the team were there for him:
Then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers and players Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen called JoJo White to check in.
“It was awful news because at the time it didn’t look good,” Rivers said. “JoJo is very private. His wife is fantastic and she was giving me updates. You just were concerned.
“When you saw him the first couple of times you were extremely worried. But we jokingly said that JoJo could make sick cool. He really is a cool dude and a great human being.”
Celtics owners, executives and former players Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell came by to visit. The Celtics sent flowers, food, DVDs and a 50-inch flat screen television so White could watch the playoff games.
“It was a good feeling,” White said. “The players would come by to talk or say, ‘How are you doing?’ ” White said.
We’re all still a little (or a lot) hurt by the way the Big 3/Doc Era went down, but this is part of the reason why. That was a once in a lifetime team that all truly represented everything we wanted the Celtics to be. Randomly we’ll read and hear stories like these trickle out. It still stands today with the front office, as evidenced of how great they’ve been recognizing and respecting the past greats:
Celtics president Rich Gotham also let White know his old job would be waiting for him once he got healthy.
“…It was scary there for a while,” said Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations.
White used to be a scratch golfer. He used to look like he could still play basketball in his early 60s. But after the surgery, he had to relearn some of the most basic of skills, including walking. He had trouble eating, experienced double vision and still has some short-term memory loss.
To help White’s recovery, author and attorney Mark Bodanza visited him once a week to ask questions for an eventual book called, “Make It Count: The Life & Times of Basketball Great JoJo White.”
“I had places that hurt that never hurt before,” White said. “You didn’t know why. You can’t explain.
“Every day was difficult. …You go from finding yourself back on your feet and being able to do certain things. Being able to walk. Being able to finish a plate of food. It all seemed new.”
Every time Deborah attended a Celtics game or event without her husband, she was asked, “How’s JoJo?” A little more than two years after the surgery, JoJo White walked on his own to his midcourt seat on June 1, 2012, to see the Celtics beat the Miami Heat 101-91 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. White has been to every Celtics home game since and is back at his old job, attending community events, taking pictures, signing autographs and visiting with sponsors.
“I saw him at media day the other day and he was smiling and looking good and excited about the upcoming season,” Ainge said. “It was good to see JoJo in a real positive place.”
White’s recovery is still ongoing, but he also knows he’s fortunate his condition wasn’t worse.
“I went through a tough time,” he said. “I appreciate all my supporters. All my fans. My precious wife and my kids were right there for me.”
If you want to learn more about JoJo, I suggest you pick up the aforementioned book. While it won’t blow you away with jaw-dropping accusations or scathing remarks, it is a great tome of JoJo’s life and career. There are some funny Red and Tommy stories as well. I’ve met JoJo a few times at season ticket holder events and I can’t stress enough how nice of a guy he is. It’s very good to see him going well now and I wish him nothing but continued good health. He still looks great and the C’s could use him right about now!