'SNAPPER': REMEMBERING THE ICONIC STEVE JONES
The reality that, at age 75, Steve "Snapper" Jones is no longer with us hits like a ton of bricks.
"This is a real loss," says Bob Costas, the Hall of Fame sportscaster who knew Jones for more than 40 years. "This guy was a presence in a lot of people's lives. He was a real friend to me. That's something that stays with you."
Jones, an iconic figure in Trail Blazers broadcasting for 26 years, died Nov. 25 at his home in Houston after a lengthy illness.
"He's a Portland legend," says Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, one of Jones' closest friends. "Let me tell you something: We're going to miss old Snapper."
"I just feel terrible," says veteran play-by-play man Eddie Doucette, who worked with Jones often over the years, including a five-year stint with the Blazers. "When I got the news, I was destroyed. I can't tell you how badly I feel. This one really affected me. The guy meant a lot to me."
Jones had been in declining health since 2005, when he suffered a ruptured appendix while on assignment in New York.
"It didn't get taken care of correctly and, boom, he was on this trail to fight for life," says his younger brother, Nick Jones. "My brother was a very strong guy. He fought for life for a long time."
Steve and wife Carol had moved from Portland to Houston in 2007, primarily to be closer to her family members.
In July, Steve was hospitalized for a variety of health issues. His spleen was removed; so was a toe. He underwent surgery twice on his right arm.
In early November, Nick flew from Portland to Houston to be with his older brother.
"It was difficult for him to talk," Nick says, "but he was quite lucid until almost the day he died."
In mid-November, Steve was sent home from the hospital under hospice care. On Nov. 25, with family around him, he passed away.
"When his girls came home," Nick says, "he decided it was his time to go."
It has been a very difficult time for Nick Jones, 72, who earlier in November lost the oldest Jones brother, Roman. After a heart attack a year and a half ago, Roman's health went into decline. He died in Portland at age 76.
"The part that kills me is they checked out a week apart," Nick says. "Totally unbelievable."
Steve Jones was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, but raised in Portland. He led Franklin High to the A-1 state championship as a junior in 1959 and played for Oregon from 1961-64, leading Steve Belko's Ducks in scoring as a senior.
Jones played with seven teams during an eight-year American Basketball Association career from 1968-75, averaging 16 points and scoring more than 10,000 points while making the All-Star Game three times. His last ABA team was the St. Louis Spirits, who had a 22-year-old radio play-by-play man named Bob Costas. It was Costas' first job after graduating from Syracuse.
"Steve was an ABA original who played in the league in eight of its nine years," Costas says. "I'm still in touch with many of the players from the Spirits, and Steve was one of my very closest friends on the team."
The 6-5 Jones, says Costas, "had a terrific outside shot, but he was also big and strong enough that he could back a guy down and hit that turnaround. Teams didn't shoot the 3 much in those years, but he was regarded as a very good 3-point shooter. Steve excelled at the ABA game."
Stories about Jones the player flood Costas' memory bank.
"If he got on your case, you knew he liked you," Costas says. "I was 22 but looked 14. Steve was the senior member of the team. He called me 'Lep,' short for "Leprechaun.' I'd get on a team bus or plane and he'd say, 'Well, good morning, Lep. At the beginning of the trip, you're all dapper. Now we're here for a 7 a.m. flight and you look like you just came in off the street.'
"There was a seniority pecking order on our flights, with the veterans claiming first-class seats first. I noticed that Steve always sat on the back of the plane, anyway. One flight, I was walking to the back lavatory and asked him, 'Snapper, why are you always in the back?' He said, 'Young man, have you ever heard of one of these bad boys backing into a mountain?' He had a droll response for everything.
"One time before a game, most players had gone through early warmups and were in the locker room. Steve stayed on the court and was shooting free throws. I wasn't doing anything so I rebounded for him. He said, 'I'm not leaving until I make 20 in a row.' He immediately did it. I said, 'Can you do it left-handed?' Then he made five in a row left-handed. It was unbelievable."
Jones played his final professional season — and his only season in the NBA — in 1975-76 with Portland at age 33, averaging 6.5 points in 12.8 minutes the year before the Blazers won the title.
He befriended a teammate named Bill Walton.
Walton, already beset by injuries, was discouraged.
"Steve saved my career," Walton said during a three-minute tribute while serving as TV analyst for the recent Arkansas-Connecticut game at the PK80 Invitational at Moda Center. "I was going to quit basketball. We took a drive to Kah-Nee-Ta,… and sat in the hot springs. He said, 'Faith and patience. It will get better, little Billy."
Walton called Jones "my great friend … one of the finest human beings I have ever known. An incredible spirit; an incredible soul.
"He always told me he was the greatest basketball player in the state of Oregon, and who was I to disagree?" Walton joked. "Here was this fantastic soul, this force of light and optimism and hope who always saw the big picture. He was a pillar in the community. He was a better-than-perfect human being. He was always looking out for everyone else."
Jones began his broadcasting career with CBS after he retired as a player in 1976. He was part of the network's crew that called the Blazers' NBA championship series with Philadelphia. He also worked some games as radio analyst alongside play-by-play voice Bill Schonely that year. The pair then worked together for two years on TV in the 1990s.
"Steve was a big old teddy bear," says Schonely, now the Blazers' broadcaster emeritus. "He loved to give everybody a bad time. He laughed a lot. But when the time came to do the game, he was right there. He was always almost late, but he'd pop in just in time to do the game. He always danced to the beat of his own drummer."
Jones worked for the Blazers for 26 years, until he moved on to do network television full-time in 2002. During his time with the national networks — and he worked for nearly all of them — he developed an on-air relationship with his old friend Walton.
"Steve and I worked together some through the '90s until 2002," Costas says. "But he and Walton were usually paired with Tom Hammond, and they were really good together. Bill was the delightful and eccentric Walton. Without a counterpart, it didn't work so well. Steve was able to call Bill out, but it was alway so good-natured. It was like a friend saying to another, 'Ah, get outta here.' It just worked.
"Steve was always well-informed. He could criticize without being harsh or mean-spirited. He had two qualities. He could say something funny himself, but he was also a good audience. People underrate what that means as a partner. If you say something funny or droll and you can hear the people in the truck laughing in your ear, but if the guy on the air with you isn't running with it, it falls flat.
"Steve would laugh and laugh. It wasn't a cackle as much as a 'harrumph.' Like, 'hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.' You'll have to decide yourself how to work that into print."
Over time, Jones teamed with nearly every Blazers play-by-play voice, including Schonely, Doucette, Pat Lafferty, Pete Pranica and Mike Barrett.
Doucette, like Schonely a Curt Gowdy Media Award recipient with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, partnered with Jones on TV from 1994-99. Before that, they had worked together as a broadcasting team on USA Network's Thursday night NBA double-headers in the 1980s.
"We had a great rapport," says Doucette, now retired and living in San Diego. "Steve was a controversial guy in some regards, but he was as professional and as knowledgable as any analyst I ever worked with in any sport. He was at the top of the list. He had that sense of humor, which would intimidate a lot of people. I loved it. We'd play 'Can you top this?'"
Doucette and Jones remained in contact through the years. After Jones became ill, "there wasn't a phone call we had when I wouldn't say, 'Steve, tell me honestly how you feel.' He'd give that big robust laugh and say, 'Listen, God gives us one day at a time. I'm trying to enjoy every day.'"
Pranica, now in his 14th season as TV play-by-play man for the Memphis Grizzlies, spent five years in Portland, the last four (1999-2003) as TV play-by-play voice. The first year, he and Jones worked the Blazers' "Courtside" show together.
"I remember very clearly the first game we did, ironically against the Grizzlies in Vancouver," Pranica says. "Before the game, Steve is sitting at the broadcasting table, his arms folded, staring into space, and I'm thinking, 'How is this going to work?'
"I knew I was an outsider. Harry Hutt hired me. You didn't know if Steve was going to like you. He came off as gruff and intimidating at first. But once we got to know each other, he was always very encouraging. He took a great interest in my career. He started teasing me, a sign that he liked you. If he gave you a hard time, then you were all right in his world. People took him to be cold or standoffish, but he was one of the biggest-hearted people you'd ever meet."
During those years, the broadcasting crew would have breakfast meetings before road games at the team hotel restaurant.
"Steve always had the same order," Pranica says. "'Two poached eggs, whole wheat toast and bacon, crisp. I don't want no limp bacon."
Jones told Pranica a story about his playing days in the ABA, a black man in the south in the 1960s and '70s.
"One day he was driving a Jaguar through Mississippi and got pulled over by a cop," Pranica says. "Steve was understanding of where he was and who he was. He wasn't speeding, but he was pulled over, anyway. The cop told him, 'I didn't think a guy like you would have a car like this.'"
Barrett started as play-by-play man in 2003, but he served as "Courtside" host for four years before that, working with Jones and Mike Rice, who had come aboard as a Blazers radio analyst in 1990. Barrett saw himself as a boxing official during their verbal jousting.
"I was there to referee the conversations between the two," Barrett says. "They'd come out of commercial break and still be arguing. I was brought in to get them back into the show. I'd set the show up, throw some chum in the water and watch those two go at it. I was essentially Mills Lane getting in between the two of them."
Rice, a former college coach at Duquesne and Youngstown State, had done mostly college broadcasting before being hired by the Blazers.
"When I first came in, I didn't know how to take Steve," says Rice, now retired and living in Florida. "He was an NBA guy. You had to get to know Steve for him to trust you. We weren't sure about each other until we really got to know each other.
"He was always testing me about the NBA. He said, 'You're a college guy.' That really pissed me off, but then I found out I didn't know that much about the NBA. I listened to him and found out a great deal about the NBA. He had the knowledge to back up all his talk. I became a more knowledgeable person listening to him rather than debating."
Still, they often disagreed on issues, Jones ever the contrarion. Rice says his on-air debates with Jones "weren't an act."
"When we got into a discussion, it was is if we weren't on the air," Rice says. "We'd go on for another hour after the show was over. We both had strong opinions.
"In truth, we got along. We'd go hot and heavy on the show, but afterward we'd have a beer and a pizza and laugh like hell. It was a good relationship."
Rice had great respect for Jones' knowledge of the NBA — at least at first.
"My first couple of years on the program was a learning experience," he says with a laugh. "Once the two years of learning was up, I acted like I knew more than him."
Barrett says that as a young broadcaster he leaned on Jones.
"Every conversation I had with Steve, I always learned something," Barrett says. "He had a very deliberate way of giving you advice and his opinion on all things basketball. I came away from each conversation totally fulfilled.
"I owe Steve a lot. When the Blazers' play-by-play job came open, I'd been doing WNBA for a couple of years. He came in and asked, 'Are you ready for this?' He helped give me confidence in being able to do that job. I remember after one talk he said, 'That's the kind of confident guy I wanted to hear from.' He went a long way in helping me get that job. He would never admit that, but I think he did. I'll always be indebted to him for that."
Jones also became close to people with whom he worked and operated behind the scenes, including Marshall Glickman, who was with the Blazers from 1983-86 and 1988-95, rising to the title of president.
"We were very close when we worked together, and we stayed in touch through the years," Glickman says. "I talked to Snapper about six months ago.
"He had that great laugh. He had a nickname for everybody. I was 'Junior.' In my early years with the Blazers, we'd sit in his office for literally two hours and shoot the breeze. When he became 'Mr. Network,' there were a lot of conflicts with our broadcast schedule. I wanted priority, but ultimately recognized having Steve on network TV was good for us, too. He was by far the best color commentator we had, and maybe one of the best ever. He was especially good with Doucette. Teaming them together was a big-time play."
Jones was the antithesis of a broadcasting homer. Glickman says that was partially by design.
"I wanted Steve to tell it like it is," Glickman says. "I didn't want him to be negative or positive. I wanted him to call the game as he saw it. When the team wasn't looking good, Steve would say that. I thought that was important to the credibility of our broadcasts. That didn't make me very popular with our coaches."
George Wasch was executive producer and director with Blazers Broadcasting from 1979-2004.
"Steve and I ate a lot together a lot on the road," Wasch says. "We buddied up pretty well. He told me one time, 'The thing about us, as a Catholic and a black guy, we both know what prejudice is.' He would talk about those things, not in a bad way, but in a realistic way.
"Everybody knew Steve. When we were on the road, I liked to do standup shots in front of the arena for our pregame show. It was hard to do because, in every city, people knew him, and they wanted to talk to him. He never put anybody off. He was a terrific guy that way. He talked to everybody, answered their questions. I worked with a lot of the talent, and some of them wouldn't give you the time of day. Steve was exactly the opposite. He'd make us late because he wouldn't terminate a conversation."
J.R. Hellman says during his time as coordinating producer with Blazers Broadcasting (1989-99), Jones was a mentor.
"We were together all the time," Hellman says. "I learned a lot from him. He pushed me to be my best.
"Steve was passionate about the game, had a brilliant mind, was very articulate. He seemed threatening to some people — a very smart black former athlete who spoke his mind. He wasn't reactive; he was always proactive. He told (viewers) what to look for, and much of the time, things unfolded just the way he said they would."
Rich Patterson is in his 27th year as radio network producer for Blazers Broadcasting. He began a 15-year working relationship with Jones in 1984.
"My nickname was 'Captain,' and he'd use it, only he'd draw out the word like it was five syllables," Patterson says. "When you first met Steve, you didn't know what to expect. He had this very rough exterior. I was 21 years old when we first met. He'd give me the business. I didn't know how to take it. But over time, you learned that was his friendship test.
"There were times we'd sit down after a show and he'd talk basketball for an hour. I'd just listen. His knowledge was second to none. He was a really good-hearted guy."
During his 2 1/2 decades broadcasting with the Blazers, Jones came to know many of the players and became close friends with some of them, including Drexler.
"We were pals since my rookie year," says Drexler, the greatest player in Blazers history. "I went to him for advice quite often. He had wisdom. If it was anything related to basketball, he'd been there, done that, so he had a pretty good opinion on what's happening.
"We played a lot of tennis, and he was a very good player. He was a physical fitness marvel, always in great shape. That's why, when he started getting sick, we were all in shock. He fought it as best he could for as long as he could."
Doucette noted the irony of Jones' deteriorating physical condition in his later years.
"I never saw the guy take a drink of alcohol," Doucette says. "I never saw the guy abuse his body. He always worked out. He was always concerned about his health. It just didn't seem right when he got sick."
Jones always called ex-Blazers guard Darnell Valentine "Donnie."
"That's what my family called me," Valentine says, "and I guess that's fitting, because he was like a family member to me. From the time I put on that Blazer uniform, he was a mentor, as he was for so many players. He was authoritative on any topic. He had an answer for everything. He was such a great resource. If you need advice, he had amazing insight and knowledge.
"Everybody he touched, he made them feel like you're the most important person at that time in his life. He had that presence about him."
Nick Jones followed his brothers to Oregon and later played five seasons in the NBA and ABA. After that, he worked for 13 years as community ambassador for the Blazers, then spent 10 years as a diversity facilitator for a school district in Spanaway, Washington, before recently relocating in Vancouver, Washington.
Nick's mother, Geneva, is living in Portland at age 97. His sisters, Joel and Margo, are still alive. But Roman and Steve are gone.
"I loved both my brothers very deeply," Nick says. "I'm indebted to them. Roman was the guy who was the 'Dapper Dan' guy. I learned how to iron my clothes from him.
"I learned to play fundamental basketball from both of my brothers. We'd go to the park or the gym, and they didn't let me play at first. They said, 'Go to the other end and work on your left-handed layup.' It took years for them to let me play. But they both always took time to help me work on my game.
"They were great guys, no question about it. Steve was deeper than deep. There wasn't anybody he couldn't converse with, and nobody he was afraid to challenge. I decided I'd better follow that, because it looked like it was a pretty good way to be."
Sometime during his time in the ABA, Steve picked up the moniker "Snapper." He never revealed how it came to be.
"It's kind of an urban legend," Costas says. "The official story is Dr. J. (Julius Erving) said Steve was famous for snapping off those jump shots off the catch. Other people had different interpretations."
What about it, Nick Jones?
"I can't tell you," he says, with a soft chuckle. "Please, don't take it personal. I just can't tell you."
"The Snapper" was a lot of things to a lot of people.
"When we're given gifts, sometimes we have to give gifts back," Valentine says. "That's the life cycle. Steve was a gift for all of us. We had him for a long time. It's not meant for eternity. Now Steve is gone, and we hate to have lost him."