One of the all-time great Wildcats is gone, and the Big Blue Nation is feeling the ripples. Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, dead at the age of 88. His obituary is a sad opportunity for younger fans to learn another chapter of sports history, about the time when a kid could play more than one sport in college. Jones played not two, but three – basketball, football and baseball.
Can you imagine?
Think about what it would be like in today’s over-hyped, social media-soaked sports consciousness if an athlete were even allowed to compete in three sports, much less excelled at them. There would be nightly –heck, hourly – updates on ESPN’s Sportscenter. You know, the same program that deemed it newsworthy when Tim Tebow, fairly predictably, turned 25 years old.
Talking heads would debate his ability. Which is his better sport? Where should he specialize? Should he try to play more than one professionally? Will he be drafted in any, or all? And how highly?
You’d wonder who would scream louder about it, Steven A., or Skip?
One can only shudder at the thought. Wah Wah Jones was spared any and all of that, although the one thing we do know is that, had he played in this day and age, he likely would have had more than a few hefty paydays, no matter what sport (sports?) he chose to play professionally.
After all, the man WAS an All-America in football and basketball, as well as a two-time letter winner in baseball, where he played, naturally, three different positions (pitcher, first base and outfield).
It would be difficult to project what his basketball career might have been like today. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, he was big, as perimeter players went on the basketball court, back when he played. The Wildcats’ center at the time, Alex Groza, was listed at 6-foot-9, a power forward by today’s standards. Bill Spivey, who played for the Wildcats from 1949-1951, was a true 7-footer and he was considered a giant.
But Jones clearly was a superior athlete who, had he chosen to play basketball in modern times, likely would have found his niche. After all, he WAS an All-American back in his time. In fact, he was named All-SEC (regular season and tournament) his freshman year, and All-America for the next three, including a consensus AA in 1949.
Wah Wah was a first round NBA draft pick, selected eighth overall by the Washington Capitols but went on to play for the Indianapolis Olympians, a team led by Groza and Ralph Beard. The team eventually folded after Groza and Beard were suspended from the NBA for life after they were linked to point-shaving at Kentucky.
You can’t blame him for choosing basketball over the other two sports. There’s no record of him being given the opportunity to play professional baseball, although he likely would have gotten the chance, given the huge number of minor league teams existing back then. Of course, this was before all the expansion in Major League Baseball, which meant more available roster spots. But there were far more minor leagues back then.
Wah Wah could have taken a shot at the National Football League. He played for UK teams that were highly successful under then-coach Bear Bryant, the Wildcats. Jones joined two of his teammates in the 1949 NFL draft, taken in the seventh round by the Chicago Bears. A two-way end, Wah Wah Jones might have played defense for the Monsters of the Midway.
Fellow end Dick Hensley was taken in the 11th round by the New York football Giants (the baseball Giants were still in NYC back then). He played three seasons in the league, one each with the Giants, Steelers and Bears.
And a man who played both linebacker AND quarterback for the Wildcats also was drafted by the Bears, in the 12th round – George Blanda, who went on to spend 26 seasons in pro football, landing in the Hall of Fame.
Jones was considered more talented than either, and had both his football and basketball jerseys retired at UK. That would have been even more grist for the media mill, had he played today.
Wah Wah grew up in Harlan at a time before AAU circuits, summer camps, recruiting experts, message boards and video games. Kids from his generation played real games – all day, every day. And they weren’t forced to choose one by high school coaches who often coached more than one sport, many times at smaller schools that had to rely on practically every boy in the student body to field teams.
Consolidation has changed all that. Fewer schools, fewer teams, fewer chances for multi-sport athletes.
They are out there. Jameis Winston led Florida State to a national championship in football, then traded his helmet for a Seminoles baseball uniform. Russell Wilson quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship but still hasn’t officially retired from pro baseball, having spent time in spring training under contract with the Texas Rangers.
We’ve seen at least a couple of athletes in the Bluegrass State who juggled sports professionally. Morehead State’s Steve Hamilton spent 12 seasons as a major league pitcher, and found time to squeeze in two years with the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers. And former Wildcat Cotton Nash played four years of pro basketball and spent parts of three seasons in big league baseball. No doubt, they also would have commanded an exhausting array of media hype, had they been playing today.
Not that it’s all bad. Thanks to the likes of Facebook and Twitter and the power of the internet, word of Jones’ passing spread quickly. “Wah Wah” made headlines one last time.