There was only one thing missing as the Willie Hutch Jones Educational and Sports Program celebrated its 30th anniversary Sunday evening by roasting its namesake and co-founder in Templeton Landing.
Nobody could find anything bad to say about him.
“If it had been a regular dinner given for another dude, it would have been no problem,” says Kenny Berry, a longtime basketball coach who’s known Jones since his days at Bishop Turner High School in the 1970s.
“But,” he continued, “this is supposed to be a roast. And this is the most honorable dude I’ve ever met. This is my friend. He’s still like a son to me. I love that kid.”
The best Berry could do was rib Jones for his height, for the gold shoes he used to wear and for the way he walked.
“Close your eyes,” he told the crowd of more than 200 in the banquet room, “and put a picture in your mind of a 6-foot-8 ostrich walking in a gym. When I first met him, I remember looking at him and saying they need to teach him how to play.”
He also recounted how the more experienced players would treat Jones when he went to Berry’s “75 League” games.
“I remember the first day he came. He got killed. They dumped on him. They talked about him like a dog,” Berry said. “And that boy would walk out of the park and he’d say, ‘Be back tomorrow.’ And all the players were laughing because they dogged him so bad. They dogged him all summer.”
But, Berry recalled, they stopped dogging him after he started playing college basketball at Vanderbilt.
“He was pumping iron. He was eating all kinds of good food. The guys who dumped on him, they saw all the things they taught him in school,” he said. “Everybody gave him respect. They’re saying, ‘You good now.’ ”
Jones went on to get drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and played parts of two seasons in the NBA and some pro ball in Europe before coming back to Buffalo to become a teacher and coach in the city schools and the impetus behind what originally was a summer basketball camp.
In 30 years, it has served more than 10,000 youngsters and has expanded from basketball into other sports, as well as mentoring for life skills and academics such as science and math. And it’s all been for free.
Even attorney LeRoy Johnson, singer Rick James’ brother and co-founder of the Willie Hutch Jones Educational and Sports Program, could not find much to roast. He recalled going to a Lakers game in the Forum in Los Angeles and sitting behind the bench.
“I’m wondering when Hutch is going to play,” he said. “I walk up behind [coach] Pat Riley and say, ‘When’s my boy going to play? I’ve got $20, when’s my boy going to play?’ ” Jones never got into the game that day.
“Later Hutch comes to me about starting this camp and he says, ‘You’ve got to be serious about it. You’ve got to work. I didn’t know that for 30 years, I’d be doing all the work. Hutch goes, ‘I’m the director. I’m the executive. Get out there and roll some balls.’ ”
For the most part, however, it was more love than levity.
“I remember when he got drafted,” said Ozzie Lumpkin, who played with Jones in his high school days. “There was a party at Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ house. We lost our minds, but he was so cool about it. He was so humble. That’s who he is.”
Dave Thomas, athletic director in the Buffalo schools, recalled how he reassigned Jones from McKinley High School to Burgard Vocational High School.
“I told him, I’ve got a garden spot for you – Burgard,” Thomas said. “You take these kids, a lot of them are down and out, they’re in trouble, and there won’t be any talent on the team. But he got 150 percent out of those kids. How can you roast a guy like that?”
Jones still is coaching at Burgard.