Legendary UK basketball and football star 'Wah Wah' Jones dies

jtipton@herald-leader.comJuly 27, 2014 

Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, widely considered the greatest all-around athlete in University of Kentucky history, died Sunday. He was 88.

Mr. Jones had been the last surviving member of Fabulous Five, the team that in 1948 won the first of UK's eight national championships. With four of the Fabulous Five, including Mr. Jones, returning, the Wildcats won the 1949 national championship. A dynasty was born.

An All-American basketball player and member of the U.S. team that won the 1948 Olympic gold medal, Mr. Jones was also an all-Southeastern Conference football player for Kentucky. As such, he held the distinction of playing for two lionized coaches: Adolph Rupp in basketball and Paul "Bear" Bryant in football.

Even other iconic figures in UK basketball history held Mr. Jones in high esteem.

Cliff Hagan, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, said of Mr. Jones, "He was my idol."

Joe B. Hall, the man who followed Rupp as UK coach and a member of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, likened Mr. Jones to Li'l Abner, the star of a satirical comic strip from the 1930s through 1970.

"A big, strong quiet type hero," Hall said. "He solved all the problems. He was almost a fictionalized hero."

Like Li'l Abner, who hailed from the fictional Dogpatch, Ky., Wallace Clayton Jones grew up in rural Kentucky.

He was from Harlan, where his parents ran a restaurant. The Harlan funeral home of Anderson Laws & Jones confirmed Mr. Jones' death. Information on funeral arrangements will be announced Monday.

Early in his life, Mr. Jones was known by his given name, Wallace. But when his younger sister, Jackie, was learning to talk, she couldn't say "Wallace." It came out "Wah Wah."

The name "Wah Wah" became synonymous with athletic excellence. He led Harlan High School to the 1944 basketball state championship.

At UK, Mr. Jones was an athletic Adonis with a Li'l Abner-like dark mane of hair.

"He was just an all-around picturesque athlete," Hall recalled. "Who wouldn't want to be 6-4 and 220 pounds? That's just the epitome of a great-sized athlete, especially back in those days."

Mr. Jones arrived at Kentucky at the dawn of the greatest era of UK sports.

As a freshman in 1945, he played football for a UK team that went 2-8 under Bernie Shively. Bryant arrived the next year, and Kentucky went 20-9-2 over Mr. Jones' final three seasons. He made All-SEC in 1946 and '48.

Basketball was even better. With Mr. Jones and Louisville product Ralph Beard arriving at UK in fall 1945, the two led the Wildcats to the 1946 NIT championship. The NIT was on par with the NCAA Tournament at the time.

Kentucky was the NIT runner-up in 1947, then won the NCAA tournaments of 1948 and 1949.

In his four seasons, Mr. Jones never was on the losing side of an SEC basketball game (19-0) and played on teams with a cumulative record of 130-10.

The Fabulous Five were named, en masse, to the 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

"It's still hard to imagine a little boy from Harlan, Kentucky, going to the Olympic Games," Mr. Jones said in a 2008 interview with The Herald-Leader.

Mr. Jones also played baseball for UK.

"Only three-sport man I knew at UK," said Hall of Famer Frank Ramsey, who played for Kentucky during the 1950s.

Despite all the athletic achievements, former UK athletic figures recalled Mr. Jones as quiet and unassuming.

"Wah wasn't one to flout it," Hall said. "He was very humble. I never knew of him showing sign of wanting his story told. He was very comfortable in his own skin."

Hagan, who was UK's athletic director during the 1970s and 1980s, said Mr. Jones did not look for favors or try to wield influence after his playing days ended and he settled in Lexington.

"I don't remember him coming around (Memorial) Coliseum," Hagan said.

Hall, who as a high school player saved clippings of Mr. Jones' exploits in a scrapbook, noted one instance of anger. Early in his senior season of 1948-49, and still not fully transitioned from football to basketball, Mr. Jones fouled out of a game at then-powerhouse Holy Cross.

"Of course, we didn't have five fans in the crowd," Hall said. "The first couple rows started riding him. This guy told him, 'Take your shoes off, you Kentucky hillbilly, so you can get comfortable.'

"Wah ignored him like he always did."

But before UK players could leave the floor after a 51-48 victory, a fan threw a crumpled cigarette pack that hit Mr. Jones in the corner of an eye.

"That guy became the first guy in outer space," Hall said with a chuckle. "Wah stepped over the bench and knocked him back about four rows."

In 1953, Mr. Jones was elected sheriff of Fayette County, Three years later, he was the Republican nominee for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. He lost to Democrat John C. Watts in a year that Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower won re-election in a landslide.

In 1978, Mr. Jones started a charter bus company, Blue Grass Tours, that has counted UK's basketball teams as customers for several years.

Blue Grass Tours bought a custom-made $700,000 sleeper coach, designed specifically for Kentucky Coach John Calipari and his team.

The sleeper coach featured Wildcat-blue leather, refrigerators, seven TVs, couches, tables and pull-down bunks that can all be adjusted to seat 30 and sleep six, or sleep 11 and seat 17.

Although his playing career ended some 60 years ago, Mr. Jones remained an iconic figure. In 2012, he was a member of the inaugural class of the newly established Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame.

This year, the Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation named Blake Ellis of Russell County as the winner of the inaugural Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones Award. It recognizes an outstanding multisport senior athlete in the state.

Hagan declined to say where Mr. Jones ranked on any list of the greatest UK players, Instead, he said, it was better to put Mr. Jones in the context of the Fabulous Five.

"They were the best of their time," Hagan said. "That's how I think you have to leave it."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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