Even among those of us too young to have ever seen him play, Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones carried a certain mystique. Part of it was his nickname, famously acquired because his younger sister, Jackie, could not say "Wallace."
However, Jones — who died Sunday at age 88 — should forever loom large in the history of sports in the commonwealth for substantive reasons. After all, our state has not produced an abundance of people who could truthfully claim to have been a standout college football player for Bear Bryant, a star basketball player for Adolph Rupp and an Olympic gold medalist.
Wah Wah Jones was all of that.
At UK from 1945-49, Jones was a two-way end for Bryant who twice earned All-SEC recognition. A rugged forward for Rupp, Jones was named an All-American three times.
It has become a part of our state's lore that Kentucky was ultimately not big enough for both Bryant and Rupp. One early point of contention between them, apparently, was Wah Wah Jones.
"Coach Rupp hated it that I was playing football, just hated it," Jones told me in a 2008 interview. "He wanted his players playing only basketball."
Rupp had reason to fret that his star forward would get hurt playing football.
In the 1946 football season, an era before helmets had face masks, Jones got his mouth bloodied and some teeth loosened against Cincinnati. Yet as he came to the sideline, Bryant stopped him, and soon ordered him back into the action.
Jones pointed out to the Bear that he had teeth about to fall out.
"He said 'Jones, you don't run on your teeth,'" Wah Wah said of Bryant. "I went back in the game."
Later that season, Bryant's first as UK head coach, Wah Wah hurt an ankle against Michigan State. Rupp and Bryant battled to see whose doctor would treat his injury. Said Jones: "If it was Coach Rupp's doctor, he would have done some kind of operation on me to keep me out for the rest of the football season."
In this case, the Bear won out over the Baron. "Bryant's doctor was up to date on medical techniques and he treated me," Jones said. "And I finished up the football season."
In 1944, as a high school junior, Wah Wah became a figure of statewide prominence when he led the Harlan Green Dragons to the state basketball championship.
He was soon at the center of a ferocious recruiting battle between Tennessee and Kentucky. One day, Jones said a UT booster from Harlan invited the star athlete and his best friend, Humzey Yessin, on a "car trip."
The pair soon found themselves being "dropped off" in Knoxville.
"I was almost kidnapped to Tennessee," Wah Wah said. "I told them 'I have to go home, I don't have any clothes.' They told me 'We'll take care of that.' I'd come up with other excuses (to go home), they'd say 'We'll take care of it.' Finally, I all but demanded to see my mother. They couldn't take care of that."
Back in Kentucky, Jones stopped to see his girlfriend. He told her father the story of what had happened to him in Knoxville. That night, a phone call went out. "The next morning, I woke up and there was a station wagon waiting to bring me to Lexington," Jones said.
Jones would become the only player in UK history to have a jersey retired in both football and basketball (he also played baseball at Kentucky).
In football, the pride of Harlan helped UK to its first bowl game (1947 Great Lakes Bowl). In hoops, he was a cornerstone on Kentucky teams that played in the championship games of four straight national tournaments — winning an NIT championship in 1946, finishing as NIT runner-up in 1947 and claiming NCAA titles in 1948 and '49.
The starters from UK's 1947-48 NCAA champs — center Alex Groza; guards Kenny Rollins and Ralph Beard; forwards Cliff Barker and Jones — became known as The Fabulous Five. As a unit, they participated on the U.S. men's basketball team for the 1948 London Olympics.
Jones had a picture of himself carrying the ball off the court after the U.S. won the gold medal. "I've still got that ball," he told me in 2008.
Long after Jones' career as a successful Lexington businessman was winding down, he remained perhaps America's premier authority on how the iconic coaching figures of Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant compared and contrasted.
"I always say the same thing," Wah Wah Jones said. "They were about the same guy."