Billy Cunningham just wanted to make it right with Caldwell Jones, as right as Jones had always made it for him. He wanted to give him his championship ring.

What better way to honor a player Cunningham always regarded as a gem? What better way to include C.J. on a title team, even if he wasn’t actually on the roster?

The scene was the bowels of the Summit, then the home arena of the Houston Rockets, on the night of Nov. 25, 1983. The 76ers, coached by Cunningham and fresh off the 1982-83 championship, had just beaten the Rockets, for whom Jones played, in an early regular-season game. And Cunningham sought out C.J., who had played for the Sixers for six years, ending in September 1982.

On the eve of the title run, in other words.

“I don’t remember if I had the ring in hand or not,” Cunningham, the Sixers' boss from 1977-85, recalled Monday, “but I offered him my ring. I did do that. … He kind of laughed at me.”

No, it just wasn’t right, in Jones’ mind, even though he had left his imprint on the title team. Even though everyone loved and respected him for his grace and good humor, for his selflessness and serenity, for the dirty work he did and the groundwork he laid.

“He was a great teammate,” former Sixers general manager Pat Williams said of Jones, who died Sunday at age 64. “I think it was important to him. He was not out for individual stats. He wanted the team to do well, and he was willing to sacrifice to do anything he could to make that happen.”

 

Sometimes Jones, a willowy 6-foot-11, played center. Sometimes he played forward. Sometimes Cunningham asked him to chase Larry Bird around screens. Sometimes he was required to bang with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the post.

He did all of it without complaint. And if others studied the box score after games -- eager to see their touches, eager to see their point totals -- he abstained. If others shirked the media, he sat shirtless on the floor in the Spectrum’s tiny home locker room and iced his knees, his spindly legs seemingly extending halfway to the far wall. A six-pack of lite beer was always within easy reach, and he offered his analysis in a soft drawl betraying his Arkansas roots.

Shots and points? Didn’t matter to him; he averaged all of 7.2 points during his time in Philadelphia (albeit with 9.2 rebounds a game), part of a 17-year career. All that mattered was the final score.

“He epitomized a team player,” Cunningham said. “If we won, he would have been the happiest guy in the locker room. And that’s not just a statement -- like you hear things, nice things being said about somebody who is deceased. That’s fact.”

“I enjoy winning,” Jones told me in a 2006 interview. “If I could score less and win, I was happy. Playing basketball’s a lot more fun when you’re winning.”

Jones, one of four brothers to play in the NBA, was unique in that approach, unique to a Sixers team that for a time had more than its share of scorers. But let the record show that he was not only appreciated but emulated. Maurice Cheeks in particular was a disciple.

The Sixers did win during C.J.’s time with the team, just never quite enough. They fell three times in the Finals in that stretch, to Portland in 1977 and to the Lakers in 1980 and ’82. (In the decisive sixth game of that ’80 series, Jones lined up for the opening tip against Magic Johnson, who was filling in for an injured Abdul-Jabbar and destined for a 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist tour de force. Jones won the tip, but as he said in that ’06 interview, “It was about the only thing we got that night.”)

In time Harold Katz came to be the Sixers’ owner, and set his sights on Moses Malone, the Houston Rockets’ free-agent center, as the final piece to the championship puzzle. Malone was signed to an offer sheet, and according to the rules then in place the Rockets would have two weeks to match the offer, let Malone walk or arrange other compensation.

Williams and Cunningham both said Monday that the Rockets demanded Jones and a first-round draft pick in return for Malone. Others who were then in the organization have said Katz simply wanted to unload Jones, rather than pay him starter’s money to back up Malone. Del Harris, then Houston’s coach, once told me that Charlie Thomas, the Rockets’ owner at the time, was content to let Malone depart as a free agent.

 

In any case, Jones went to Houston. Malone arrived in Philadelphia, but was upset to learn that Caldwell, a buddy of his from the old ABA, had been sacrificed in the deal -- so much so that he hesitated to sign a contract.

“He just balked and said, ‘One of the main reasons I came here was to play with Caldwell,’” Williams said. “He just was adamant.”

It took all of Katz’s powers of persuasion to get Malone to sign. Once he did, the Sixers rolled to 65 victories and won 12 of 13 playoff games, including a sweep of the Lakers in the Finals.

In the meantime, Caldwell toiled for a Houston club that went 14-68, a season so miserable that he counted down the quarters of each game toward the end. “That one year felt like four years,” he said in 2006.

Still, he was happy for the success of his friends and former teammates. “I said when I left, ‘Once a Sixer, always a Sixer,’” he recalled in ‘06. “I was really happy for those guys. I still felt as though I was part of the team, even though I wasn't wearing a Sixer uniform. You don't do any good holding any animosity. Life is too short to be holding any of that.”

After the Sixers flew back from Los Angeles on June 1, 1983, four of them -- Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Earl Cureton and Franklin Edwards -- headed for the home Jones maintained in Southwest Philadelphia.

Some of the details of that visit have been lost to time. In some versions of the story, they broke open cans of beer; in others someone brought along a bottle of champagne. In some versions, they all stood in Caldwell’s kitchen; in others they remained in his driveway.

What is certain is that they all raised a toast.

“Now it’s official,” someone (likely Cureton) said.

They just wanted to make it right with him, as right as he had always made it for them.