- Wallace Jones
- Hometown (Last School)
- Harlan, KY (High)
- 1945-46, 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49
- July 14, 1926
Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, a three-sport athlete who earned All-American status in basketball with the University of Kentucky in the late 1940s, died Sunday morning in Lexington, the Herald Leader and other news outlets reported. He was 88.
Jones, often regarded as the best all-around UK athlete of all time, gained fame playing forward with coach Adolph Rupp’s 1948 national championship basketball team. The Wildcats finished 36-3 and became known as “The Fabulous Five” in winning the first of UK’s eight national championships. He also picked up an Olympic gold medal.
Jones grew up in the Appalachian town of Harlan, Ky., and played on the Harlan Green Dragons, who won the state title in 1944. According to a 2003 story in The Courier-Journal, his 2,398 career points was a national record back then.
Jones got the nickname “Wah Wah” early, when his younger sister Jackie couldn’t pronounce Wallace. It stuck.
Jones is the only UK athlete with a retired jersey (No. 27) in both basketball and football. He made basketball All-American in 1949. He was an end in football and also played baseball, as a pitcher and first baseman.
In addition to playing for Rupp, he played for football legend Paul “Bear” Bryant in that sport.
A natural salesman, he came up with the idea of distributing free desk blotters to UK students with the schedules for the football and basketball teams on them. They were surrounded by advertisements that Jones sold to local businesses.
After college, he briefly played pro ball for the Indianapolis Olympians against the likes of George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers.
When that was over, Jones returned to Lexington and was elected Fayette County sheriff, serving from 1954-58. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost to veteran Congressman John Watts. It was his last political race.
Homegrown UK star ‘Wah Wah’ Jones did it all, Louisville Courier-Journal (2003) by C. Ray Hall
LEXINGTON, Ky. – If you conjure up a short list of the greatest all-around athletes in University of Kentucky history, one name inevitably bubbles toward the top.
Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones.
In team photos from the late 1940s, Jones looks like the player shipped over from Central Casting: rippling muscles, a withering stare, a sort of gun-metal glint about him.
As the millennium turned, the Southeastern Conference anointed 50 “Legends” in football and basketball. Only Jones made both lists.
He is the only UK athlete with a retired jersey (No. 27) in both sports. He was a basketball All-American in 1949. He played on UK’s “Fabulous Five” in 1948, picking up an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Before the Olympics, in London, the U.S. team played intrasquad exhibitions in Scotland. Did the Scots understand the American game?
“No,” he said. “We had these long warmup jackets and pants. . . . When we got ready to play, we were taking them off and the girls started squealing up in the stands.”
Back home, fans squealed, too ر for a different reason. Jones and his teammates were rapturous to watch.
Jock Sutherland, the retired coach and broadcaster who has been watching basketball 60 years, calls the Fabulous Five “the prettiest team that’s ever been on the floor, as far as execution.”
Jones played basketball for Adolph Rupp and football for Bear Bryant, a distinction few can claim. And he got along with both men, putting him in even more select company.
“I got along with them because I did what I was supposed to do,” said Jones, who is president of Blue Grass Tours, a 16-bus operation that takes small groups on horse-farm tours and large groups across the country.
Jones and his wife of 55 years, Edna, have lived in the same house 49 years. They raised two daughters, Vicki and Ira, and a son, Wallace Jr., who runs the tour company.
“Wah Wah” Jones was famous long before he set foot on the UK campus. He played in four state tournaments, helping Harlan to the 1944 championship. He scored 2,398 career points, then a national record.
At UK, he played forward in basketball and end in football. He played baseball, too – pitcher and first base, chafing when assigned to the outfield.
“It gets lonely out there,” he said.
He was a skilled swimmer, serving as a lifeguard in the summer. He eventually took up golf and became a five-handicapper.
“I always was a pretty good putter, which is a pool player’s game,” he said.
Oh, right. He could play pool, too.
“When you’re from a small town in Kentucky . . .” he said, finishing the sentence with a grin.
With that kind of resume, maybe he was born to play.
But he also was born to sell, apparently – and selling sustained him long after the cheering stopped.
The name “Wah Wah” had to help.
“It’s easy to remember,” he said.
Thanks go to his baby sister, Jackie, who couldn’t pronounce his given name. After a while, few people bothered to try.
“Bear Bryant and my wife were the only two people that called me Wallace,” he said.
And what did Rupp call him?
“A lot of times he’d call you Boy. And a lot of times he’d say Wah.”
Jones was a salesman before he was a sportsman. It started in Harlan, where he was born in 1926 as one of five children of Hugh and Fay Jones. They owned a popular restaurant called Hugh Jones’ Cafe. As an adolescent, “Wah Wah” sharpened his entrepreneurial skills – with a red wagon and a lard can.
“The Coca-Cola plant was behind the restaurant, and I’d take a lard can and put it in the wagon,” he said. “I’d get me a case of Co-Colas and I’d ice them down and I’d pull the wagon up to the court house.”
He’d sell sodas there, then head out to the industrial part of town and sell more. Traveling salesmen who ate at the family restaurant hired him to pass out samples. He remembers depositing tiny boxes of Faultless starch on porches all over town.
He brought that enterprising spirit to UK.
Around 1947, when he was a married three-sport man, he came up with a money-making idea: free desk blotters for UK students. They featured UK football and basketball schedules – surrounded by advertisements Jones sold to local businesses.
“It went over big,” he said. “I was always interested in selling.”
Jones, 76, has a salesman’s gift – the ability to make people feel better just because he’s around.
He probably even made two legendary grouches – Rupp and Bryant – feel better. Folks invariably want to know who was harder to play for.
“That is asked all the time – which one was the toughest?” he said. “They were both tough. I did what I was supposed to do, so I never had any trouble with either one of them.”
An example: In a football game at Cincinnati, Jones kept beating his man to sack the quarterback.
This was in the days before players wore face masks.
“Back then,” he said, “we only had one face guard, I think, and they took it off one helmet and put it on the guy that got hurt that week. Moved it around.”
After seeing its quarterback collared time after time, Cincinnati sent in a quicker man to block Jones.
“He caught me in the mouth with an elbow,” Jones said. “About that time Bryant called me out to send a play in or something, and I was standing there by Bryant spitting blood – and my teeth all knocked loose – and he put his arm and around me, and he said, ‘I need you to go back in there. . . .’
“I said, ‘Coach, my mouth is busted. I’m spittin’ blood.’
“He said, ‘You don’t run on your teeth! Get in there!’ ”
Jones watched the recent ESPN movie “The Junction Boys” and saw an unfamiliar representation of Bryant.
“I don’t remember him cussing that much,” he said.
Jones played basketball as hard as he played football.
His role at UK: “They wanted me to mainly get the basketball, get the rebound. With my abilities playing football, I could go get the ball. And I guess I was rewarded with having the most personal fouls of anybody.”
Is there anybody who plays the game today the way he played it?
“I’ve seen some,” he said, “but I can’t think of them. Some of them, I wish they’d start playing like me. Don’t give in. Get in there and . . . get position on them before they can get it on you.”
An example of Jones’ ferocity: He played for the Indianapolis Olympians against George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers.
“I was helping (Alex) Groza guard Mikan. Mikan . . . would fake you, get you up in the air and then he’d go up and make a goal. You’d foul him, and he’d get a shot.
“He faked me and I went on up in the air, but when I when came down I had him around the neck. I wouldn’t let him come back up. . . .
“Rupp always said, ‘If you’re going to foul, foul him.’ ”
After pro basketball, Jones returned to Lexington and was elected Fayette County sheriff, serving from 1954 through ’58.
“I was the first Republican sheriff in this county since the Civil War – and the last one,” he said.
He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, losing to veteran Congressman John Watts. That was his last political race.
Then he did something a lot of folks found curious, if not spurious: He started a Lexington television guidebook, when television wasn’t such a big deal.
“Every week I’d go to a different section of town,” he said. “I had some kids, and they’d put one on every house with an antenna. And I went to the small towns around here, and I built up a big subscription list and ran the magazine for quite some time.”
He eventually sold his subscription list to TV Guide, then started a local entertainment guide called “Around the Town.” Then he got into the tourbus business. He credits his son with growing the business, which is housed in a big blue (what else?) building.
He goes to the office daily – and briefly.
“I go to the post office and get the mail and bring it out and take what they’ve got to go back,” he said. “And then I’m through.”
He goes to every UK home game. And he keeps his salesman’s hand in shape by selling ads for the local edition of the “Leonard’s Losers” football tout sheet. And he relaxes by doing his favorite thing: “Watching my children do good.”
His trophies and clippings would fill one of his 55-passenger tour buses. But the thing he remembers most warmly has nothing to do with fame. It goes back to Harlan, when he was a teen-age lifeguard.
He never saved a life, he said.
But he certainly changed one. A small boy had a muscular or nervous disorder and could not control his arms or legs. Still, he wanted to swim. The boy’s parents asked “Wah Wah” to teach him.
He worked with the boy all summer, finally teaching him to swim.
“That,” he said, “was the greatest thing I think I ever did.”
Interview with Wallace Clayton Jones, September 30, 2009