An All American in both football and basketball in the 1940s who had the distinction of playing for both Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones was perhaps the greatest athlete in University of Kentucky history and the most famous to come out of Harlan County.
Jones, who went on to UK after leading Harlan High School to the 1944 state championship, died Sunday at 88 after a long illness.
Jones led the Green Dragons to four straight 13th Region Tournament titles and finished with 2,398 career points, a county record until Cawood’s Phil Cox broke it in 1981 before going on to Vanderbilt and a school record until Charles Thomas broke both records in the 1994-1995 season before going on to the University of Minnesota. Both Cox and Thomas were Mr. Basketball winners. Jones held the state tournament scoring record until it was broken by Richie Farmer, also a Mr. Basketball winner, when he played in five state tournaments with Clay County from 1984 to 1988.
The inaugural Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012 class featured 16 former players and coaches, including Jones.
“I can think of no other student athlete who is more decorated in their accomplishments than Wah Wah Jones,” said Harlan Independent Schools Superintendent C.D. Morton. “Certainly Harlan Independent is very proud to call him one of our own. Having grown up hearing about Wah Wah’s accomplishment from my father, who served as the team manager in high school, Wah Wah has been and will continue to be a deep source or pride for the Green Dragon family and all of Harlan County. As an avid sports fan, I have never heard of another athlete who has experienced a wider range of championships spanning from high school to the Olympics.
“Even though Harlan High has lost a living legend today, his memory and accomplishments will be carried on for generations to come. Affection for Wah Wah Jones runs deep as students and visitors can often be overheard talking of his achievements 70 years later. It is likely that every high school in Kentucky has someone in which they are proud of, but you will be hard pressed to find someone as exceptional as Wah Wah Jones. Harlan High is fortunate to call him our own.”
Jones is the only player to have his number retired in both football and basketball at UK and won a gold medal in basketball in the 1948 Olympics in London with Rupp and several of his UK teammates from the “Fabulous Five.” Jones and the Wildcats returned home to win the national championship in 1949, the senior season for the Fabulous Five.
“He was the last person to major in the three major sports at the University of Kentucky and he did that multiple years,” said David Davies, a teacher and coach for 51 years in the Harlan Independent Schools. “He was the most productive athlete to ever come out of Harlan County, playing on a national championship team and in the Olympics. How many people can lay claim to that?”
After being drafted in the first round by the Washington Capitols, Jones was traded to Indianapolis and played for three seasons in the NBA before returning to Kentucky.
Jones was elected sheriff of Fayette County in 1953 and was the Republican nominee for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956 but lost the election to John Watts.
He was a businessman for many years in the central Kentucky area and was a regular at UK basketball and football games.