Willie “Hutch” Jones didn’t know if he wanted to continue with his foundation. This was a decade ago, when funds were short and volunteers were sparse. Jones and a friend sold T-shirts for $5 just to raise money so they could hold events for kids.
“There was a point there,” Jones said, recalling when he almost gave up.
Now, the Willie “Hutch” Jones Educational and Sports program thrives in the Buffalo community, providing underprivileged children ages 5-16 athletic and educational opportunities for free. The program will enter its 34th year in 2018. Jones, who attended Bishop Turner High School and played college basketball at Buffalo State and Vanderbilt, will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 1.
“It’s a powerful award and honor to me,” Jones said. “ … there’s certain people that are not even alive anymore that are getting this award and I’m actually still physically here. It’s a big impact to me, just ‘cause the fact that it’s not something that was given to me.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m a real humble guy. I looked at some of the people that were already in there and I’m like, ‘Wow, these guys are kind of like my heroes.’”
Jones grew up watching big-time college basketball and NBA stars like Julius Erving on his parents’ black-and-white television. He never envisioned his upcoming induction, let alone a career in basketball. Jones wrestled and played chess as a 5-foot-8 freshman at Turner. He sat the bench on the football team.
By his senior year, Jones had sprouted to 6-foot-6, and continued his basketball career at Buffalo State. As a freshman, he averaged 7.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game before the program dropped down to Division III. Jones sought a transfer since he could no longer receive scholarship money.
The University of Detroit, Oral Roberts and Vanderbilt came calling, and Jones joined the Commodores, where he blossomed into an NBA prospect. The teams he watched on TV – Kentucky, LSU and others – were now on the opposite bench. In his senior year, he shot 58.7 percent from the field and ranked first on the team with 15.8 points per game. He won Sports Illustrated Player of the Week during the season and was named first-team All-Southeastern Conference.
“As time progressed, I got better and better,” Jones said. “You’re kicking a little bit of butt during that time period.”
The Los Angeles Lakers grabbed Jones in the third round of the 1982 draft. He never played for the Lakers but enjoyed a brief professional career that spanned multiple leagues and continents.
In 1984, Jones’ knack for inspiring kids led him to create his program. He thought children saw something in him, something that they could look up to for inspiration. He wanted to give back for free, and the program first started with basketball and has since ballooned to 10 sports.
Jones’ son learned how to swim from the program. His daughter, 13, tells him she wants to be the program’s CEO one day. His calls his support staff “Team Hutch,” and they’ve served more than 10,000 kids with after-school and summer athletic and educational activities.
The future is bright for the Willie “Hutch” Jones Educational and Sports program, a welcome sight to its founder, who’s thankful he didn’t give up on it 10 years ago.
“I’ve buffered it with family members around that are key and that also enjoy working and being a part of it, and to be able to see that their father has a joy from it,” Jones said. “I know, in my heart, that if my heart stops beating today, that this program that’s been set up in Erie County will continue just through other people, providing similar things for young people.
“I don’t really see any stopping.”
Story topics: Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame