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He may have been the greatest Native American basketball player of all time. He was a double-digit scorer over seven NBA seasons. He played alongside Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens, and guarded the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Missing a game under questioned circumstances, he inadvertently paved the way for a record-setting offensive output.

And then he was dead at the age of 31, leaving his legacy to fade over the decades.

Phil Jordon, born in Lakeport in 1933, played at Willits High School before moving to Redding. He was the first Redwood Empire product to play in the NBA — and the last, until Casa Grande alum Josh Akognon signed a 10-day contract with the Dallas Mavericks in May.

Akognon has played in three NBA games so far. Jordon played 442 games with four different teams, and yet he is virtually unknown by local sports fans, a result of both his early demise and the less-hyped era in which he played.

Jordon's early life wasn't easy. His family was not well off, and his father, John Jordon, died when Phil was a teenager, leaving his mother, Elizabeth, to care for five children. Phil Jordon had an older brother, Jimmy; two younger brothers, twins Perry and Larry; and a younger sister, Shirley.

John Jordon was Native American, of the Wailaki and the Nomlaki tribes, according to Perry's daughter Lisa Jordon. His children were impressively tall. Shirley is over 6 feet, and all the brothers except for Phil were 6-4 or 6-5, according to Perry Jordon. They probably got it from their mother's side of the family. Elizabeth Jordon, who was white, also stood over 6 feet tall.

"Her maiden name was Short," Perry said with a laugh.


Phil Jordon grew to 6-foot-10 and was described as having a feathery touch with the basketball. The Ukiah Daily Journal once wrote that Jordon "is known to have hooked in 10 straight baskets with either hand in his college days."

Jordon earned an athletic scholarship to Whitworth College (now Whitworth University), an NAIA school in Spokane, Wash. The website AinsworthSports.com ranked Jordon the No. 1 athlete in Whitworth history.

Whitworth twice went to the National Small College Championships behind Jordon, but he left school after 2? years for "the color and excitement of the barnstorming National Industrial Basketball League," according to a 1962 story in the Daily Journal. An article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle said Whitworth had suspended Jordon.

He played AAU ball for the Federal Insurance team, and then the Buchan Bakers, a team sponsored by a northern-Washington bakery (Jordon was also employed by the bakery.)

AAU hoops was highly competitive in those days, and the Bakers won the national title with a victory over the Phillips 66 Oilers. To get there, they had to get past future Basketball Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, who was playing for the Westside Ford squad.

The Minneapolis Lakers selected Jordon in the 1956 NBA draft, but he never played for that team. Instead, he suited up for the New York Knicks as a rookie. Jordon would play parts of two seasons with the Knicks, a year and a half with the Detroit Pistons, 1? with the Cincinnati Royals, another 1? with New York and a final season with the St. Louis Hawks in 1962-63.


Jordon was no bench-warmer. He averaged 14.3 points a game for the Pistons in 1958-59, and 13.4 for the Royals the next year. During those two seasons, and the next split between Cincinnati and New York, he never averaged less than 8.3 rebounds per game.

"He was as good as most of the big men in that era, except for the real outstanding ones like Russell and Chamberlain," said Willie Naulls, 78, his teammate with the Knicks for two full seasons and parts of two others. "But I think he was limited by his (early) competition. ... There wasn't very much local competition where he was growing up, as there is today. He had the physical frame and natural grace and ability to develop into a very competitive athlete."

Jordon's family didn't have the money to get to many of his games.

"I used to come up from Petaluma sometimes, go up to Ukiah because there was a TV station there where his games would be on," said Perry Jordon, 75, who now lives in Talmage. "I did get to see him play a few times, went to a couple games. He was at the Cow Palace (in San Francisco) one time."


Strangely, Jordon may be best remembered for an absence rather than an accomplishment.

On March 1, 1962, the Knicks were in Harrisburg, Pa., preparing to face the Philadelphia Warriors in nearby Hershey the next day. According to the author Gary Pomerantz, Jordon spent the afternoon and early evening in the room of teammate Sam Stith, whose wife was ready to deliver their first child. Jordon brought a case of beer and, in Pomerantz's account, drank the whole thing as Stith looked on. When the case was drained, Jordon went out on the town with another teammate, Donnie Butcher.

The next day, March 2, Jordon was in no condition to play.

"From behind the closed bathroom door in their hotel room, Butcher heard Jordon groaning and vomiting," Pomerantz wrote in Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era. "He asked Butcher to get Pepto-Bismol to help soothe his stomach. Butcher stopped at a nearby pharmacy to get it. As the Knicks prepared to leave for Hershey, Jordon said to Butcher from behind the bathroom door, 'Butch, tell them I can't go. I've got to stay here.'"

Asked for his version of events, Naulls said: "Phil didn't play in the game because he was ill. Whoever that writer was, he wasn't there, so he didn't know. I will not participate in character assassination. He was my teammate. I don't think anyone has the right in 2013 to speculate negatively about an athlete."

Jordon has been described as a drinker and a carouser, but his family is unconvinced.

"I asked my father and my aunt about the partying," said Lisa Jordon, who lives in Orlando, Fla., and works as a personal trainer. "They were not aware that was an issue."

For whatever reason, Phil Jordon missed the game. The Knicks were left with one big man, Darrall Imhoff, and it wasn't nearly enough. The powerful Chamberlain scored at will, his 100-point onslaught an NBA record that stands unscathed more than a half-century later.


By the summer of 1963, Jordon had played his last NBA game. And in June of 1965, while living in Tacoma, Wash., he fell into the Puyallup River when the raft on which he was riding broke apart. His three raft-mates swam to safety; Jordon did not; It took authorities nearly a month to find his body.

It isn't clear why the men were on the water at 10 p.m. The Daily Chronicle reported that Jordon was "testing" a raft when it submerged near the Quist Trailer Court in Puyallup. Other printed sources claimed it happened during, or in preparation for, a race. That's the version passed down by the Jordons.

"It was a race he did, one they must have done annually," Lisa Jordon said. "It's a story I've heard all my life. Something happened with the raft, and he didn't make it to shore. I don't think anybody knows what really happened."

Phil Jordon was survived by his wife and college sweetheart, the former Julia Arthur, and a son, Jon, who followed his father into basketball and averaged 5.8 assists per game for Central Washington University in 1984-85 (still fifth best in school history). One of Phil Jordon's brothers, Larry, made a brief appearance in Hunter S. Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, when he was stabbed in the face and neck by bikers during a melee in Willits.

Lisa Jordon was an accomplished basketball player, too. She starred at Ukiah High, then at Texas A&M, where the 6-4 post player left in 1989 as the Lady Aggies' all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots (her marks have since been eclipsed). She later coached at Texas A&M, Central Florida and Ohio University.

She never met her Uncle Phil, who died three years before she was born, but always knew he had played in the NBA. Other details of his life have proved elusive.

"You have to understand the family dynamic," Lisa Jordon said.

"Their father died when they were all very young, and the family moved around a lot because of that. They didn't keep in touch very well, and then Phil left to college. We don't have very much family history. I tried to do my family tree, and it was hard because a lot of my dad's side of the family died very young. There are not a lot of people around to ask."

As Perry Jordon said: "I wish I could have had more stories to tell you how it was. I was proud of him, that's for sure."

He still is, and with good reason. Phil Jordon's celebrity may be a thing of the past, but his accomplishments live on.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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