Gus Johnson finally gets in Hall of Fame
Four jerseys hang in the rafters at Verizon Center, belonging to Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson. But until Monday, Johnson was the only member of that esteemed quartet to be denied a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. That no longer is the case.
After a long wait, Johnson was elected posthumously to a class that includes Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, former USC and WNBA star Cynthia Cooper, legendary high school coach Bob Hurley, Sr., Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Johnson, international star Maciel Pereira, the 1960 USA Men's Olympic team and the 1992 USA Basketball "Dream Team."
Johnson, an Akron, Ohio, native, spent nine of his 10 seasons with the Baltimore Bullets from 1963-72, making five all-star appearances and two NBA all-defensive teams. He also led the franchise to five playoff appearances, including the 1971 NBA Finals. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.7 rebounds in 581 NBA games, including some time with the Phoenix Suns. He finished his career by winning a championship in 1973 with the ABA's Indiana Pacers.
A 6-foot-6 power forward, Johnson earned the nickname "Honeycomb" for his sweet play. Although he was more well-known for his defensive and rebounding tenacity, Johnson was also among the first players to dunk and famously shattered three backboards in his career. His offensive game drew comparisons to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins. He ranks third all-time in franchise history in rebounding (7,243) and fifth in points scored (9,781).
The late Abe Pollin once described him as "the Dr. J" of his time. Monroe once said, "Gus was ahead of his time."
A flamboyant character who had a star on his gold tooth, Johnson became an phenomenon shortly after the Bullets drafted him 10th overall out Idaho in 1963. Sports Illustrated wrote a profile on Johnson in his second season that said he could be the game's next superstar. Mark Kram wrote:
Gus Johnson comes across like a high note on a clarinet screaming in an empty hall. He has a gold star perfectly carved in the center of one long front tooth, wears $85 shoes, Continental suits and a tiny hat that sits cocked on the back of his large head. He is at once, in appearance and manner, the kingfish at a fish fry and a little boy on his knees--scared and wild-eyed--watching dice roll in an alley back home in Akron. At the wheel of his new and purple Bonneville convertible, sartorially precise, his gold star glittering against the sunlight and the car radio moaning "This is my heart, this is my baby," he seems far removed from what he so easily might have been--a member in good standing of the subterranean world of sporadic, aimless labor and even more aimless delinquency.
Long-time Philadelphia Daily News NBA writer Phil Jasner told the tale of the night that Johnson broke his first backboard:
Gus Johnson remembers being "about three steps in front of Lenny Wilkens, Chico Vaughn and maybe Cliff Hagan," accepting a crisp, one-bounce pass from Wali Jones and going up to dunk.
...The site that night in 1964 was Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. Years later, when Darryl Dawkins began trashing backboards, only a select few were able to point to the old original and say they had been there. "I hit the rim with my forearm, just tore the basket down," Johnson recalled. "The rim came down on Sihugo Green's foot, and he missed two weeks. The game was delayed about 45 minutes while they found a replacement hoop, at a high school, I think. Later, Ben Kerner (the Hawks' owner) sent the Bullets a bill for $1,500 that he wanted given to me. I just laughed."
Johnson died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 48 on April 29, 1987, nearly four months after the Washington Bullets retired his jersey number 25. Before his passing, Johnson told Jasner that his greatest fear was that he would die and his daughters "don't even know what their daddy did."
Finally, nearly 23 years after his death, the Hall of Fame has recognized what Johnson did.
April 5, 2010; 7:24 PM ET
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