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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.

I used to get way up. (AP File Photo)

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.

By Michael Lee  |  April 5, 2010; 7:24 PM ET
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Next: Uncertainty for Randy Foye, an honor for Gus Johnson


Great post, Michael - thanks.

Posted by: tigerquoll | April 5, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Congrats to Gus and his family and that is one great Photo.

Posted by: zxhoya | April 5, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

I agree - great post. But I'm shocked he wasn't already in the HOF. I had totally assumed that he was. Is there more to it in terms of why he didn't make it until now? I mean: 1. Everybody makes the basketball HOF - it's absurd; and 2. he was so much better than Belamy, Bob Pettitte, Dolph Schayes, and any other PF of that era. It's weird.

Posted by: Urnesto | April 5, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

On April 5, 2010 Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Out of Akron, Ohio, via Boise J.C. and The University of Idaho, the 6 foot 5 inch, 225 pound power forward was taken by the Baltimore Bullets as the 10th overall pick in the 1963 N.B.A. Draft. Gus was one of the first N.B.A. players to play the game “above the rim” and he played hoops with a flair. I was fortunate enough to see a majority of the Johnson’s games at the Civic Center and he was a joy to watch. And when the Bullets were on the road hearing the call of Jim Karvellas describing Gus was memorable. I can still hear the Golden Greek saying..Here’s Loughery in the middle of the break, bounce pass to the Honeycomb…..He’llllll jammmm it! I have numerous memories of Gus, but the one that stands out the most was a game the Bullets played in Milwaukee against a Bucks team led by the former U.C.L.A. star Lew Alcindor. The Bullets were down by 50 late in the 4th quarter. Yes, by 50, I kid you not.. Gus drives to the hoop, and stuffs the ball, and boom, the backboard shattered. There wa glass flying everywhere. There was an hour delay while workman put up a new backboard.. Forget about Chocolate Thunder, Darryl Dawkins of the 76'ers.. This was years before anyone even heard of Dawkins. As a matter of fact, Gus broke 2 more backboards during is “Hall of Fame” N.B.A. career. He was a lock-down defender, named twice to the N.B.A. All-Defensive team. His battles with the Knicks Dave DeBusschere were legendary. Gus had a deep baritone voice and a gold star etched in one of his front teeth. Sadly, Gus Johnson died from cancer in 1987, at the age of 48, but his memory will live on forever with his induction to the Hall of Fame. Long live the “Honeycomb”!

Posted by: fkterp | April 5, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

We have waited so many years for this, knowing that Gus should not be forgotten, that those special Bullets teams should not be forgotten. It is a profoundly peaceful feeling to know that he will not be forgotten. He was a fearless lion on the court, with power, grace and courage. He did every job, he stood on defense against all who came, he rebounded with the giants and he played in layer upon layer of pain. Imitating Gus Johnson on the Court as a kid wasn't just imitating a style, it was imitating the will to do the impossible. And now he's been gone from the Court for nearly 40 years, and gone from this World for 23, but by God Gus, they will know who you were, and for those of us who loved you, there are no words to say what that means.

Posted by: LeeApplebaum | April 5, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Wow, two Johnsons in one HOF class...

Honeycomb and DJ... and both long, long overdue.

Hope you guys are smiling up there, the hoop world still cares about ya.

Posted by: khrabb | April 6, 2010 5:16 AM | Report abuse

Amen, LeeApplebaum. It's just too bad it came at least 23 years too late.

Posted by: truke | April 6, 2010 7:35 AM | Report abuse

The Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Gus Johnson, Wes Unseld led Bullets locked up with the Knicks in some classic playoff duels at the old Baltimore Civic Center and Madison Sq. Garden.

Those were some really great times that I remember fondly. Living out in Carroll County the only way to get many broadcasts was to sit in the car and listen to AM radio. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket, the old Civic Center was shaking to the foundation. Those old Bullets crowds were some of the wildest in basketball, can't imagine that the 70 thousand last night in Indy made any more noise, or had more fun doing it.

Gus Johnson had major knee problems years before modern knee surgury, and he suffered greatly for it. The man played through terrible pain for much of his career. I remember reading that they used to pump his knees full of novicaine in order for him to play, can't imagine the pain he went through as that stuff wore off.

The guy had all the toughness of Charles Oakley, the hops of David Thompson, and the style of Walt "Clyde" Frazier all rolled into one. He really deserves his trip to the Hall of Fame. Truely one of the Alltime greats of the game, it's nice to see him honored and remembered.

Posted by: flohrtv | April 6, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Gus Johnson was an undersized Power Forward with serious skills. Imagine a Charles Barkley during his best years, but with better defensive skills and leaping ability. That would be the best comparison to Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson.

Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson on the court together, now THAT was a Big Three!

Posted by: musicmanjr | April 6, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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