Gus Johnson: Will Erratic Star Become a Superstar?

In October 2009, I interviewed Alan Goldstein, the former NBA beat reporter for the Baltimore Morning Sun from the 1960s through the early 1970s. “Goldy,” as he was known, knew the Baltimore Bullets and their cast of NBA characters inside and out. He spoke highly of Wes Unseld, like virtually anyone who had ever met the amazing Bullet center. Goldstein grew more circumspect when the conversation turned to the team’s coach Gene Shue. Same with Earl Monroe. 

Gus Johnson? Goldstein chuckled as though logging into a warm, cherished, stowed-away memory. Then, the old reporter in Goldstein tumbled out, and he began describing Johnson in his clipped, slow-moving, native-Brooklynese. “Gus was a good guy,” he started. “He was very good natured. But, you know, Gus spent every dollar that he ever had. The clothes? He had more shoes than Imelda Marcos. He would always set the fashion trends with the Bullets with his flashy suits. Gus was just a lot of fun.”

Then Goldstein offered up a story. While covering the Bullets, probably in the early 1970s, Goldstein said Mike Janofsky, the NBA beat reporter at the companion Baltimore Evening Sun, cornered him one day with a big idea: they had to write a book about Gus Johnson. Goldstein eventually shrugged okay, and the two got Johnson to agree to a first interview at his downtown apartment.

For the first interview, Goldstein brought along his bulky new tape recorder, a holiday gift from the NFL Baltimore Colts that also marked his first brush with this then-advanced technology. Goldstein, a self-described “pen-and-notepad guy,” thought the tape recorder was essential. Johnson had a reputation as a fun, but long-winded, interview, and Goldstein worried that he and Janofsky couldn’t possibly keep up with him for an hour or more writing longhand. The only way to get it all down was to use a tape recorder, assuming Goldstein could follow the instructions and get his newfangled machine to work. 

“I put the tape recorder on his bed,” remembered Goldstein, “and Gus starts telling his story from the cradle, right? He’s talking and talking and talking. I’m looking at the time. You know, I don’t know how these tape recorders work. I said, ‘You’ve been talking for 40 minutes, we’d better check it.’ When I hit the playback, we didn’t have a word, not one word. Gus took me and Janofsky by the collar, like a tiger would her cubs, and tossed us out the door. He said, ‘There goes your book.’”

In this article, from Complete Sports’ Pro Basketball Illustrated, 1965-66, reporter Bill Gildea (pronounced Gill-DAY), hopefully had a better time with his tape recorder. Gildea, a proud Baltimore native and one of the Washington Post’s all-time greats in the sports department, offers a nice portrait of the slam-dunk artist Johnson as a young man. 

There are many memories that the irrepressible Gus Johnson has of his childhood in a rugged section of Akron, Ohio, and a life later in the quiet rolling hill country that is Idaho. 

Idaho was something new, startling in its simplicity, a place of peace and contentment in which he drew respect for his bountiful skills as a basketball player and delighted in the notoriety which accrued naturally from his flamboyant style. 

After only two years, one at Boise Junior College and one at University of Idaho, when he was the nation’s second-leading college rebounder, Gus left Idaho for, admittedly, he is far too restless for those acres of tranquility. 

Gus took with him, though, his first appreciation of what he calls “the good life,” one free from the idle, milling congresses of his youth and the purposeless unrest they incited. “I came up the hard way,” he says, “where if you were strong you made your way, and if you weren’t you stepped back. There was always somebody challenging you. You always had to prove yourself.”

So it was when Gus returned to Akron, he “got engaged in fisticuffs a couple times” and the crowd he once ran with said he had changed; and he, knowing it, promptly obliged by leaving in seven weeks. 

That was two years ago; and now the muscular, almost perfectly built Gus Johnson of the Baltimore Bullets, is established, firmly, as one of the most-talented forwards in the National Basketball Association, certainly one of the most exciting players since Bob Cousy’s retirement and Elgin Baylor’s prime. 

There’s a problem, though, a question mark undermining Gus’ reputation in the NBA. For although his talent is obvious, his application of it is spotty. He can be a hero or bum, and it’s never predictable which he will be on a given night. Part of Johnson’s difficulty is that he chafes under the demands of the NBA’s grueling schedule, and he has rebelled in a small way. 

Twice last season Johnson was fined heavily for missing two practices and showing up only five minutes before a game. Johnson didn’t hesitate to speak his mind about them. Last March, he declared his disenchantment with the Bullets’ general manager Paul Hoffman. Hoffman was fired at the end of the season in a front-office shake-up; and Hoffman, according to Johnson, holds him at least partially accountable. 

For the most part, though, Johnson maintains an essential grasp of priorities, that rebellion and disorder are intolerable for any employee, and that the simple facts of life are that he made $19,500 last season, with the prospect of even a much more satisfying remuneration this year. 

Of course, the prospect of a cushy existence someday does not change his feeling about the league. At best, the game is taxing. One hundred and four of them, his total last season including exhibitions, are unnerving. 

Of a night’s work, he says: “It’s 48 minutes of madness.”

“Basketball used to be fun,” he continues. “Now it’s just a job. It’s dog eat dog. I want to make a bundle and get out.”

Despite passing up his last year of college eligibility when Johnson entered the NBA as the Bullets’ second draft choice, he came “equipped” he says. Gus was used to hard knocks. Akron had seen to that. “I knew how to take care of myself,” he says. “Some who come into the league don’t.”

When Baltimore coach Bob Leonard first saw Johnson, he knew immediately he had acquired something spectacular. It was just a question of harnessing Johnson’s raw power . 

It was shortly thereafter, in a scrimmage, that the Bullets’ 6-feet-11 center Walt Bellamy, knocked out Johnson’s front tooth with an errant elbow. Eventually, Johnson had a gold star emblazoned on the enamel crown. It was the work of his dentist in Baltimore, and Johnson says he doesn’t know exactly why he had it done. Perhaps it was merely a whim, more likely an expression of his desire to be unique among his playing colleagues.

“That star has become a legend,” he says. “Kids will come up to me after a game and ask, ‘Do you really have a gold star on your tooth?’ Sometimes, if I’m tired, I’ll just say, ‘No,’ or ‘I left it home,’ or something like that.

“Well, anyway,” he says with a laugh, “it fits my personality.”

The 6-feet-6, 232-pound Johnson responded nobly as a rookie, particularly as a rookie who had lasted until the second round of the college draft. He averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds; and if he didn’t come to immediate attention around the circuit, he was appreciated in Baltimore, where he quickly received the nicknames Honeycomb and Mr. Clean for his proficiency in sweeping clear the backboards, and was chiefly responsible for what crowds the struggling Bullets attracted. 

As the year progressed, however, he developed a certain reticence, if not pique, for Jerry Lucas of the Cincinnati Royals. [Note: The pique actually dates back to high school, when Johnson”s Akron Central, which included future NBA great Nate Thurmond, couldn’t beat Lucas’ Middletown High.] As Johnson points out, Lucas was rookie of the year, Johnson was runner-up. This past season, Lucas was named to the All-Star team, Johnson to the second All-Star team. 

The grandeur of Ohio State and the glamor of being All-American carried over to the NBA and gave Lucas the early recognition he needed to keep one step ahead of him, Johnson feels. “Well, he was All-America, and I respect him for it,” Gus says. “But when I play against him, I have something to prove to myself.”

Johnson freely admits to putting out more against Lucas and other top forwards, such as the Los Angeles Lakers’ Baylor or Tom Heinsohn of Boston. “Like when I’m playing some of the weaker forwards in the league, I feel kind of sorry for them. I’m not psyched up like when I’m up against Lucas or Elgin or Pettit or somebody like that. I make more mistakes.”

If he is to raise his scoring average, he must “take advantage of the little things”—like fattening up on some of the lesser opponents. He believes he should carry a 25-point average. Will he do it? “I’ve got to,” he says. 

Johnson, as a rookie, quickly unveiled his dynamic stuff shot. It is, by its very explosiveness, distinguished from any shots stuffed anywhere before. Said a startled Bob Pettit, former St. Louis Hawks star, upon observing it the first time: “I’ve never seen a shot like that.”

The first distinct feature of the shot is the distance from which it emanates. Johnson, like a cat, is apt to spring from the free-throw line, or from even farther back. While he is airborne, the ball is brought down close to the floor as he clutches it with one hand, then raised high above his head as he completes the windmill motion. The climax comes when he jams the ball down into the netting. Such is the force of his stuff shot that Gus has twice shattered glass backwards in league games. 

Johnson perfected the shot during AAU competition with the Goodyear Webfoots and Cleveland Pipers before going to Idaho. Over lunch, and with the help of an empty glass, he described the sensation he felt upon discovery of his ability to leap, and stuff:

“A shot came off the rim, and I could feel the players around me on my shoulders. Suddenly, there I was up in the air with the ball and looking down through the hoop, just like I’m looking down through this glass; and the floor seemed very far away. It scared me a bit. I didn’t know what to do with the ball, so I just laid it in easy. 

“Then, a few minutes later, the ball came off the rim. I was coming off the side of the key and took the ball with my arm extended and stuffed it. 

“We had a timeout after that; and the rest of ‘em said: ‘Gus, baby, you were head and shoulders over the rim.’ Head and shoulders! I laughed, must’ve laughed the whole game.”

Last season, Johnson outdid himself during a playoff game against St. Louis at Baltimore. To everyone’s astonishment, including even his own, Gus began his leap from deep in the right corner and, without a dribble, stuffed the shot. 

The Hawks’ player-coach, Richie Guerin, screamed futile protests of traveling to referees Mendy Rudolph and Willie Smith. But if there was any violation during what would have qualified in track as a Herculean broad jump, it went unnoticed. 

Gus says he doesn’t no whether he traveled or not. “I realized when I was up, I started too soon,” he says, “but I just kept my arms out, and made it.”

Last season, Johnson was the NBA’s 11th leading scorer with an 18.6 average, and was seventh in rebounding at 13.0. But as the year wore on, Johnson dropped 22 pounds. He said he felt “real tired,” described himself as only “part of a ballplayer,” and dared the Bullets to trade him.

He said it was difficult “getting up for 80 games,” and as the year progressed, he “didn’t have the desire to ‘kill’ an opponent.” He said the season “demoralizes you.”

Johnson found it difficult to quell his emotions. “I don’t want to be taking it out on everybody. I want to rest. The others want to rest. Why can’t I be like them? I don’t know.” Johnson criticizes the NBA’s “one-night stands” and its extensive travel, particularly the exhibition circuit and the coast-to-coast hopping to Los Angeles during the playoffs. 

Beneath his crusty outer surface, Johnson is a worrier when it comes to his shooting. During a late-season slump, he said: “It’s upstairs in my mind—my concentration. Sometimes you think you’ve lost the touch.”

Now Johnson takes a new tack. He calls his upcoming third season “a waiting year.” The club’s three owners—Abe Pollin, Earl Foreman, and Arnold Heft—have moved coach Buddy Jeannette up to replace Hoffman as general manager, and installed Paul Seymour as coach. Seymour, former Syracuse Nats’ star and coach at Syracuse and St. Louis, is the Bullets’ third coach in three years. 

Gus wants to study the draft in the club’s management. He dreams of a three-year contract, for $125,000. “Baylor got a long-term contract. They’re always comparing me to him. So, why not?” Gus will probably settle for a lot less. 

Last year, in times of trial, Johnson received much encouragement from teammate Wally Jones. He developed an immediate rapport with Jones, whom he met for the first time at last summer’s preseason camp. 

Gus and the Villanova rookie, who developed into a crowd-pleaser himself at Baltimore with his slick ballhandling, engaged in frequent banter during drills. “We’d have little contests,” Gus recalls. “We’d keep count of assists and things like that. We tried to outdo one another. He’d make a play and you would hear the oohs and aahs from the crowd; and he’d run back up court saying: ‘OK, baby, top that!’ Wally’s my boy!”

Johnson’s ambition as a player is to become a “superstar. You can count them on one hand,” he says. “I’m not one of them—yet.” Jerry Lucas isn’t either, he hastens to add. 

Blocking Johnson’s path to stardom is his lack of consistency. Observes the Detroit Pistons’ Terry Dischinger, formerly Gus’ teammate at Baltimore: “He can look like the greatest player one minute and the worst player the next minute. It might be a question of maturity. It might be concentration. There’s no doubt he’s spectacular.”

Will Johnson achieve his goals—superstar, then luxurist? Dischinger’s uncertain reply is typical around the league. “Gus has the raw talent,” Terry says. “Everybody who sees him says that. The rest is up to him.”

Johnson, more confidently, concludes: “There’s no limit to what I can do out there.” True. The basketball world, and especially the Bullets, curiously await future developments. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: