Johnny Green: Basketball’s Talented Antique, 1972

[Think back to the NBA of the 1960s and 70s. Okay, let’s play a quick game of free association. Bill Russell. Consummate winner. Jerry West. Mr. Clutch. Dick Barnett. Fall back, baby.  Johnny Green. Old. 

Yes, old. Green spent much of his long NBA career fighting the widespread perception that he was as old as Methuselah. Or Horse Haggerty and the Original Celtics. One reason is Green entered the league as a mature, 26-year-old rookie. Another is Green bounced around toward the end of his 14-season NBA career. Fans saw the same familiar face, but it was always in a different colored uniform. But whether wearing Bullet orange or Royal blue, the man known to everyone as “Jumpin’ Johnny” remained a productive veteran to the very end.  

In this article from Victory Sports 1972 Pro Basketball Yearbook, writer Sandy Allan offers more details about Green’s NBA career. But first, a quick aside. For my book Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark, I arranged an interview with Green. I figured that if Green was “old” in the NBA, he would be ancient by now. I dialed his number prepared to speak up and speak simply. But the joke was all on me. Green, though in his early 80s, owned a couple of fast-food restaurants in New York, and he was out and about full of vinegar and tending to empty napkin dispensers. I didn’t have to repeat a single question. He was too busy to feel old.]

The ball was passed in from under the basket. A skinny man with legs like springs cut around behind a pick. He received the pass, jumped, shot—two points. 

“See that guy?” a father with a long cigar asked his young son. “That’s Johnny Green. Been around forever. Why he’s the George Blanda of basketball!” 

Contrary to what that father—and many fans believe, Cincinnati’s John Green has not been around since the NBA played in places like Rochester and Fort Wayne. True, he may have been around when San Francisco was Philadelphia, when Philadelphia was Syracuse, when Los Angeles was Minneapolis, when Atlanta was St. Louis—but so were Dick Barnett and Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer and Elgin Baylor. 

When you read a story about Chamberlain, nobody compares him to Blanda or calls him old. But when Green won his second field-goal percentage title during the ’70-‘71 season—it was “old” Johnny Green, as they said things like “keeps rolling along.”

“Of course, I notice it,” admits Green. “Nowadays, the way everything is geared to youth, anytime somebody over 30 does something significant in sports, it’s a triumph for old people. I don’t mind if a writer refers to my age once in a story. But I’d say that every article written about me this year had my age in the headline. When you’re over 30, they make a big deal out of it. It would be nicer if they mentioned the times I’ve been on the All-Star team. That’s something that should be emphasized.”

Green, however, has been around for a long time. The soft-spoken Michigan State graduate broke in with the Knicks as their first-round draft choice in 1959 and scored seven points a game as a rookie. His phenomenal leaping ability, enabling him to snare rebounds from much taller forwards, made Johnny an immediate Madison Square Garden favorite, something he remains to this day, even though he has not worn a New York uniform since 1965. 

By 1960, he was the team’s leading rebounder, and two years later was New York’s representative in the All-Star game. His greatest years, ’61, ’62, ’63, and ‘64 were not shared by his teammates. For the Knicks, they were the worst of times, finishing last in the East each year. The powers that would bring the Knicks into NBA prominence (General Manager Eddie Donovan and chief scout Red Holzman) had not yet begun their master plan. 

Johnny was an All-Star selection in ‘63 and again in ‘65. But in ’65, his all-star status was as a member of the Baltimore Bullets, having been traded to them along with Jim (Bad News) Barnes, Johnny Egan, and cash—for Walter Bellamy. Johnny didn’t get to play much in his first full year with the Bullets (’66-’67), so when San Diego selected him in the first round of the expansion draft of that year—Johnny was thrilled. 

“A player can look at expansion in one of two ways,” Johnny states. “For some, it’s disheartening. You know the expansion team won’t be much. You know you’re going to lose. I don’t look at it that way. Losers can make adjustments. For me, expansion was a break, an opportunity to reach my abilities. With the Bullets, I was getting very little playing time. Sitting on the bench is the worst thing there is. I wanted to play. I knew I wasn’t through. When I went to San Diego, I played 35 minutes each game.”

Halfway through the season, the expansion Rockets (who would win only 15 games all year) were hopelessly out of things at the bottom of the Western Division race. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers were in a dogfight with Boston, trying to end the Celtics’ domination of pro basketball. In their frontcourt, the 76ers had Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Bill Cunningham, and Chet Walker. They could use another big man for the stretch drive and playoffs. On January 11, 1968, Johnny Green went from a loser to a winner, but also from the court to the bench as he was traded to Philly for a draft choice and cash. 

The 76ers won the regular-season title that year, but the Celtics took the championship playoff in seven games. Green averaged about 10 points per game. Next year promised to be a good one. Wilt had been traded to the Lakers. That meant Luke Jackson would move underneath, and the Green would be the number three man behind Walker and Cunningham. By now, Green, former All-Star, was a much-traveled veteran. He was looking forward to his best season. 

When Luke Jackson got hurt and wound up playing in only 25 games all year, the 76ers went with Darrell Imhoff at center, whom they had obtained in the Chamberlain deal. With Jackson  in bad shape, Green expected to see a lot of floor time.

He didn’t. The forwards played iron man roles. Cunningham played 3,345 minutes, Walker 2,753. Excluding the rotating guards (Greer, Wally Jones, and Archie Clark) and Imhoff, nobody else played more than 1,000 minutes. Green played 795 minutes and averaged 4.7 points per game, his lowest since coming into the NBA as a rookie. And the worst was yet to come!

“At the end of that season, Philadelphia put me on waivers,” remembers Johnny. “I was shocked when they cut me. Jack Ramsay got in touch with me during the summer and said they might have to cut me in camp because they were stuck with a bunch of players with no-cut contracts. Sure enough, I was cut, and nobody claimed me. It was not unexpected. The older a player gets, the more he earns in pension money. The last club the player plays for picks up the tab for the entire pension. It makes it risky to pick up an old ballplayer. I contacted a few clubs on my own. I knew I wasn’t finished. I would even have played in the ABA, if I had to.”

He didn’t have to. In 1969, Bob Cousy replaced Ed Jucker as coach of the Cincinnati Royals, a team that hadn’t won an NBA title since 1950 when they played as the Rochester Royals. The Royals had Oscar Robertson and Tom Van Arsdale . . . and not much else. Green, who had always wanted to play for the Celtics because he thought that he best fit in with their style of play, would get a reprieve from Cousy. 

“For a long time, I played with teams that didn’t fit in to my pattern to play,” Green recalls. “I had hoped I’d get drafted by the Celtics because I would have fit in well there. The Knicks were not a run-and-shoot team when I was with them. I didn’t really feel I fit in until I got to Cincinnati and their running type of game. For my best play, I need good playmakers, people who can get the ball into me. At Cincinnati, Norm Van Lier and Nate Archibald improved my game. I just had the misfortune to go with the wrong team early in my career. I always thought I could have been more productive. When I got a chance to play with guards like Van Lier and Archibald, I was able to produce more.”

In the 1969 season, Johnny played more than 2,000 minutes, and only Van Lier got into more games. He led the club in rebounds, averaged 15.6 points per game, and won the field-goal shooting percentage crown. And reporters wondered where Johnny Green had been these last few years. 

But in 1970, the big news coming out of Cincinnati was the trade that sent Oscar Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Big “O” was not happy under Cousy, and rumors had it that Cousy was not happy with Robertson. Whereas it is never easy to lose one of the game’s all-time great superstars, the departure of Robertson would give the Royals’ two young guards, Van Lier and Archibald, even more experience. It was, Cousy said, a step toward the future. 

“Cousy is a strange kind of coach,” Green notes with a large hint of respect in his voice. “He coaches like he played, committing himself to a total dedication to the game. He has strong convictions about how the game should be played, and some players (Robertson) didn’t fit in with those convictions. He wants to win more than any man I know. He had never been associated with a loser before.”

Cousy was going to lose, simply because it would be a few years before his building blocks like Van Lier, Archibald, and Sam Lacey would form a cohesive unit. The stress was on youth, but he knew that a seasoned veteran is often the tempering quality that brings out the best in young players. So, as the 1970-‘71 season began, Green, the free agent cut by the 76ers, was starting at forward for the Royals. If the previous year had been the turning point in Johnny Green’s life, the ’70-‘71 season would be the justification. 

The “old man” played in 75 games, more than 2,000 minutes of play, and again won the NBA field goal percentage title. He was second on the Royals in rebounding to rookie Lacey, and was the second-leading scorer (16.7) behind Tom Van Arsdale. Green, of course, gave the credit to Van Lier and Archibald. But the comeback also proved something to Johnny Green. 

“I remember my first training camp with the Knicks. I was scared. I was shaking like a leaf. I had a degree in business administration from Michigan State and never really thought about playing pro ball. I just hoped I would help the team. 

“There was an expression we had. ‘I was full of vinegar.’ Heck, I’m still full of vinegar. I’m starting my 12th season, and I’m trying to maintain the same kind of training camp attitude. Every year is a rookie year. Someone once wrote I have an ‘effervescent’ approach to the game. I liked that. I think I do. I’ll play this year and the year after that, and I hope the year after that. Or play as long as I feel productive. I don’t feel old. I still have the same dream I had as a rookie—the dream of playing on a world champion. It’s the dream of every pro athlete. When I have done that, maybe then I’ll think about retiring.”

Even the changes in the game haven’t eroded John’s effervescent attitude or his belief that he still belongs. You still have to run, jump, and put the ball in the hoop. 

“The biggest change is in the agility and size of the big men. People like Chamberlain, Russell, and Alcindor changed the game around. The old centers just weren’t as good. The forwards now are like the old centers used to be, 6-foot-8  and around 220 pounds. When I broke in everybody wanted lean, fast forwards. I think that those types are coming back into style. 

Another big change is the team defense everybody tries to play now. It’s like a shifting zone. As a result, the pros are looking more toward college coaches with that zone experience. Sure, the game is changing. But not enough that I feel behind the times.”

When Johnny Green was a first-round draft choice, he received $2,000 as a bonus. Rookies now are getting more than an entire team’s payroll used to be. He has seen a lot of players come and go. Almost a dozen of the men he played against have since become NBA coaches. Old friends, people like Elgin Baylor, or struggling against retirement or injuries. Green will be 38 years old in December. He is the oldest player in the NBA. But the deadly shooting eye remains, as does the spring in his legs. Johnny Green still has the vinegar. 

“George Blanda may feel he represents the senior citizens,” Johnny added. “I’m having enough trouble representing myself. Am I the George Blanda of basketball? Heck, no! I’m not old enough!”

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