Ollie Johnson: For Ollie Does, 1975

[When researching my basketball books, I always rely heavily on old newspapers. My hours upon hours of scrolling through the past has allowed me to connect with some powerful, funny, terse, grumpy, and sometimes ecstatic journalistic voices of yore. One of my favorite 1970s voices belongs to the Kansas City Star’s immortal (at least, for me) Dick Mackey, who passed away more than 40 years ago.

In this clip, the blunt, often wry, Mackey briefly profiles the then-Kansas City Kings’ fifth-year small forward Ollie Johnson. The article is Mackey in fine form, but it also brings into focus Johnson’s truly unique NBA career. Johnson didn’t start playing organized basketball until age 19! Intrigued? Well, Mackey’s profile, which ran in the KC Star on September 26, 1975, is definitely worth another look. So, here you go.]


If you want a line on Ollie Johnson as a player, check with John Havlicek or Don Nelson of the Boston Celtics, both of whom will tell you they always have liked him because, “he’s so fundamental.”

If you want a line on Ollie Johnson as a person, then there was the Temple University secretary who was heard to say recently, “Every girl should be lucky and marry an Ollie Johnson.”

But if you’re looking for a quick one-liner on Ollie Johnson from Ollie Johnson, well, forget it because what the Kings’ 6-feet-6 forward has to say about Ollie, basketball, and life in general are as low key as he is. Once you accept that, you can dwell on what Ollie has to say, which is considerable. 


Sketch of Ollie Johnson

This is supposed to be a big year for Ollie, whose attitude and sound sense of basketball fits so well into [Kings’ coach] Phil Johnson’s concept of how the game should be played. Only in Ollie’s mind, it really is no different a year than any year he has stepped on a court.

His goals are no different, which is to say, he has none. And his attitude remains the same, which is to say, Ollie is always Ollie. 

This is supposed to be a big year for Ollie, whose attitude and sound sense of basketball fits so well into [Kings’ coach] Phil Johnson’s concept of how the game should be played. Only in Ollie’s mind, it really is no different a year than any year he has stepped on a court.

“I don’t have goals,” he was saying the other day during a break in training camp at Rockhurst College. “I don’t set goals like making the All-Star team . . . I don’t think I’ll ever make it. And I don’t set goals in relationship to points . . . that’s not me.

“I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got. I think that’s all a coach asks. Start or a sub? I don’t care. I didn’t come with that idea—to do one or the other. I just want to play.”

In many respects, Ollie Is an enigma. He is a product of the Philadelphia playgrounds, yet he is not a product of playground basketball. In fact, he didn’t take up the game until he was 19, which is like trying to catch a plane 10 years after it took off.

Then, too, he talks in terms of defense, which is a no-no on the playgrounds. And when it comes to offense, the run-shoot philosophy of the asphalt never has interested him.

“I play better under a controlled situation,” says Ollie. “I got into basketball late. I never played in high school. Just wasn’t interested, I guess. I first went to Philadelphia Community College. I was just out there playing in the schoolyard and decided to go out for the team. I wasn’t recruited.”

But the next year, he was. By Temple. Three years later, he was Portland’s second-round choice in the college draft.

When it comes to playing, Ollie can be easily overlooked by the fans. But he never has been overlooked by those who know the game—Butch van Breda Kolff the New Orleans Jazz notwithstanding. It was Butch, much to the delight of Johnson, who last February traded Ollie and Rick Adelman to the Kings for Nate Williams.

Ollie almost immediately fell into Johnson’s system, which is what Johnson always knew and Ollie soon discovered. “It took me a little while to get used to,” said Ollie, “but I like it. That’s the way I learned basketball. Tiny (Archibald) was born to play the game. But I was always taught these things. 

“When I work with kids, I tell them not to get discouraged they can’t crossover dribble or throw the ball behind their backs. If you’re not a great dribbler, you can go to other things (to beat the defense). You can accomplish the same thing by passing and cutting.

“When I first went to Portland, they had a system I could play with. But New Orleans, they just run and shoot . . . no defensive emphasis.”

All of which is what John Havlicek and Don Nelson were saying in the first place . . . and what Phil Johnson said to himself while awaiting the day he could get him.

But as for the advice from the secretary back at Temple University, forget it. Ollie no longer is a free agent in that respect. Over the summer, the former Jeanette Butler took the advice to heart and, luckily, became Mrs. Ollie Johnson.

[Just how good of a defender was Ollie Johnson? Let’s conclude with this Ode to Ollie from our guy Dick Mackey. This truncated version of his story ran in the Kansas City Star on November 29, 1976. No need for any further intro.]

The Ollie Johnson Board of Medical Examiners revoked Dr. J’s license to operate last night, which is to say the Kings shut down the legendary Julius Erving and his Philadelphia Associates, 101-89, before 15,543 fans at Kemper Arena. 

The Doctor also had a night off at the turnstiles. While this did mark the second-highest attendance in the 29-year history of the franchise, it represented the first time in 10 road games the 76ers have not sold out the house. 

To say that Ollie provided the sole prescription to the Kings’ fourth triumph in their last five games would be going a bit too far. After all, the awesome 76ers have the ability to dissect an opponent in more ways than the Journal of the American Medical Association has ever reported. 

Still, it was Ollie who hopped off the bench with 7 minutes, 31 seconds to play in the second quarter and stripped “The Doctah” of his bag of tricks.

Until that point, the operation Dr. J was performing on the Kings was everything and more than had been advertised. Before Ollie’s appearance, Erving hit eight of his 10 field goals (five of them stuffers), brought down three of his four rebounds, picked up one of his three assists, and pulled off all five of his steals for 16 of his 20 points.

Mike Barr provided a 37-35 advantage for the Kings just before Ollie replaced Scott Wedman. With Ollie providing six of the next 14 points, Kansas City moved out to an eight-point lead at the half and stretched it to 12 heading into the final 12 minutes.

From then on, it was simply a matter of preventing a relapse. With Brian Taylor, Rich Washington, Jim Eakins, and Ron Boone providing the offense, Kansas City stretched the lead to 16, then stemmed any last-minute letdown when Boone scored on a tip-in with 1:10 remaining after Philadelphia cut the gap to 10 at 95-85.

When it was over . . . Ollie Johnson took a modest bow, then talked about the help he got in handling Dr. J. “I was just trying to funnel him into Sam (Lacey), where the crowd was,” Ollie explained. “You need a lot of help when you play a guy like the Doc.

“All you can do is play him. I just tried to take one thing away from him—that first step. He’s playing a lot of minutes. There aren’t many guys in the league who can play 48 minutes.”

In his post-operative interview, The Doctor said he might have been guilty of malpractice. “Last year, I was really shooting a lot better from outside,” he said.

Asked about the minutes played and the defensive job slapped on him, Erving pleaded guilty on all counts. “They were shuffling guys in and out on me,” he said. And yes—“This is a tough grind.”

The operation performed by Dr. J and Associates had its moments. But, alas, the patient died.

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