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January 31, 2008: Berth In Hall For Ol' Gussie Long Overdue

Of all those pushing for the basketball Hall of Fame to take another look at Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson’s credentials -- and many are actively supporting the movement -- nobody has a better perspective, or more passionate feelings, than Bob Leonard.

Leonard was the first and last coach of Johnson’s colorful 10-year professional career, and he still gets excited talking about how it all began and even more passionate about how it ended with Johnson battling seemingly insurmountable odds to earn the ring he had always craved.

“Ol’ Gussie … man, I loved that guy,” Leonard said when asked to assess his early protégé’s Hall of Fame credentials. “When you put it all together, when you consider where he came from, what he had to go through, and what he did, hell yeah, I think he belongs [in the Hall of Fame]."

It may be hard for many to believe, but this marks the 35th year since Johnson last played. It also marks his latest, perhaps best and last chance for induction into the Hall of Fame. Seymour Smith, this area’s most astute basketball observer over the years, has again submitted Johnson’s name and Charlie Ezrine, the closest friend to Johnson and his family over the years, has worked hard to rally what he hopes will be enough support to make it work this time.

“Gus made the final list a few times, and I thought eventually he’d get in, but then he seemed to disappear as younger players became eligible,” said Smith, a former Baltimore Sun writer and editor who is hoping for a better experience with the Veterans Committee. Leonard, the guy who probably had more to do with the Bullets drafting Johnson than anybody, shares the feeling.

“To me, Gus Johnson is a great story of a little guy who became a star in the NBA,” Leonard said.

Leonard himself was a two-time All-American at Indiana, where he later became the American Basketball Association’s all-time winningest coach with a 387-270 record.

It was with the Pacers, in the last game he would ever play, that Johnson came through with a performance that Leonard says defined the one part of Johnson’s game that was too often overlooked. 

“It was the seventh game of the ABA finals against a good Kentucky team in Louisville’s Freedom Hall,” Leonard said, “and Mel Daniels, our big man, got in foul trouble. I really didn’t have anybody else to guard Artis Gilmore, and I looked down the bench at ol’ Gussie and he knew. I wish you could’ve seen it. Gus put his forearms on Gilmore’s back, and by the time he got the ball he was 12 to 15 feet away from the basket. He’d try to set up down low, but by the time he got the ball, he was too far out and couldn’t score.

“If it hadn’t been for ol’ Gussie, we wouldn’t have won. He was going for that ring. I’ve got a picture in my office of me smoking a cigar and Gus with the net around his neck. It was something special.”

“Something special” is how Leonard remembers Johnson from the first time he ever saw him. How the two hooked up was something special in itself.

“Joe Cipriano was a guard on the University of Washington team that went to the Final Four when we [Indiana] won it in 1954,” Leonard said. “And he was Gus’ coach at Idaho.”

After playing two years at Boise Junior College, Johnson played only one year at Idaho, but since he started college late, he was eligible for the NBA draft.

“There wasn’t any money available for scouting in those days,” said Leonard, at the time the player-coach of the Chicago Zephyrs team soon to become the Baltimore Bullets. “So, we relied on those statistic sheets put out by the NCAA. I saw that this guy, Gus Johnson from Idaho, was leading the country in rebounding, and I found out Joe was his coach, so I called him up."

“Hey Joe, can this guy play?” was Leonard’s only question. “He told me, ‘Bob, I’ll guarantee you he can play,’ and that was good enough for me.”

Sight unseen, Johnson, who averaged 19 points and 20 rebounds in his only year of major college basketball, became one of the best second-round picks in NBA history (the Bullets took West Virginia’s Rod Thorn with their first pick). 

“The first time I saw him, we had flown him into Chicago, and I took my son Bobby to the hotel to meet him -- and when he walked off the elevator I took one look at him and I’m telling you, I just knew he could play,” said Leonard. “There was just something about him, his presence, that you just knew he could be something special.”

The only year they were together in the NBA, the Bullets struggled to a 31-49 record and Leonard ultimately lost his job.

“We played a lot of teams tough, but we were so young,” Leonard said. “Walt Bellamy was in his third year, Terry Dischinger and Kevin Loughery were both in their second year, and Gus and Rod were rookies -- seven years of experience total among those five.”

Johnson, however, quickly earned his stripes. Cincinnati’s Jerry Lucas won Rookie of the Year honors, and as a younger high school player in their native Ohio had garnered more attention than Johnson before ultimately starting a Hall of Fame career at Ohio State. The matchup wasn’t as legendary as the battles Johnson had with Dave DeBusschere and the Knicks, but Johnson always found some extra energy for his duels with Lucas.

“I remember he had a thing for Lucas right from the start. ‘Let me have him,’ he’d say, and I really don’t think Jerry wanted any part of Gus,” Leonard said. “I never got to see any of those battles he had with DeBusschere, but you heard about them … everybody knew … and I can imagine what they were like because I remember how Gus was with Lucas.”

After that first year, the careers of Leonard and Johnson went in different directions. Leonard would emerge with the upstart ABA, where he earned recognition as the coach of that league’s all-time All-Star team and eventually worked his way back into the NBA, first as coach and later as analyst on the Pacers’ broadcast team, a role he still fills.

Gus went on to play in three All-Star games, twice was named to the NBA’s second All-Star team, made the All-Defensive team the first two years the league honored that element of the game, and once made it to the NBA Finals with the Bullets, who were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971.

By almost any account, although marred by injuries, it was a spectacular career, “something special.”

Leonard won three ABA titles with the Pacers, none more satisfying than the last one in 1973, when his former protégé played such a significant role.

“I used to pay attention to the waiver lists, looking for a veteran who might help for a year, much like Red Auerbach did with the Celtics for a lot of years,” Leonard said.

When Johnson was released by the Phoenix Suns, who had traded a draft choice for him after the 1971-72 season, Leonard quickly arranged a reunion. “I had a great relationship with ol’ Gussie. … He was a veteran, the guys all liked him. … He was just good for our team, coming off the bench for 10 or 12 minutes, giving us a little bit of everthing. He was great,” Leonard said.

That year, of course, was capped by Johnson's efforts in the seventh game of the final series, a game Leonard will never forget.

“His knees were shot by then, and I’m sure he knew deep down that this was it … this was going to be the last game he would ever play. He was digging … he wanted that ring.”

That Johnson would finally get his reward without some high-flying acrobatics might surprise those who only remember the spectacular performances of his early years. Only a few -- perhaps far too few -- realize what a great defensive player he was. At various points in his career, Johnson was called on to go one-on-one not just with the rugged forwards of his era, like DeBusschere and Lucas, but also the likes of Oscar Robertson, the premier ball-handling guard of his time, and Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the strongest man ever to play the game.

“If he played today, ol’ Gussie would be a human highlight film,” Leonard said. “That’s what people remember the most. But there was a lot more to his game than the spectacular dunks. He was special. He could play, man.”

Johnson did come up short twice -- his career, which started late and was missing glamorous college All-American credentials, was cut short by a pair of balky knees. Even more tragically, a brain tumor took his life at age 48.


“I talked to him about 10 days before he died,” Leonard said, “and he just said he was ready to go.”

Which, in so many words, was what Johnson said to Leonard that day so long ago, when everything was on the line -- and he turned back the clock, turned up the heat and tuned out his aching joints to reach out one more time to grab the ring.

Now his friends are hoping the Hall of Fame will turn back the clock and give “ol’ Gussie” the recognition they feel he deserves.

***

Jim Henneman can be reached at jimh@pressboxonline.com

Issue 3.5: January 31, 2008