Take all the things that make up an NBA superstar—talent, tenacity, intelligence, imagination and style—and put them together. What's the result? Michael Jordan. And what happens if you take away good health? You get Gus Johnson.

To those who saw Gus and Jordan in their primes, bum knees were all that separated these two stars. With apologies to Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving, the man known as "Honeycomb" for the sweetness of his game was MJ before MJ—the prototype of the modern American basketball superstar. A generation before Jordan, Gus was the man who believed he could fly.

Gus Johnson Jr. was born on December 13, 1938 in Akron, Ohio. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) He had one brother and four sisters. Central Akron in the postwar years was not a pleasant place to live. The Johnsons resided in an urban slum where crime and hopelessness were constant companions to kids of Gus’s generation.

Fortunately, Gus was unlike most kids. He had a big ego, a belief in his own invincibility, and a sense of good and bad and right and wrong. And everything he tried, he did with a flourish that made him hard to ignore and impossible not to like.

Gus also stood out thanks to a leading-edge sense of style. He was a sharp dresser with a cool, confident swagger. By age 17, he had a gold earring and a Fu Manchu beard.

Gus’s dream was to join the Harlem Globetrotters. At the time, they were the highest-paying outfit a black player could find. The NBA was still struggling—and still unwelcoming to African-American players. To hone his skills, Gus would practice no-look and behind-the-back passes for hours, hitting spots he’d chalked out on a wall. He was accurate from 25 feet away. On his first basketball card, Gus asked that he be pictured throwing one of his patented passes.

Much of the order in Gus's life came from sports. He was the star linebacker for Akron Central-Hower High School until he fractured his knee cap. The guys called him “Bloody Gus.”

Gus, however, was truly in his element on the basketball court. Long before LeBron James was born, the Akron playgrounds were a hoops hotbed. Besides Gus, future NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond patrolled the blacktops in northeast Ohio. Thurmond would end up playing beside Gus for Akron Central-Hower’s powerhouse basketball squad.


Gus Johnson
     
 

During their time together, Thurmond considered Gus the superior player. Gus did things in the air that no other high school player could. Classmates are quick to point out that Gus—not Nate—was the center Akron Central-Hower, even though Thurmond stood 6–8. Gus was listed at 6–6, but he was probably just a shade under 6–5. Had Gus been a couple of inches taller, Thurmond once said, he would have been the greatest player in the NBA.

Gus had honed other skills as well. He was an accomplished pool hustler, and a familiar face to most of the bartenders in Akron. He never got into any serious trouble, but he relished living on the edge. In later years, he credited reading the Bible with helping him learn the lines he could not cross.

Who was Gus's favorite Biblical character? Samson, which wasn't the least bit surprising for a young man possessing such boundless talent and an immense ego. Gus was a hard dude to pin down. He might be strutting his stuff in the seedier establishments of Akron on Saturday night only to be teaching Sunday School the next morning.

Gus earned All-Ohio honors for his work on the basketball court. Each the spring after basketball season was over, he competed for the track team. He ran the 440, participated in the high jump, and was the team’s star shot-putter. It was this combination of strength, speed and hops that made him a game-changing player on the hardwood.

Gus’s study habits nearly derailed his high school sports career. Classwork, to put it mildly, was an intrusion into his favored activities. It took the full-time effort of Akron Central-Hower hoops coach Joe Siegferth to keep Gus eligible. Whenever Gus’s teachers expressed concern about absences or poor performance, Siegferth was all over his star, threatening to boot him off the team. Gus appreciated everything that Siegferth did for him. In fact, he called him his second father.

Nate Thurmond,
Black Book Partners archives
     
 

After high school, Gus and Thurmond followed different paths. Thurmond went off to Bowling Green on a scholarship. Gus received scholarship offers too, but he wasn’t too keen on leaving what he knew for what he didn’t. He would have been happy to stay in Akron and shoot pool and play ball with his buddies until the Globetrotters called. It also annoyed him that one of his chief rivals—and fellow all-state star—Jerry Lucas was grabbing all the headlines for settling on Ohio State. Gus felt he was the better player.

With pressure from his parents, and from coach Siegferth, Gus finally relented and accepted a basketball scholarship from Akron University. It seemed like a fair compromise. But Gus found himself unprepared for college life. He dropped out before his first varsity season even started.

Gus worked for Cuyahoga County and played on an AAU team until 1961. As he put it, “I didn’t like work, and work didn’t like me.” He returned to the poolrooms, thinking he might eke out a living as a shark.

One of the few players who could give Gus a game was a man named George Swyers. He thought Gus was nuts for passing up an opportunity to play college basketball. If Gus didn’t want the free education, then at least he should use the NCAA as a showcase for his skills so he could play in the NBA.

Swyers had a friend named Joe Cipriano. He was the coach at Idaho University. Hired to revive the school’s lackluster hoops program, Cipriano vowed to leave no stone unturned in his quest for talent. He convinced Gus to give college ball another try.

Cipriano arranged for Gus to enroll at Boise Junior College, where he could get his schoolwork in order and put his hardcourt skills on display. Then he would join Cipriano’s team in Moscow, Idaho for the 1962–63 season. Gus was hesitant about traveling so far from home. There was a lot of Akron in him, and he wasn’t sure how this would play out West. He also knew that he was unlikely to encounter anything like an African-American community there.

Boise coach George Blankly anticipated this problem and tried to talk Gus through his apprehension. Blankly knew that Gus had been dating Janet Connelly since they were in high school. He asked Gus why he hadn’t proposed. Gus didn’t have an answer. A few months later, newlyweds Gus and Janet Johnson made their way to Idaho. They would have four daughters during their marriage.

Gus and Janet lived in a campus apartment. They had been in Idaho few weeks and had yet to see anything other than white faces. One day, Gus was driving down the street and saw a black man walking along the sidewalk. He slammed on his brakes, leaped out of the car and began shaking the man’s hand. It turned out there was a small African-American community on the other side of town.

Meanwhile, Blankly was realizing that in Gus he had an entirely new kind of basketball player on his hands. The first day they met, the coach handed Gus the ball 25 feet from the basket and asked him to shoot. With which hand?, Gus asked. Blankly said left, and Gus swished the shot. Blankly asked him to shoot a hook—righthanded. Gus swished the shot. In no time, word spread throughout Boise that “Gus the Great” had come to town. He had never experienced such an outpouring of support.

Gus played a year for Blankly, got his grades up, and then transferred to the University of Idaho. Moscow’s slogan was “Safest Town in the West.” Gus changed that during the 1962–63 season. After regaining his academic eligibility, he made the Vandals’ homecourt a death trap for visiting teams.

Gus was now 23, and any youthful gangliness had long left his sculpted body. He was a rock-solid 6–5 forward who tipped the scales at around 220 pounds. He would pack another 15 to 20 pounds on his frame as a pro.

As a college player, Gus was a revelation. He played a game that was unfamiliar to teammates and opponents. He would launch himself into the air again and again, hang there, and then occupy for a second or two a space that went unshared with anyone else on the court. During those fleeting moments, he felt utterly liberated. Years later he explained his love of leaping as an “urge to escape.” He liked being where the big men “can’t bother me.”

On offense, Gus would change shooting positions, switch hands, yo-yo the basketball with one of his massive paws or, when the chance presented itself, slam the ball into the basket with extreme ferocity. On defense, or while rebounding, it sometimes looked as if Gus were contemplating how to block a shot, or what to do with a loose ball after he grabbed it. Time and again, he would fire long and accurate outlet passes before his feet touched the ground.

Stories abound about Gus’s behind-the-back passes. The first came in a game against Gonzaga. After grabbing a defensive rebound, he started dribbling down the left sideline looking for a cutting teammate. He spotted Chuck White about 50 feet away and jumped to lead him with a long baseball pass. Gus’s defender read the play and rose with him. In midair, Gus pulled the ball down from behind his head and fired a perfect left-handed behind-the-back pass to White for a layup. Decades later, assistant coach Wayne Anderson said it was the greatest play he’d ever seen on a basketball court.

As good as Gus was in midair, he was perhaps even better with his feet on the ground. From the asphalt of Akron and his years playing with and against Thurmond, he had learned one thing. Do not, under any circumstances, give ground on defense. Gus was quick enough and strong enough and smart enough to move into a driving lane a step before his opponent. He used his strong hands to keep shooters at bay.

Encountering an immovable object in Gus, a dribbler had only two choices—pass to a teammate or alter the angle of his drive. The latter was the sucker’s bet, for a player rising off the floor at anything less than an optimal angle would invariably find Gus in mid air, a good foot or two above him, waiting to devour the shot. After a while, enemy dribblers simply stopped trying to drive on him. Remarkably, when Gus made the jump to the NBA, the pros came to the same conclusion. Beating Gus to the basket was next to impossible.

Gus played just one year of Division-I ball. During that time, he lit up Memorial Gym night after night and earned his nickname Honeycomb, which was bestowed on him by Cipriani. The gym was packed for every game, with fans literally hanging from the rafters to watch Gus play.

Jerry Lucas, 1961 Sports Illustrated
     
 

Gus was the de facto center for the Vandals. He led the club in scoring with 19 points a game and rebounding with 20.3 boards. He set a school record with 31 rebounds in a game. Idaho finished the 1962-63 season with a record of 20–6. All season long, Gus battled Paul Silas of Creighton for the NCAA rebounding title. Silas edged him with a 20.6 mark.

Of course, numbers didn’t do Gus justice. He did things with a basketball that no one else in college basketball even tried. Because there was rarely a defender in his face, he was free to experiment. Gus tried floaters, scoops, deadly 10-foot hooks, sidearm bank shots and windmill dunks. He delighted in spinning shots off the backboard from odd angles. On his rebounds and dunks, it often seemed he was at eye-level with the rim.

On his drives, Gus could start far from the basket and stay elevated while defenders were on their way back down to the floor. He once dunked the ball with his right hand, caught it with his left, and then handed it to a dumfounded referee as he landed. Sports Illustrated ran a feature on the Vandals in 1963. The writer, Tom Brody, eschewed the labels being placed on Gus (another Russell, another Baylor) and put him neatly into context: “The fact is Gus Johnson is none of these. He is a unique basketball player.”

As for Gus’s legacy at Idaho, that can be summed up in two words: The Nail. In 1963, he was hanging out with fellow students at the Corner Club. The conversation turned to his jumping ability. Just how high can you jump?, Gus was asked. He didn’t have an answer. He had never thought to measure his vertical leap. Gus was game right there and then. Flatfooted, in his street clothes, he exploded into the air and slapped a ceiling beam at a spot subsequently measured at 11’ 6”. Owner Herm Goetz hammered a nail into the beam at the spot and made it known that anyone who could repeat Gus’s feat would drink for free.

Over the years, countless Vandals, as well as visiting players, tried and failed to reach that nail. Among those who came up short was seven-footer Bill Walton. Finally, in 1986, Joey Johnson (younger brother of Dennis Johnson) reached the nail. Johnson was a legendary leaper who could touch his chin to a regulation rim. Corner Club denizens were quick to point out that the nail was merely a “starting point.” Gus once plucked a coin off the top of an NBA backboard, some 13 feet off the floor.

By NCAA standards, Gus was a sophomore during his one year at Idaho. However, since his class had graduated, he was eligible for the NBA draft. Despite the fact that Gus broke almost every one of Cirpriano’s training rules, the coach was sad to see him go. And Gus was a little sad to leave, too. He had been thoroughly embraced by the town of Moscow, encountering little overt prejudice in his time there. When he returned to Akron over the summer, he felt oddly out of place. He had changed.

There wasn’t much science to the NBA draft back in the early 1960s, so it was hard to say when Gus would be picked. Not many NBA teams scouted in Idaho. If Gus's name had not appeared among the NCAA rebounding leaders, it is doubtful he would have landed on anyone’s radar.

Paul Silas, Sonics photo
     
 

Prior to the draft, Bobby “Slick” Leonard called Cipriano to ask about Gus. Leonard was coach of the Bullets, who had moved to Baltimore after two unsuccessful seasons in Chicago (as the Stags and Zephyrs). Leonard and Cipriano knew each other from their days as college stars—Leonard for Indiana and Cipriano from Seattle. They had played against each other in the Final Four and remained friendly.

Leonard asked Cipriano if Gus could play. Cipriano’s response, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” He guaranteed Leonard that Gus would be a star in the NBA.

The talent crop in the 1963 draft wasn’t particularly impressive, with Gus’s old teammate Thurmond the only obvious impact player available. The Bullets already had a center, Walt Bellamy, so they chose guard Rod Thorn with their first pick. They used their next pick—11th overall—to get Gus. Many scouts believe this was the greatest second-round pick in NBA history.

Some of the names called before Gus’s included Tom Thacker of Cincinnati, Art Heyman of Duke and Eddie Miles of Seattle. The Los Angeles Lakers, picking eighth, considered Gus but went instead with Roger “The Rifle” Strickland. Jerry West later observed that the team blew two or three championships with that blunder.

Leonard knew he had a find right from the get-go. He gave Gus all the playing time he could handle, and the rookie ate it up. Baltimore’s top scorers were Bellamy and Terry Dischinger, but Gus was right there at 17.3 points per game. He was also a monster on the boards, gathering in 13.6 rebounds per game. Gus made $15,000 as an NBA rookie. Owner Abe Pollin would double that salary within a few years.

The Bellamy-Dischinger-Johnson triumverate gave the Bullets a chance to win every night. Unfortunately, the backcourt of Thorn, Gene Shue and Sihugo Green wasn’t nearly as productive. The Bullets improved from 25 to 31 wins, which was enough to crawl out of the Western Division cellar, but not enough to make the playoffs.

Gus was all anyone could talk about in Baltimore. Soon his prowess began to draw raves from other cities around the NBA.  Gus’s strength was compared to Wilt Chamberlain’s, his leaping ability to Elgin Baylor’s. Like Baylor, Gus had an explosive takeoff that enabled him to hang in the air long enough to position his body for layups and dunks. Plus he could leave the floor 15 feet from the basket and remain high enough to glide past defenders until he reached the rim. Not even Baylor could do that.

The legend of Gus Johnson began in a game against the Royals. He was dribbling down the court, eyeing an opening in the lane. As he began to accelerate, a Cincinnati defender moved in front of the basket. Gus suddenly picked up his dribble and left the floor in the vicinity of the free throw line. Jay Arnette, sitting on the Royals’ bench, nudged teammate Bud Olsen, and both started laughing, thinking Johnson was now stuck in the air with nowhere to go.

“We’re still snickering when Johnson, still in the air, dunks the ball,” Arnette remembers. “None of us on the bench could believe what we’d seen.”

Bobby Leonard, 1985 Star
     
 

Another convert on the Royals was Oscar Robertson. Over the years, Gus was assigned to guard the Big O, and no one in the NBA did a better job. Robertson thrived on backing defenders into places that would maximize his shooting and passing options. Gus simply refused to let him reach those spots. Like Gus, Robertson was an expert at using his strong hands when guarding his opponents. Their battles produced a lot of bruises.

It wasn’t just the Royals who watched Gus in disbelief his first NBA season. Butch Komives of the Knicks had a similar memory from 1963–64. He had played with Thurmond at Bowling Green, and all Thurmond could talk about was how good this guy Gus Johnson was. Komives finally got a chance to see for himself when Baltimore and New York met for the first time. Nate hadn’t been lying.

“I watched him soar over Willis Reed and Bad News Barnes,” says Komives. “I couldn’t believe it, but he kept doing it.”

Reed, it is worth noting, was no shrinking violet. Even on those bad New York teams of the early 1960s, he was one of the league’s foremost enforcers. It would eventually take a combination of Reed and Dave DeBusschere for the Knicks to contain Gus.

Gus amazed fans throughout his rookie year. In a game played in Baltimore, Dischinger missed a jump shot, but Gus was trailing the play. When he saw the rebound would be long, he took off from the foul line, grabbed the ball behind his head with his right arm cocked, and tomahawked it into the basket. The play was so fast and so brutal that referee Richie Powers claims that all he saw was the ball ripping through the cords as Gus flew past the baseline. For years, every basketball fan in Baltimore claimed to have been in the arena that day.

In a game against the Warriors, Gus received a great pass near the basket for what should have been an uncontested dunk. San Francisco guard Guy Rodgers felt an intentional foul was called for, so he blocked Gus’s shoulders with his outstretched arms. Gus jumped, Rodgers hung on, and the weight of both men destroyed the rim as Gus dunked the ball with a 200-pound player riding on his back.

At season’s end, Gus joined Thorn, Thurmond, Heyman and Jerry Lucas on the All-Rookie team. Gus finished second to his old high-school nemesis in the Rookie of the Year voting. Lucas had been drafted the previous season, but because his college class had not graduated, he was ineligible to play in the NBA. Over the years, Gus would use Lucas as a personal inspiration. Although Lucas had been one of the greatest players in college hoops history, Gus believed he was better. It irked Gus that Lucas “took his spot” on the First Team All-NBA roster more than once during their careers.

Lucas was one of the players whose photos Gus requested the team provide him with during his rookie year. He asked the Bullets to give him headshots of the players he would be guarding so he could psyche himself up for their battles. At first, this was all he knew about them. Unfamiliar with their games, Gus was whistled for a lot of fouls in his first NBA season.

By his second year, Gus had become much more knowdlegeable about his opponents. Indeed, in an article published early in the 1964–65 campaign, he broke down the strengths and weaknesses of Baylor, Lucas and Bob Pettit, and then went out and dominated them.

Oscar Robertson, TCMA card
     
 

And so the legend continued to grow. That year, in a game against the Hawks in St. Louis, Bill Bridges tried to prevent Gus from dunking. In response, he slammed the ball down extra-hard—so hard that he tore the rim completely off the backboard—which shattered an instant later. The rim landed on Si Green’s foot, putting him out of the lineup.

The game was held up a half-hour while a new backboard was installed, and teammates picked shards of glass from Gus’s hair while calling him “Hercules.” Gus loved it. He would destroy one more basket before his playing days were over.

The Bullets finished third behind the Lakers and Hawks, sporting a significantly new look from Gus’s rookie year. The team packaged Dischinger, Thorn and Don Kojis and traded them to the Detroit Pistons for Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Wally Jones, Bob Ferry and Les Hunter. Although Ohl was a talented guard, the key to the deal was Howell, a classic power forward.

With Bellamy and Howell ruling the paint, Gus would now be free to work his magic wherever he wanted. Kevin Loughery, who came to the team as a rookie with Gus, got more involved and showed he could be a good playmaker and defender. The Bullets made the playoffs with a respectable 37 wins.

The Bullets were not taken very seriously in their first trip to the postseason. The veteran Hawks figured to dispose of them easily. But the front line of Bellamy, Howell and Johnson totaled more than 3,000 rebounds during the regular season and matched up well with Zelmo Beaty, Bob Pettit and Bridges. The Bullets won the first of two games to start the series in St. Louis, and then took care of business at home with 131–99 and 109–103 victories in Baltimore. Clutch defense and balanced scoring kept the Hawks on their heels all series. No Hawk averaged more than 20 points and Pettit, who had a sore knee, was completely neutralized under the boards.

Suddenly and quite improbably, the Bullets were within striking distance of the NBA Finals. All that stood between them and a shot at a championship were the Lakers, who had lost Elgin Baylor to a knee injury. Los Angeles had no intention of letting these precocious newcomers steal another series. The Lakers were a tough defensive club that still featured the scoring punch of Jerry West. Baylor’s replacement, Leroy Ellis, didn’t have his offensive moves, but he was a solid rebounder.

The Lakers showed their poise is two home victories, 121–115 and 118–115. The Bullets recovered to win Game 3 when the series shifted to Baltimore, but L.A. won a tight battle in Game 4, 114–112. The Bullets made things interesting with a Game 5 win back on the West Coast, but the Lakers wrapped up the series in Baltimore with a 117–115 win. Every game in the series had been close. Were the Bullets on the verge of a championship run?

Gus certainly seemed up to the task. He had increased his scoring to 18.6 points per game and averaged 13 rebounds a night in 1964–65. He played in his first NBA All-Star Game and made a mockery of the contest, scoring 25 points in 25 minutes. He attacked the rim again and again, and all the earthbound East team could do was foul him. He went to the line 13 times and also had eight rebounds.

Fans oohed and aahed at Gus’s ability to hold the ball in one hand, wave it around, and then flip it into the basket. Connie Hawkins was the first player to master this technique, but he had been banned from the NBA. Later, Julius Erving would make this his signature move. But for most fans, Gus was the first player they saw play the game this way. At season’s end, he was honored as Second-Team All-NBA.

Gus not only showed off his game in NBA arenas. In the summers, he worked as an instructor at a sports camp in Long Island. At first the children of wealthy families showed him little respect. Pro ball was not the high-status job it is today. By the end of each session, however, the kids would take a bullet for the Bullet. They adored him. Gus shared stories of the Akron slums, his comic book collection, and his passion for pushing his body to the limits—after all, how else can you really know who you are? Not surprisingly, basketball soon replaced baseball as the camp’s main sport.

Bill Bridges, 1969-70 Topps
     
 

The 1965–66 season was a worrisome one for Bullets fans. The team traded Bellamy to the Knicks for Johnny Green, Johnny Egan and Bad News Barnes. This created depth at forward, but no one wanted to see "Bells" in a New York uniform. Baltimore's center spot was filled by Barnes and veteran Johnny Kerr, who was acquired from the Philadealphia 76ers for Wally Jones. Ohl and Loughery handled backcourt duties. Obviously, Gus was now the star of the team.

A few weeks before the season started, Gus was playing at Kutsher’s in the Maurice Stokes charity game when he bent his left wrist at an odd angle during a midair collision. He didn’t think much of it until the second game of the season, when he collided with Lucas. Soon an alarming knot began rising from the joint. The injury was a dislocation, not a break. But the nerve had been damaged, robbing Gus of the flexibility he needed to shoot left-handed. He underwent three hours of surgery to realign tendons—a risky procedure then and now.

Doctors said the injury was bad—so bad, in fact, that there was a good chance the wrist would be permanently stiff when it came out of the cast. To Gus’s great relief, this didn’t prove to be the case. So, of course, he immediately went out and hurt the wrist again. He ended up back in a cast for two more months. Gus stayed in shape by running. He rejoined the team for the last few games of the season.

The Bullets had been playing decent ball in Gus’s absence. They were in a pitched battle with the Hawks for second place in the West and yearned to send a message to the division-leading Lakers, who beat them at will while Gus was gone. In a March 2 game against Los Angeles, Gus scored 28 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, dished out seven assists, and held Rudy LaRusso to two points in the first half. Baltimore trailed by a basket late in the game when Gus hit Ohl with a perfect pass for the tying layup. On the Bullets’ next possession, Gus was fouled and sank a pair of free throws for the lead. Then he intercepted a pass to put the game away.

Coach Paul Seymour estimated that Gus’s injury had cost the team eight to ten wins. Still, Baltimore posted 38 victories, which was good for second place in the West. As for Gus, he averaged 16.5 points and 13.3 rebounds in 42 games, and was named Second Team All-NBA—an amazing honor for a man who played less than half a season at full strength.

The downside was that Gus missed the playoffs with yet another injury. He logged a mere eight minutes and spent the rest of the time on the bench. The Bullets were swept by the Hawks in three games that were all very winnable. Baltimore fans rightly wondered how deep their team might have gone with Gus in uniform.

There were so many superlatives to describe Gus’s game that it was perhaps inevitable that some sportswriters would begin leveling criticism at him, too. Indeed, it soon became fashionable to describe him as “inconsistent” and “unfocused.” Gus admitted as much, saying that sometimes in midair he’d get bored and just try to think of fun shots. This led to a lot of misses on finger rolls, flips and 360s layups. As far as his game-to-game consistency, Gus took issue with the critics, as did his teammates. Although his point totals fluctuated depending on whether he was hot or not, he was good for 10 to 20 rebounds a game and rarely took a night (or even a play) off on defense.

The criticism intensified during the 1966–67 season. Baltimore was a team that seemed to rise and fall on Gus’s enthusiasm, or lack thereof. The Bullets looked to Gus for leadership. So when the team fell apart in his fourth year, he took some heat for letting it happen—despite the fact that he had one of his finest seasons as a pro.

The problems actually started when Howell was dealt to the Boston Celtics for Mel Counts, a center with great promise but little in the way of consistent production. Howell was replaced by newcomers Leroy Ellis and Ray Scott, with Ellis logging a lot of minutes in the pivot. Rookie Jack Marin also joined the club. He backed up Gus and also played some at guard. The loss of Howell, however, was tough.

That being said, Gus was pleased to have Scott on the team. Their battles dated back to his rookie season, when Scott was at the peak of his powers and Gus was a brash young thing. Scott continuously elbowed Gus during a game, and Gus gave it back to him even harder. Exasperated, Scott cursed Gus and called him “rook.” Gus informed him that he was 24, and no rookie. So back off.

Another unwelcome development in 1966–67 was an in jury to Ohl, whom the team had come to rely upon for 20 points a night. Gus was asked to pick up the scoring slack, which took him out of his game somewhat. He averaged a career-high 20.7 points, but team chemistry was thrown further out of whack.

Things were also complicated by a realignment that placed the Bullets in the powerful NBA Eastern Division with the likes of the Celtics and 76ers. During Baltimore's first year in the East, every team but the Hawks managed to beat them at least eight times. The Bullets won just 20 games.

The most electrifying sight on the Bullets during this sad season might have been Gus—off the court. His wardrobe was first-class from head to toe, including $85 shoes (he had a collection that grew to 75 pairs), and silk socks, pants and shirts. Gus’s outerwear often featured a full-length leather coat. He also introduced the one-piece jumpsuit to Baltimore fashion. Teammate Bob Ferry once quipped, “If you watched Gus dress after a game, you had to applaud.”

Gus’s Fu Manchu goatee was the first in the league—before Wilt and Russ adopted this style of facial hair. He was also the first player to drive a bright purple Cadillac. And perhaps the only one. However, Gus’s signature style point was the gold star embedded in an upper left tooth. The tooth had been shattered in a scrimmage by Bellamy a couple of years earlier.

Doubling as a fashion model was an idea Gus might have toyed with. The same wasn't true of overtures made by the Baltimore Colts. Head coach Don Shula believed Gus could out-Mackey John Mackey as a tight end, Meanwhile, a Baltimore fight promoter named Eli Hanover who thought Gus had the ability to take away Cassius Clay’s heavyweight crown.

Walt Bellamy, autographed photo
     
 

Gus’s fists of fury did go on display a couple of years later, during a wild brawl between Baltimore and Seattle. Gus began throwing punches at anyone who came near him, laying out several Sonics and a couple of their fans, who foolishly ventured onto the court. Gus needed a police escort to make it out of the building.

The silver lining inside the dark cloud of a 20-win campaign is the high draft choices that come with a low finish. After the 1966-67 season, the Bullets grabbed Earl Monroe with the second overall pick and Jimmy Jones in the second round. Jones opted to sign with the ABA, but "Earl the Pearl" had a sensational rookie year with the Bullets. He transformed the team into one of the most dangerous and exciting clubs in the NBA. Monroe and Loughery proved such a good combination that Baltimore shipped the now-recovered Ohl to the Hawks.

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s front line was one of the best in basketball, with Scott, Ellis, Marin and, of course, Gus. Despite missing 22 games with a broken finger, he averaged 19.1 points and 13.0 rebounds a game. The Bullets improved to 36 wins, although 12 of those victories came against the new expansion teams in San Diego and Seattle. Baltimore still finished last in the Eastern Conference.

Once again, Baltimore had the #2 pick in the draft. This time the Bullets chose Wes Unseld out of Louisville. He gave the club an even bigger boost than the one provided by Monroe. Unseld was an immovable object in the paint, a great rebounder, and a master at triggering the fast break. The Bullets meshed beautifully and fought for first place with the 76ers, Celtics and resurgent Knicks all year long.

Gus participated in his third All-Star Game that winter. He was sensational coming off the bench in a 123–112 victory by the East. He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 13 points in just 18 minutes. Gus was averaging 17.9 points and 11.6 rebounds when he injured his knee after 49 games and had to undegro season-ending surgery.

It was a credit to the Bullets and coach Gene Shue that they kept on winning. Marin stepped into the starting lineup and averaged 15.9 points per game. Baltimore finished with 57 victories and the best record in the NBA. In the playoffs, they faced Knicks, who brought a lot of talent and an equal amount of motion to the court.

Suddenly the Bullets missed Gus very badly. New York’s power forward, Dave DeBusschere, killed them. Ironically, he had been picked up from Detroit for Bellamy at midseason. DeBusschere moved inside and outside, accounting for 15 points and 15 rebounds almost every night. the Bullets simply had no one who could keep up with him, and they lost in the first round in four straight games.

Gus was back in action for the 1969–70 season. He still had his explosive power—and still played recklessly at times—but he was using his body more judiciously. Gus was maturing in ways that benefited both himself and the team.

The influx of young talent on the Bullets might have rattled other players is Gus’s position. After all, he had labored through the dark years in Baltimore, and now found he was becoming a second thought when sportswriters covered the team. Of course, he was hardly a second thought to Baltimore’s fans or his teammates. Gus was never about dropping 30 a game. Although he loved his dunks, he took far more pleasure in an in-you-face block, a power rebound, or a flashy pass. In this respect, Gus was more valuable to the Bullets than ever.

Earl Monroe, 1970 Topps
     
 

And it showed in 1969–70, as Gus focused on playmaking and defensive stops. Healthy and happy, he averaged 17.9 points and upped his rebound total to 13.9 a game. He had become the team’s power forward, with Marin taking over the other forward slot. Gus was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team and also made it back on the All-NBA Second Team.

The Bullets went 50-32 and finished third in the East behind the Knicks and Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks. New York was their nemesis. They won just one out of six games against the Nicksduring the regular season. When Baltimore faced New York in the first round of the playoffs, there was reason for concern.

Among NBA fans, by contrast, there was reason for celebration. No one could remember two teams with more compelling matchups. Unseld and Reed, Monroe and Walt Frazier, Marin and Bill Bradley, and of course Gus and DeBusschere, whose battles were quickly becoming the stuff of legend.

During the series, Gus was magnificent. On one play he found himself with an uncontested layup. He decided to take off from the foul line. The crowd at Baltimore's Civic Center held its breath as he floated toward the rim, with his right arm stretched as far it would go. He slammed it home to dead silence—and then an instant later a roaring ovation. The backboard was still shaking while the Knicks were running a play on the opposite end of the floor.

The two teams played a savage seven-game series. The fun started in Game 1, with a bruising double-overtime thriller. The Knicks won 120–117, and then captured Game 2. The Bullets took the next two games at home to even the series.

The teams then traded wins again to set up a Game 7 in New York. The Knicks prevailed 127–114 and went on to beat the Bucks and Lakers for their first championship. Afterwards, most experts agreed that New York’s greatest postseason feat was not their handling of Alcindor and Chamberlain, but surviving their war with the Bullets.

The 1970–71 season brought realignment to the NBA. The Eastern Conference was split into the Atlantic Division and the Central Division. Baltimore moved to the Central and won it with a 42–40 record. For Gus, whose aching knees were starting to tell him retirement might not be too far away, there was no rest for the weary. Scott and Ellis were gone, putting an even greater burden on Gus, as well as the other members of the starting five. Shue’s new bench players included John Tresvant, Eddie Miles and Mad Dog Carter.

Gus Johnson, 1970 Topps
     
 

Early in 1971, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the NBA’s best matchups. Gus and DeBusschere graced the cover is a photo that brilliantly captured their focus, tenacity and competitive spirit. DeBusschere often said that Gus was the roughest player he ever competed against. But he was always quick to add that Gus never played dirty.

Heading into the 1971-72 season, Gus needed to focus more than ever on rebounding to help the Bullets win. He responded with 17.1 boards per game, which ranked second to Chamberlain. He also averaged 18.2 points per game—amazing numbers for an injury-ravaged 32-year-old. Gus repeated as a Second Team All-NBA forward and made the All-Defensive team again. He also played in his fifth and final All-Star Game, scoring 12 points in 23 minutes.

In the playoffs, the Bullets prevailed in a seven-game opening-round tussle with the 76ers, a club that was about to be shredded by age, injuries and ABA defections. Next up were the Knicks, who had repeated as division champions with 52 victories. Regular-season wins and losses were meaningless, of course. The Knicks girded themselves for another epic battle, while the Bullets focused on avenging past postseason humiliations.

They would have to do so without Gus at full strength. His knees had all but given out by season’s end. Every time Gus landed or cut, he was jolted by a shock of excruciating pain. The Knicks took the first two games and then Game 5. Baltimore’s back was against the wal. Gus knew he had to suck it up and give the Bullets a boost. In Game 6, he torched DeBusschere for 14 points in the first half, punctuating the performance with a thunderous dunk. Baltimore went on to tie the series with a 113–96 victory.

In Game 7, Gus could barely limp around the court. The Bullets forged a 93–91 lead in the final moments. Gus was front and center at crunch time. When Bill Bradley’s potential game-tying shot missed, Gus made one last leap to pluck the ball out of the air and secure the victory. He and Loughery danced around the Madison Square Garden court in celebration. They had been on the team since Baltimore’s first season, and now they were going to the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately for the Bullets, the Bucks awaited them. Alcinder was now Kareem Abdul-Jabber and paired with Oscar Robertson, who had been waiting even longer than Gus for a shot at an NBA title. The Bullets had nothing left in the tank and were swept in four games. The highlight of the series for Baltimore was probably Gus’s third and final cracked backboard. It was too little, too late. When it was all said and done, Gus had managed to play in just 11 of 18 postseason games.

The 1971–72 season was a sad one for Gus and the Bullets. The team simply did not have the talent to return to the NBA Finals, and the year unfolded like a weird, sick dream. Monroe was traded to the Knicks and suddenly hated enemies Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth were teammates. Gus, meanwhile, missed more than half the team’s games with knee problems.

The Bullets went 38–44, but in the weak Central that was enough for a division title. It almost seemed cruel that the Bullets had to face the Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs. Baltimore made it an interesting series by winning the opener in New York, 108–105 in overtime. But the Bullets dropped four of the next five. Gus played sparingly in the series, scoring a grand total of 20 points.

That was it for Gus in Baltimore. He was traded rather unceremoniously to the Phoenix Suns for a second-round pick right after the playoffs. He was angry at being dumped by the team to which he had given so much. He knew the club was rebuilding, but would have preferred to leave Baltimore and its fans on better terms.

The 1972-73 Suns were not so different than the Bullets. They had talent but were aging in all the wrong places. Gus’s role would be to back up Connie Hawkins. Phoenix fans drooled at the thought of Hawkins and Johnson torturing opponents for 48 minutes, but it was not to be.  Hawkins’s knees were beginning too betray him and Gus was only a shadow of his former self. After 21 games, the Suns gave Gus his walking papers.

A decade earlier, this would have been a career death sentence, but with the ABA still chugging along—and always in the market for a big-name NBA retread. For Gus, there was still a possibility that a call would come. And it did.

Gus Johnson & Dave DeBusschere, 1971 Sports Illustrated
     
 

It came from Slick Leonard, Gus’s first NBA coach and now the coach in Indiana. The Pacers were a fun and focused team that could have held its own with any club in the NBA back then. Leonard explained that Gus would have a well-defined bench role that would maximize his remaining abilities and minimize the wear and tear on his sore knees. His main function would be to bring some veteran leadership and perspective to the young and talented Pacers. This he did, helping to guide the club at one point to a 10-game winning streak.

Gus appeared in 50 games for Indiana. He slid into a role that had previously belonged to Bob Netolicky—that of backup center. Mel Daniels was a monster in the middle and required little bench time for breathers. This setup had worked beautifully in 1971–72, when Indiana won the ABA championship.

Over the summer, however, Netolicky had been shipped to Dallas for shooting guard Donnie Freeman. The move was made to give young George McGinnis more playing time. That part of the plan worked beautifully—McGinnis became a superstar. But neither McGinnis nor forwards Darnell Hillman or Bill Newton could sub in for Daniels without opposing centers mercilessly taking them to the hole.

At 6–5, Gus wasn’t exactly a natural choice to solve this problem, but Leonard knew one thing about the sore-kneed forward—on defense he simply refused to back down. And in the undisciplined ABA, a dose of Gus Johnson discipline might just get the job done.

The Pacers went 51–33, and Gus did yeoman’s work in his new role. Averaging around 15 minutes a game at center and forward, he was good for six points and five rebounds per contest. That was all that Indiana needed. The Pacers were a team of stars that included Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, and Billy Keller, as well as a relentless rookie named Don Buse.

As the playoffs began, the Pacers figured to make it to the finals against either Larry Brown’s Carolina Cougars or the powerful Kentucky Colonels. First, of course, they had to play their way out of the ABA's Western Division. Indiana wiped out Ralph Simpson and the Denver Rockets in five gamesin the conference semifinals. This set up a showdown with the Utah Stars, who like the Pacers had a multitude of weapons. The lineup included Zelmo Beatty, Ron Boone, Willie Wise and Jimmy Jones, the player who had defected to the ABA after being drafted by Baltimore in 1967.

The Pacers managed a split in the first two games, which were played in Salt Lake City. The Stars returned the favor, taking Game 4 in Indianapolis, 104–103. With everyone expecting the series to go seven, the Pacers squeaked out a 104–102 road victory and then finished off Utah in Game 6 to advance to the finals. There they would encounter the Colonels, who had edged the Cougars in a seven-game set.

With the guard and forward positions matching up evenly, and both teams featuring strong benches, the key to the “I-65 Series” would be the matchup between the 6-9 Daniels and Kentucky’s towering Artis Gilmore.

Game 1, played in Louisville, went to the Pacers, 111–107. The Colonels evened the series and then went ahead with a 92–88 win in Indianapolis. The Pacers hammered out a 90–86 win in Game 4. Next they won Game 5 on the Colonels’ home floor, 89–86. The series moved back to Indiana for Game 6, but the Pacers could not control Gilmore. Kentucky breezed to a 109–93 victory.

As expected, Game 7—played in Louisville’s noisy Freedom Hall—was a war. Early in the second half, Daniels got into foul trouble. Leonard knew his next move would likely make or break the championship. He pulled Daniels out of the game and looked down the bench, hoping for an inspiration. Leonard's eyes met Gus’s, and he decided to play a hunch. He told the veteran to get in there.

Gus pulled off his warm-ups and jogged onto the floor. Eager for a chance to make a meaningful contribution, he refused to allow Gilmore to establish position close to the basket. Using his massive arms and lower center of gravity to foil the seven footer’s attempts to move inside, Gus completely disrupted the Kentucky offense. The Colonels managed only 11 points during the quarter, enabling the Pacers to build a double-digit lead.

Kentucky coach Joe Mullaney tinkered with his lineup and found a combination that worked. When Gilmore hit an outside shot over Gus, the Colonels seemed to regain the momentum. But Gus responded with a jumper from the baseline, and Brown followed with several big baskets. The Pacers hung on to win 88–81.

“I had just taken one of the biggest gambles of my coaching career,” Leonard recalls, “but I knew what kind of heart Gus had. I knew he could do it.”

Gus decided to go out on top. The championship that had eluded him for the better part of a decade was now his—and when it came, he had been on the court making a difference, not watching from the bench. All those knee surgeries and all those rehabs had been worth it.

When asked why he played through the excruciating pain of six operations, Gus observed, “You’re born in pain, you live in pain, you die in pain. Why not play in pain?”

Gus Johnson, Pacers photo
     
 

Gus did admit that he might have lasted longer had he been more judicious about when and where he launched his body into the air. Many times he landed hard or awkwardly, and every one of the serious injuries he suffered was a direct result of his leaving his feet. Of course, had he not played this way, he wouldn’t have been Gus Johnson.

After leaving basketball as a player, he took assistant coaching jobs with the Pacers and later the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gus also worked on the staff at Kent State. Many thought his ebullient nature would make him a good broadcaster, and he did some work on a handful of national NBA broadcasts and Cavaliers games, but it didn’t pan out.

In the 1980s, Gus returned to Akron and worked for the Blick Institute as a counselor for children with disabilities, and later as a recreation supervisor. In 1986, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Gus]s father and brother Perry found him wandering aimlessly outside his house in Akron, babbling about his keys and glasses. Their first reaction was that Gus was on drugs, but when they saw a lump in his neck, they knew to get him to a doctor right away. The blow seemed especially cruel, as Gus's mother was dying of cancer, too. When she passed, he was too weak to attend her funeral.

In December of 1986, the Bullets retired Gus's number 25. Owner Abe Pollin recalled the game in St. Louis when Gus shattered the backboard. He said Hawks owner Ben Kerner sent him a bill for the damage. “I tore it up!” he smiled. The crowd roared with delight.

Gus’s college number (43) was also retired in 1987. Boise Junior College had become Boise State University in the late 1960s, and was now a rival of the University of Idaho. During a game between the two schools, Boise State held a ceremony to honor Gus. He appeared in a gold sweathshirt with Boise State on the front. Just when Idaho fans thought they were getting the short shrift, he spun around to reveal Idaho on the back. Gus was a showman to the very end.

All doctors could do for Gus was make his final days more comfortable. As he began withering away, friends, family, former teammates and even his old rivals visited and called. It was hard for them to see his drawn expression and ravaged body. He died on April 29, 1987 at the age of 48 in Akron City Hospital.

For Gus, his last days served to open his eyes. He always liked to joke that sometimes he amazed himself. Well, as each old pro paid his respects, Gus realized that everyone in the NBA cherished the magic and the heart he brought to the court. He really was amazing, and his play opened the door for many of the better-known superstars who followed him.

“I’m just starting to realize who I am,” a tearful Gus admitted to his brother.

In the years after Gus’s passing, his friends and foes lobbied in vain to get him into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Finally, in 2010, the powers that be came to their senses and enshrined Gus in Springfield. More than one person observed that, had he not made it in as a player, Gus could have qualified as a pioneer. After all, in the formative years of above-the-rim basketball, Gus truly was “first in flight.”

 

Gus Johnson, 1969 Topps
 

 


© Copyright 2009 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.

The original material appearing on JockBio.com is protected by copyright. No part of this material may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, without permission of Black Book Partners, LLC. Please direct any inquiries regarding its use to jockbio@comcast.net.