YouTube came along 40 years too late for Gus Johnson.
So instead of highlight videos there are merely highlight orals – stories of his improbable basketball feats passed down by word of mouth, shaded by fading memory, possibly embellished, impossibly baroque even if 100 percent true.
Likewise, the phone call from the Basketball Hall of Fame came 23 years too late.
But a few scant weeks before he died from inoperable brain cancer in 1987, he and his friend, Charles Ezrine, made a pilgrimage back to Baltimore where Johnson had starred for nine of his 10 NBA seasons after his one-year cameo at the University of Idaho. There he was a guest on a radio talk show, and the subject of Springfield and possible enshrinement came up.
“I know I’m going to be there,” Johnson said, his conviction as strong as his mere presence was miraculous. “It’s just a matter of time before they take me.”
The time came Monday. The headlines belonged to Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone and the U.S. Olympic Teams of 1960 and 1992, but there was also justice for Johnson, whose worthiness had been overlooked for so long that his election by the hall’s Veterans Committee may restore some faith in this opaque institution.
They can still get it right, sooner or later.
No, Gus Johnson’s mathematical bona fides as a Hall of Famer are not necessarily clear cut. His pro career was relatively short, having started late anyway and then ending early because of chronically bad knees in the days before good-as-new surgery. He was a 17-point, 13-rebound guy and a five-time All-Star, but even those achievements can be seen as modest by Springfield standards.
But here’s the thing, as we’ve noted before: it ain’t the Hall of Stats.
Johnson was, among his contemporaries, legendary. At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, he was a 2010 physical specimen in a 1960s game, an extraordinary leaper – “doing the things Dr. J became famous for,” said Ezrine, a Bullets season ticket holder who sold him a set of tires and became a lifelong friend. But he was also an unforgiving defender who would guard Oscar Robertson one night and Wilt Chamberlain the next, and whose wars in the paint with Dave DeBusschere of the New York Knicks may have lacked the glamour of Chamberlain-vs.-Russell but were every bit as ferocious.
“If he played today, ol’ Gussie would be a human highlight film,” veteran NBA and ABA coach Bob “Slick” Leonard once told Jim Henneman of the Baltimore PressBox. “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.”
And before he showed it up there, he showed it up here.
Let’s hope someone at the Corner Club had the presence of mind to toast Gus Johnson on Monday.
That’s where the last physical evidence of Gus Johnson’s magical year in Moscow remained, until the highway outside the front door had to be widened almost two decades ago and bulldozed that part of the tavern. That’s where Johnson, from a standing start, touched a spot 11 feet, 6 inches above the floor, promptly marked by a nail. From there the dare was on: anyone who could duplicate the feat could drink for free.
Not until 23 years had passed did it happen. That’s when the basketball staff at the College of Southern Idaho – en route to a game in Coeur d’Alene – had the bus pull over and brought in Joey Johnson, who moonlighted as a 7-5 high jumper. He bent the nail, it was reset an inch higher and the bus rolled on.
In a stroke of remarkable symmetry, Joey Johnson’s late brother Dennis was another posthumous selection to the Hall of Fame on Monday.
But that was almost the least of the Gus legends at Idaho. Teammate Chuck White, the Vandals’ leading scorer that season of 1963 “because Gus passed me the ball so much,” remembers taking the first shot of the year and seeing it carom high off the back rim.
“Gus followed it down from the high post, caught it at what seemed like a foot or so above the rim and halfway to the free throw line and dunked it back through – elbow deep,” he said. “He just did things people had not seen.”
Of course, there was the shot by a Gonzaga player he pinned against the glass with one hand, palmed and threw 75 feet to teammate Bill Mattis – before his own feet touched the floor. There was the other outlet pass when Washington State’s Charlie Sells met him in mid-air, so Johnson whipped a behind-the-back pass to White in stride for a layup.
And sometimes the plays weren’t so spectacular.
“Hank Anderson at Gonzaga came into our place,” recalled another teammate, Fred Crowell, “and went to the end of the bench and got the burliest, toughest guys he had and tried to muscle Gus and get him into foul trouble. Now, Gus was polite. He told them, ‘Don’t do that no more.’ And about the third time, on a rebound, Gus brought an elbow down on one guy’s head. And that ended his night.”
But Gus Johnson mostly preferred the flamboyant to the flinty. He did, after all, have that $200 gold star implanted in one incisor – he removed it late in his career – and loved a flashy car, like the purple Bonneville convertible he once owned. Crowell had a 1954 Buick – yellow, with a white top – that he babied, but couldn’t help but laugh when Johnson asked for the keys and began tooling around campus.
“Just a big, wild puppy,” is how White remembered him.
Only one question remains:
When the plaque goes up in Springfield, will they hang it on Gus’ Nail?
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