Arrow-right Camera

Color Scheme

Subscribe now
Gonzaga Basketball

One of the oldest living Gonzaga players – Frank Johnson, 94, is still passionate about the Zags

Frank Johnson clutches a basketball with both hands, lowering his arms below his waist as he settles into a half-crouched stance. Wearing a zip-up navy Gonzaga pullover, Johnson, as if there were an imaginary line beneath his shoes and a basketball hoop in the distance, sets his feet and imitates an underhanded free throw from the living room of his Lincoln Heights residence.

Rick Barry is credited as a pioneer of the unorthodox free-throw shooting motion, made famous during a successful run with the Golden State Warriors in the 1960s and 1970s, but Johnson and his college teammates were refining the same technique decades earlier at Gonzaga.

“That’s the only way to do it,” Johnson, still an advocate for the underhanded style, said during an interview earlier this month. “… Because you could shoot the ball and it’s dead going up. Doesn’t spin.”

Johnson is approximately two months shy of his 95th birthday and one of the oldest living former Gonzaga basketball players. Roughly 77 years removed from his lone season with the Bulldogs, Johnson still resides in Spokane and frequents Gonzaga basketball games as a season ticketholder, normally occupying a seat about 10 rows up from the opposing bench at McCarthey Athletic Center.

Johnson is modest when describing his basketball career – “I only played one year, not very much and maybe not very well,” he said – but he still maintains a sharp memory, with the ability to recall certain anecdotes and stories from Gonzaga’s 1945-46 season, played on the heels of World War II.

A native of Oakland, California, Johnson still gets weekly doses of live college hoops between October and March, and finds stark contrasts between the way the game was played in his era and now, nearly 80 years later.

Free-throw preference may be just the tip of the iceberg.

“I can tell you this, the differences then and now are total,” Johnson said. “Today they would laugh at seeing movies of us.”

Flipping the palm of his hand over to imitate someone carrying a basketball mid-dribble, Johnson said, “Today, this business is everywhere. If we did that, the whistle would blow.”

Johnson played guard long before there were specific modifications for each position on the floor (shooting guard, small forward), let alone numerical designations (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), and he can’t recall dribbling a basketball through his legs or wrapping it behind his back.

Bob Cousy was largely responsible for those advancements a year or two later.

“We never even heard of that,” Johnson said, “and it would’ve been laughable to see us try it.”

In the wake of the war, apparel companies were still producing footwear tailored for soldiers, not athletes, and Gonzaga was still more than a half-century from a lucrative Nike sponsorship. Johnson and his teammates didn’t get to pick from a catalog of team-issued shoes, providing most of their own apparel and equipment.

“When we ran lines, as we did every night, at first we got bleeding between our toes and we had to treat it with iodine or something like that,” Johnson said. “But eventually, within a week or two, it toughened the material and we could handle it.”

Johnson’s Gonzaga team had one encounter with a prolific 6-foot-9 University of Idaho center named Jack Phoenix, who abandoned footwear altogether, unable to find the right shoe size.

“It was so close to World War II, the shoe companies had not converted to real big shoes,” Johnson said. “He played in stocking feet and you can be sure that a number of people, opponents – I won’t name any suspects – stood on his foot accidentally, of course.”

Gonzaga’s record book only includes results from when the Bulldogs began playing a Division I schedule in 1958-59. While Johnson may not be able to rattle off the team’s results with pinpoint accuracy, the final score of a road game against Montana is still etched into his memory: Grizzlies 102, Zags 38.

“Montana had a good team,” Johnson said, “and they poured it on.”

The top scorer in the game was a Gonzaga player named John Presley, who accounted for all but a few of the team’s points, according to Johnson’s recollection. Presley’s production in the game garnered attention from a New York Times columnist.

“Throughout the season, he was the high point man because he would get the ball, dribble to the left side of the key, and with his left hand hook it like that,” he said. “It was magic. It went in almost every time.

“I don’t remember if I had two points or not, I may have. But if I did, I could say I was second high point man.”

Johnson and a teammate attended a sorority dance in Missoula later the same evening, then made a pitch to Gonzaga’s athletic director, Father Arthur Dussault, S.J., to extend the stay an additional night after befriending sorority members.

“He said to us, ‘All right boys, you can stay over, but that train right there leaves in 20 minutes, and if you’re not on it don’t come back to school. You’re out of school,’ ” Johnson said. “We thought, ‘Oh, we can’t afford that,’ and we got on and came home and finished school.”

Following the 1945-46 season, Johnson gave up basketball to pursue a law degree and took a job in the prosecutor’s office in 1954 after serving in the Korean War. He later became a chief criminal deputy, working on prominent cases around the Spokane area, including the 1959 murder of Candice “Candy” Rogers, which was solved last year with the help of DNA analysis.

Johnson estimates he’s been a Gonzaga ticketholder since the late 1960s or early 1970s. He’s admired a variety of Bulldogs players through the years, but was especially fond of an ex-GU guard with an identical first name: Frank Burgess, who held the school’s career scoring record until All-American forward Drew Timme broke it last season.

“I remember him guarding one player, and Frank took the basketball and held it over the player’s head, and he (spun) around, the player (spun) around, and Frank stood back and swished,” Johnson said.

Johnson retired from practicing law in the early 1990s. He has family in Spokane and the west side of the state, and his grandsons played for Ferris High School’s state championship basketball teams in 2007 and 2008.

These days, Johnson stays busy baking bread – “all kinds … white and mixed white and whole wheat with sunflower seeds in it” – and keeping with up Gonzaga’s flourishing basketball program.

He originally moved to Spokane from the San Francisco area to help care for his mother, then enrolled at the local university with sights on attending Gonzaga’s prestigious law school. A friend eventually roped Johnson into playing basketball for coach Gordon White – previously a football coach at Roanoke (Virginia) College – during the fall of 1945.

It spawned Johnson’s passion for Gonzaga basketball – something that hasn’t waned nearly 80 years later.

“We were somewhat short of players and I had become good friends with a guy on the team, and he said, ‘Why don’t you turn out?’ ” Johnson said. “I played in high school. I did and I enjoyed it. Nice guys and the trip was worthwhile and the experience was good.”