Gus Johnson comes across like a high note on a clarinet screaming in an empty hall. He has a gold star perfectly carved in the center of one long front tooth, wears $85 shoes, Continental suits and a tiny hat that sits cocked on the back of his large head. He is at once, in appearance and manner, the kingfish at a fish fry and a little boy on his knees—scared and wild-eyed—watching dice roll in an alley back home in Akron. At the wheel of his new and purple Bonneville convertible, sartorially precise, his gold star glittering against the sunlight and the car radio moaning "This is my heart, this is my baby," he seems far removed from what he so easily might have been—a member in good standing of the subterranean world of sporadic, aimless labor and even more aimless delinquency.
With the help of Samson, the people of Moscow, Idaho and a talent goaded by a monumental pride and ego, Johnson has become a professional basketball player for the Baltimore Bullets. But to say that he is just a player is to say that Charlie Parker was just a saxophone player. Johnson—6 feet 6 inches and meaner than hell, as the lyrics go in one of the many songs he sings of himself—is one of the most electric and multitalented young players ever to appear in the National Basketball Association. Johnson agrees with this description, and he has company. Cincinnati Coach Jack McMahon calls him the best second-draft choice he has ever seen, St. Louis Owner Ben Kerner just shakes his head at the prospect of Johnson becoming better and opposing players are lavish in their praise of him. "He has Elgin Baylor's equipment, only he jumps better," says Wayne Embry of the Royals. Says San Francisco's Nate Thurmond: "Johnson is the best all-round forward in the league. Bar none. A couple of more inches in height and he would be unstoppable."
It is easy to picture Johnson reacting to these comments. Grinning and slapping his knee, he would shout: "Oh yeah, oh yeah, babies, keep talkin'." It is this kind of recognition, more than the money and all the excesses that go with it, that Johnson seeks from basketball. Everything about him, from his gold star ("that cost $200, man") to his style of play, is calculated to draw the attention with which he feeds his insatiable egoism. "Man, what I like best," says Gus, "is when I'm playin' in Baltimore and them fans start yellin', 'Sock it to 'em, Gus, sock it to 'em, baby!' " Last year, when the Bullets were at home, a recorded sound of a rifle shot would whistle through the arena whenever a Bullet made a dunk shot. "When I dunked that ball and heard that shot for the first time," he says, "I said to myself, oh, oh, Gus. Somebody done gotchya. But, man, that was sweet music. It sure did make me feel good inside."
Johnson is always on the prowl for recognition, no matter how slight. One day recently in St. Louis he called a friend on the phone. "Hey baby," he said, "you play pool? Gus is lonely this afternoon, and he'd like to play a little." The friend said yes, he did play a game now and then and would be glad to accommodate lonely Gus. They took a cab to a poolroom, and Gus insisted on paying the fare.
December 21, 1964
Within an hour Gus had cleaned his friend of $7 after seven rounds of eight ball. "Man, look at that," he said. "And I ain't done any shootin' in a long time." Suddenly an expression of boredom crossed his face. "I'll tell ya what," he said. "I'll let you put all your balls in the pockets except one, that big, old black one there. Just knock that one in. I'll keep all mine on the table, and we'll play double or nothin'. What ya think of that?" The friend thought a moment and then said no.
"All right then," Gus said quickly. "I'll play ya one-handed. Double or nothin'. What ya think of that?"
The friend agreed. Gus ran the table, one-handed, and laughed all the way home. If the victim had asked for his money back, Gus would have obliged. The money did not matter. "Gus, you sure do make Gus feel good inside," he cackled. "Look at the way you jacked up that man's jaw. Shame on ya, Gus."
On the surface Johnson appears to be the embodiment of every stereotyped Negro character in every bad movie. His language is vintage Southland updated with thick strains of Birdland bop talk. Money is "long green," chitlings and pigs' feet is "soul food," and then there are the "rocks." "What's a rock?" he squeals, and then, pointing to his skin, he says in a deep voice: "Man, a rock is a member. One of us." But there is a lot of Northern slick to the Old South in Johnson, and he delights in being underestimated on first encounter. In private conversation a different Johnson emerges. The forced humor fades, the speech changes abruptly; inflection diminishes and each word is hammered out with brisk enunciation. He talks soberly of the talent he must compete against, and he betrays doubts about his own ability. Above all, he is still not sure he has made it across the thin line that separates Gus Johnson of central Akron from Gus Johnson of the NBA.
"There is this thing about Johnson," says a Bullet official. "You can't he around him very long without getting this peculiar feeling that something tragic is going to happen to him, and that one day Gus will suddenly be out of the league. Maybe it's that childlike quality about him that makes you feel this way. But you just feel he is very capable of blowing it all overnight."
Johnson came close to "blowing it all" while he was still very young. One of six children, he was raised in central Akron amid the decay and despair of a ghettolike slum. At 17, despite persistent policing by his parents, he knew every bartender in the neighborhood by name and every mark in every pool room. School was an annoyance; it cramped his style. "Despite my ways," says Johnson, "I never got into any real bad trouble in Akron. I just drifted around. Nothing mattered except basketball and the Bible. I used to read the Bible all the time. I still do. I'm real big on Samson. He's helped me a lot, I suppose. He stimulates me." Somehow Johnson managed to stay in school, and he became one of the finest high school players ever turned out in the state. He then went to the University of Akron but, still aimless, soon dropped out. After a year of AAU basketball he moved on to Boise Junior College and then transferred to the University of Idaho. "I wasn't too keen on going out there to Idaho," he says. "There weren't any colored people out there, and I didn't know how they'd take me. I guess I went out there with a chip on my shoulder, but I wasn't there long before I could feel the difference. The people welcomed me, they made me believe in myself. There wasn't any prejudice, and I felt I belonged. After I was there, I went back home one summer. I didn't feel like I belonged to that old life in Akron anymore."
Johnson was a brilliant performer in his one year at Idaho; he was the nation's second leading rebounder and averaged 19 points a game. In Moscow they still talk about Johnson stuffing a shot with one hand, catching the ball with the other and handing it to a startled referee. Nevertheless it is a toss-up whether his coach, Joe Cipriano, was relieved or disconsolate when Johnson decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the Bullets. Gus brought Idaho national recognition, but he was a source of continual anxiety to Cipriano, who never knew what his star would be doing next off the court. Gus was not known for cracking his books, and he broke every training rule Cipriano established. He did not really strive to be unmanageable; it was just his nature. Central Akron was still bubbling below the surface.
When Johnson reported to the Bullet camp at Fort Meade, Md. in 1963, Bob Leonard, then the Baltimore coach, took one look at him in action and muttered something that sounded like "incredible." He started Johnson at forward with rare instructions for a rookie: "Get me 15 rebounds a game plus 12 or 15 points, and play me a lot of defense." Johnson did the job. He averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in his first year and emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league. Now 26 and in his second year, Johnson appears well on the way to becoming a genuine superstar, the goal he has set for himself. He is the seventh leading scorer in the NBA, with a 20.6 average, and is fast becoming a complete player. His jump shot and hook from 10 feet out are remarkably accurate, but it is under the boards that his best game unfolds. Strong, quick and blessed with great jumping ability, he is a tough man to beat to the ball. Says Wayne Embry, "He's the only player I've ever seen go up for a rebound, take the ball at his waist and still dunk it before he comes down to the floor." Others speak of his strength and speed, but all end up talking about his jumping. Jay Arnette of the Royals says, "Johnson is driving down the floor for a layup this one time, and when he gets to the foul line he takes off into the air. I'm sitting on the bench. I look at Bud Olsen and we both chuckle. Ha-ha, we're telling each other, this is one time old Gus took off too soon. We're still snickering when Johnson, still in the air, dunks the ball. None of us on the bench could believe what we'd seen." (Recently, in St. Louis, he went up in similar fashion, tore the rim off the basket and shattered the glass backboard.)
Despite these talents, Johnson gets his biggest kicks from playing defense. Occasionally he will get boxed out on a rebound, especially by Bob Pettit, or he will be caught holding, but he is a solid defender—tenacious and with a flair for the sensational. The latter now and then gets him into trouble. He purposely will give an opponent a step advantage, then recover to make a spectacular block. Jerry Lucas, who has clashed with Johnson in many a duel, says: "He's tough on defense because he's so strong. He uses his hands a lot. To a referee it might look as if he's just resting his hands on an opponent. But the guy's so strong his hands are almost as effective as an iron bar when it comes to keeping you from driving for the basket." When Johnson was a rookie he requested pictures of all the players he would be guarding during the season so that he could prepare himself mentally by staring at their likenesses. At first erratic on defense because he was unfamiliar with their moves, he now speaks confidently of his problems.
On Pettit: "He's a great back-door man. Overplay him and he'll go behind you. He works off a lot of picks, and he is predictable. Good hands and strong. He's also the most protected player in the league. You can't touch him. He's more trouble than anybody."
On Baylor: "Completely unpredictable. He has all the moves and a lot of tricks. He doesn't need a pick. His favorite move is the yo-yo—he backs in dribbling until he moves you to where he wants you, and then he turns and pops a jump shot. You have to play him loose, so you can sag on his jump, and try to grab the ball in the air."
On Lucas: "Play Lucas nose to nose. Great shooter. Great rebounder. He is not a good driver. Strictly an inside game. You got to belt him now and then. He doesn't like to get hit."
Johnson's dislike for Lucas is easily apparent, and it is deeper than mere envy. Lucas, white, a good student, a celebrated All-America from a national collegiate power, represents all that Johnson was not and is not. In Ohio, Lucas and Johnson were playing prep basketball at the same time; Lucas shoved Johnson to the background. The two entered the NBA as rookies at the same time; Lucas joined the Royals to a chorus of trumpet blasts, Johnson was little known after one year of college ball. Lucas was voted Rookie of the Year, Johnson was second. "I get annoyed with people comparing us all the time," says Johnson. "I have to show Lucas all the time."
"This guy," says Bullet Coach Buddy Jeannette, "doesn't have to worry about Lucas or anybody except himself. He can be a superstar if he wants to be, but you know what his big ambition is now? Get this. He wants to retire at 30! I told him, 'Gus, you keep playing like this and they won't let you out of the league when you're 30, because they'll be throwing money at you."
"Yeah, man, comes 30 and I goes into business," says Johnson, his face contorted in laughter, that gold star glittering against the sunlight as he drives along—a million miles from the way things were, but just a wrong turn back.