The Voice of a New Generation

Avery Johnson remade the Mavericks in his feisty image and took them to the Finals--where his performance won over thousands of fans
December 25, 2006

The Miami Heat'sPat Riley won the ring (his fifth, by the way), but it was his 2006 NBA Finalscounterpart, Avery Johnson of the Dallas Mavericks, who earned the coveted (ifunofficial) title of YouTube Coach of the Postseason. A pair of Avery Momentsin particular were filmed, uploaded and frequently replayed, giving the5'11" pepper pot a larger fan base than he had when he sparked the SanAntonio Spurs to a championship in 1999.

After victories in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, Johnson and his Dallas defensewere powerless to stop Michael Jordan impersonator Dwyane Wade from leading theHeat to four straight wins. Despite that setback, it is difficult to look backat the 2005--06 season without seeing Johnson stomping and smiling, joking andjuking his way to the NBA's Coach of the Year award. And without hearing him,too, enunciating every word in an animated Louisiana patois--tran-ZI-shondefense!--to which only Robert Penn Warren could do justice.

"Let's go,everybody," Brian McIntyre, the NBA's vice president of basketballcommunications, would say to the assembled media before an off-day practicesession during the Finals. "Time for the Avery Show."

The YouTube clipsshowed the 41-year-old Johnson at his excitable best and his excitable worst.Avery Moment No. 1: Down the stretch of the Mavs' franchise-defining 119--111overtime win over the Spurs in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals,Johnson frantically ran to the end of the bench to make a quick substitution.As he waved his arms like a drowning man signaling for a lifeguard, heaccidentally jabbed forward Josh Howard in a sensitive area. Howard recoiled inpain, but Johnson didn't even realize he had hit him, grabbing swingman AdrianGriffin by the warmup jersey and hurrying him to the scorer's table. (At lastcheck, the inadvertent crotch-chop had been viewed 243,625 times onYouTube.)

Avery Moment No. 2was excruciating in a different way. It occurred as Johnson stood at the podiumafter a 101--100 Miami home victory in Game 5, during which Wade shot 25 freethrows and hit 21, including two to ice it in overtime. The veteran beatreporter from The Dallas Morning News, Eddie Sefko, asked, predictably, forJohnson's reaction to the foul call that sent Wade to the line the final time.The coach looked around for a moment, stuck out his chin pugnaciously(actually, he does that all the time) and turned the question back on Sefko."Tell me what you saw," he said.

Johnson went on inthis vein, remaining just within the bounds of civility while putting Sefko onthe spot. "I want you to give everybody an honest answer," Johnsonsaid. "We got people from Israel and Minnesota, Chicago ... all over,Dallas ... Germany." Who makes those geographical leaps? (At last look,Avery's one-minute world tour had 20,436 hits.)

The rant, ofcourse, was Johnson's way of passing judgment on the call without getting finedfor criticizing the officials. It was wrong-headed and unnecessarilyconfrontational, and as soon as he left the podium, Johnson knew it. Later thatnight he called Sefko to apologize; he did it again at a press conference thefollowing day. The funny thing was, no one in the media really blasted thecoach. Everyone who knew him was sure that he would admit his mistake.

Johnson, you see,is the anti-Machiavelli: He's without either the guile or thebeen-there-done-that insouciance of his Finals counterpart. (To be fair, Rileyhas been there a lot and done that a lot.) The championship showdown could haveeasily been a duel of the dour, especially when Shaquille O'Neal turnedrelatively uncommunicative after lackluster performances in the first twogames. But Johnson gave it life. After Dallas forward Jerry Stackhouse wassuspended for a flagrant foul on O'Neal, Johnson was off and running when askedabout it: "Well, I guess I've expressed my disappointment. And I don'tknow--what am I supposed to do? Everybody's so amazed that I disagree with thedecision. I mean, what am I supposed to do, go out and have a parade and have aparty? Just because the league comes down with a certain ruling, what are wesupposed to do as coaches? Say, 'Amen'? I disagree with the ruling, allright?"

When Dallas ownerMark Cuban brought Johnson in as an assistant coach in September 2004, anelectric charge went through the Mavericks. The head coach, Don Nelson, waslosing his edge. His relationship with Cuban, never solid, was getting worse,and his emphasis on offense, while entertaining, had not gotten Dallas to theFinals. Del Harris, Nellie's top assistant, describes Johnson's arrival thisway: "Suddenly, we had this guy with all this energy running up and downthe court with the guys, hooting and hollering on every play. Nellie and Iwould just fill in the blanks whenever we had to. Avery's voice became thevoice the players knew." (With that voice, what other option did theyhave?) The inevitable occurred on March 19, 2005, when Nelson walked away--orwas nudged by Cuban--and Johnson took his place.

It happened bydegrees, of course, but the Mavs, as much as any team in the league, came toassume the personality of their coach. Instead of talking about tightening upon defense, they tightened up on defense. Instead of talking aboutaccountability on offense, they were held accountable. It wasn't in Nelson toinfuse the team with toughness. It was--it is--in Johnson, an undrafted,undersized point guard out of unheralded Southern who had a 16-year NBA careerin which he averaged 8.4 points and 5.5 assists. "Avery brings a toughnessand discipline that we didn't have before," Griffin (now with the ChicagoBulls) said during the Finals, "and he knows how to bring that out [in hisplayers]."

"It's Avery'sspirit," says Howard. "He's never backed down from anybody. That's whyhe can sell toughness."

That's what he hassold to All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Maverick least like Johnson as aplayer--tall, gifted, offensive-minded. "Dirk became much more assertiveafter Avery got there," says one Western Conference assistant coach whorequested anonymity. "Nothing against Nellie, but he just didn't hold Dirkaccountable. Now Dirk thinks about every single possession, and that's made himtougher."

Johnson's realtrick, though, was toughening up his team without sounding like a scold. In asporting culture desperate for the unvarnished and the unexpected, he was afrequent, high-pitched source of both. Rest assured there are more AveryMoments to come.

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONSENDINGA MESSAGE
An overachiever as a player, Johnson pushed his team to play with moretoughness.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONGREG NELSON; ILLUSTRATION BY SLIM FILMS PHOTOJOHN BIEVER PHOTOELSA/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOJEMAL COUNTESS/WIREIMAGE.COM
PHOTO GREG NELSON PHOTOERIC GAY/AP PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY SLIM FILMS

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