Sports fans value Athletes as little more than grown-ups' toys, and what genuine affection we lavish on star athletes is largely reserved for those few precious idols whom we first worshiped when we were children. Perhaps our only closer relationship with great athletes comes later, when we begin to connect vicariously with those who happen to be the same age we are. It's not only that we identify with these exalted contemporaries, but also that we expect them to carry the flag for our cohort as we march onward in the parade of life.
This is why those of us in the seats always want our athletes—the ones who are our age—to quit while they're still on top. That way, they won't embarrass us. We then want our heroes to instantly disappear so that we can always remember them (and ourselves) as magnificent and forever green. For it is when our athletes start to go downhill that we are forced to come to grips with the possibility of our own mortality.
At times, of course, we are all teased by Satan's alluring notion that we should live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Clearly, the continuing fascination with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—which seems limited to their contemporaries—derives from that grim fancy. Looking dreamily at photographs of Marilyn and Jimmy is even better than going to an old-timers' game. Old-timers stumble and bumble; they're old-timers precisely because they're old.
Gus Johnson will never achieve that estate. He died the other day at age 48.
Damn it, Gus, you had no right to do that. You were positively indestructible, more crammed with the substance of life than anybody I ever saw. More than that, though, you were supposed to be my escort through life, my guide-on through that cavalcade.
You see, Gus and I were almost exactly the same age. Johnson was born three days before I was, just before Christmas 1938, under the benevolent sign of Sagittarius. Connie Francis was born the day before Gus. Rod Laver was born not long before that and Jon Voight a couple of weeks afterward.
Famous people are born all the time, every week, as regularly as regular people. Gus and Connie were my week's. Sometimes I've visualized the three of us, walking arm in arm, like Dorothy 'tween the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. But Connie has suffered all sorts of emotional problems, and Johnson, who was the last person in the world who could possibly die, is in the graveyard, dead.
I met Gus in 1963, following his first NBA game. After covering the game for this magazine, I was in a room in the Baltimore Civic Center that had been set aside for season-ticket holders and the attendant insiders and swells. The Celtics had just annihilated the Bullets, but Gus came blowing in, all 6'6" of him, powerful and handsome, dressed to the nines, smoking a cigarette. He stepped up to the bar, opened his mouth to show where he had a gold star newly inlaid in a front tooth and, in that huge, booming voice of his, allowed as how he would appreciate a whiskey. The fine people of Baltimore looked on him with awe. I thought to myself, Hey, this guy might make 'em forget Connie Francis. I was born in an even better week than I'd imagined.
Like a lot of us who arrived late in the Depression, Johnson played a good transition game with life. On the one hand, he was a throwback. He never took care of himself and, as a result, was often injured. He also didn't have agents to prevent him from spending all his money on the pursuit of good-looking women. But more than anyone else he was the prototype for the basketball player who strides the courts today. He jumped to the stars and, with a sweeping, tomahawk dunk, periodically obliterated backboards.
Yet, as flamboyant as he was, the simple community values of the team were never beneath him. "Gus is still the best defensive forward I ever saw play this game," says Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who, as a scout and rookie p.r. man, sometimes roomed with Johnson that first season in Baltimore.
After the competition, Gus was level and fair, gentle even. Maybe it helped that a knockout lady was surely awaiting him. But let's not be superior—the excesses of the good life didn't do him in. Stupid old brain cancer decked Johnson.
The odds in life—fate—are dished out in lightning strikes and automobile accidents. The fragility of life can be ironic. It seems impossible that a body so magic, so potent, so unconquerable could have been cut down by something merely fickle within it. "Don't worry about me, I'm going to be O.K.," Johnson reassured friends in the weeks before he died. "I've made my peace."
But his death has made me so fearful, so vulnerable. This was the man, bold and vital, who was in charge of my week.