How great was Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson?
Often a measure of a man comes down to comparisons, associations and standing.
Consider that before the 1969-70 NBA season, the once mighty Cincinnati Royals were in a funk, but got a splash when they hired legendary Boston Celtics' hero Bob Cousy to coach. Only Cousy and the Royals' best player, the "Big O," Oscar Robertson, arguably the game's top guard during his era, clashed early and often. Before the start of the 1970-71 season, Cousy tried to trade Robertson - to the Baltimore Bullets for none other than Honeycomb Johnson.
Robertson ultimately vetoed the trade, later going to Milwaukee instead to play with a young Lew Alcindor and finally winning an NBA championship.
That Bob Cousy was willing to ship out an Oscar Robertson heads-up to Baltimore in exchange for Gus Johnson tells you what they thought about the tenacious 6-6 high-jumping Bullet. While his career was cut short from knee injuries, Honeycomb Johnson was right there with the best of them in his era: Chamberlain, Russell, West, Robertson, Baylor, Reed, Hawkins, Frazier, Lucas, Monroe, Greer.
And finally, the late Gus Johnson gets his formal just dues tonight with his posthumous induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Johnson, a native of Akron, OH, came to Baltimore in 1963 from the University of Idaho. One of his high school teammates was big Nate Thurmond, the Hall of Fame center, so the balling was serious. During his 1962-63 basketball season at Idaho, Johnson led his club to a 20-6 record, averaging 19.0 points and 20.3 rebounds per game. Only Creighton's Paul Silas averaged more rebounds that season at 20.6 per game to beat Johnson out for the NCAA rebounding title.
Nicknamed Honeycomb by his college coach, Johnson brought with him to the NBA a sweet but powerful game. He was one of the first skywalkers, long before Erving and Jordan. When they spoke of Johnson, they spoke of "hang time" because of his ability to play above the rim.
Johnson spent nine seasons with the Bullets. He made the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1963-64, played in five NBA All-Star Games, was named second team All NBA four times and first-team All-NBA Defense twice. He averaged 17.1 points per game and 12.7 rebounds per game during his career, which included stops in Phoenix and Indiana after leaving the Bullets in 1972.
Compared to others in his era, like the 30 and 20 Wilt Chamberlain would routinely put up every night and Robertson, who "invented" the triple double, Johnson's stats were modest. But stats hardly marked the measure of Johnson's game. Growing up in Baltimore and listening to games on AM transistor radio, you only needed to take in the resounding call of games by the late Bullets play-by-play announcer Jim Karvellas to understand Johnson's impact on the NBA.
Here's what his equally spectacular Baltimore teammate Earl "The Pearl" Monroe said about Johnson in "Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball," from Nelson George in 1992: "Gus Johnson created the new power forward position, where the guy comes in and jams way over guys. He placed his hand on your hip and moved you around on the court. When the guards got out of hand, he knocked down guards, forwards, and he played center, too."
In another interview, Monroe said: "Gus was ahead of his time, flying through the air for slam dunks, breaking backboards and throwing full-court passes behind his back. He was spectacular, but he also did the nitty gritty jobs, defense and rebounding. With all the guys in the Hall of Fame, Gus deserves to be there already."
In "The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgrounds," where the late sportswriter Pete Axthelm chronicled the epic Knicks-Bullets Eastern Conference battles during the 1969-70 season when New York went on the win the NBA championship, Walt "Clyde" Frazier celebrated Johnson as having an "Adonis body."
Johnson epitomized gritty Baltimore in the 1960s and early 1970s - especially black Baltimore. That gold star in one of his front teeth was so Baltimore back then, as was Johnson's penchant for flamboyance. He wore long leather coats and drove a Lincoln Continental, recounts a Baltimore Sun article from April 6 that reported on his selection to the pro basketball Hall of Fame. He frequented Baltimore poolrooms and savored "soul food." He was a showboat of the first order. He was the kingfish.
As professional basketball was being transformed into a black man's game, where the exploits of the likes of Pettit, Mikan, Cousy, Sharman and Heinsohn were fading into history, high-flying Gus Johnson was one of the centerpieces of the new NBA. On outdoor asphalt courts in Baltimore during summer, athletic young boys, mimicking Johnson, would soar through the air toward the rim shouting "Honeycomb."
It was a time in Baltimore's downtown too when Harborplace, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a vital Fells Point amounted to pipedreams. When Baltimore's infamous "Block" on East Baltimore Street attracted goodfellas to the girlie shows. When drunks and hobos hung out along the darkened wharves and warehouses of what is now the Inner Harbor. When the majority population took flight to the suburbs.
The Bullets played then at Baltimore's Civic Center, the small, decrepit arena on the westside of downtown that still stands today as First Mariner Arena. The Civic Center was cozy for a high school graduation, Grand Funk Railroad concert or the indoor soccer played there today, but hardly a mecca for big-time pro basketball. Yet it was Johnson's domain.
In a Dec. 21, 1964, article from Sports Illustrated headlined "A Touch And A Tooth Of Gold," Johnson discussed his love of the affection he received from Bullets' fans. "Man, what I like best is when I'm playin' in Baltimore and them fans start yellin', 'Sock it to 'em, Gus, sock it to 'em, baby!' " Johnson told writer Mark Kram, according to the article.
Johnson's Hall of Fame induction, indeed, has been long in coming. The other greats of his era are all there, so why not the Honeycomb? "We were wondering, what took so long?" Bullets teammate Wes Unseld, himself a Hall of Fame center, told the Sun.
Coming 37 years after he played his last game and 23 years after his death from inoperable brain cancer in Akron at age 48, Johnson gets his long overdue, ultimate recognition tonight in Springfield, MA. His fellow inductees are Lakers owner Jerry Buss, former women's star Cynthia Cooper, high school coach Bob Hurley Sr. and former NBA greats Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and the late Dennis Johnson.
His legacy? Honeycomb Johnson always will be remembered for the unique, open-court, crowd-pleasing athletic style of play he helped to pioneer in the NBA.
His legacy also will be the battles with the Knicks back in the day as Axthelm detailed in his book on the 1969-70 season - a rivalry as fierce any to have happened in sport.
You had Johnson going against a just as tough Dave DeBusschere at power forward. The shooters, Jack Marin versus Bill Bradley, at small forward. Unseld and Willis Reed, two strong but undersized centers - each league MVPs -- battling in the paint. Dogged Kevin "Murph" Loughery and crafty Dick Barnett at the two guard. And Monroe and Frazier - flash and smooth, respectively - running the point.
With Johnson and Monroe, the Bullets were perhaps the most explosive and dynamic team in the league. With Frazier, Reed and DeBusschere it was about precision and stifling defense.
Six knee surgeries limited Johnson's career as peer after peer was inducted in the Hall.
If you were in Baltimore from 1963 to 1972, you know it's about time room has been reserved for the man they called Honeycomb.
- DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog column about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at DMA722Sports@gmail.com
Photo Credits: NBA.com, City of Akron, OH, NBA.com