How Great Was Gus Johnson?

All this talk about lack of Spokane interest in the Vandals reminded me of another time when this wasn’t the case. I’ll let columnist Harry Missildine tell you the rest of the story as he wrote it in an article entitled “Gus Johnson Greater than his Legend” that was in a 1987 edition of the “Idahonian.”

“Memorial Gym, 1963. One of those bad winter nights. Black ice covered the highway from Spokane. Stanford’s charter bus, heading for a game against WSU in Pullman, aborted in Spangle when the driver refused to continue. But, Memorial Gym was packed and no Spokane seatholder was absent. Marv Harshman, the WSU coach, had a night off on the Stanford no-show and he wasn’t going to miss watching Gus Johnson either. He sat in the stage-end seats with his wife Dorothy.

On one break Gus lead the play for a change. A long pass sailed over his head and bounced just inside the endline. “Maybe,” I thought, “Gus can catch up, blindly hook it back and save himself from crashing the stage wall.” Wrong. Gus overtook the ball with a mightly leap past the boundary, calmly turned as if seated in a midair swivel chair and underhanded the ball to a trailing Vandal for an easy basket. By now, Gus was floating over the fourth or fifth row of the stage-end seats. He descended as softly as a butterfly with sore feet, landing so lightly in Dorothy Harshman’s lap that he scarcely needed to say “excuse me.”


From the same article… “Memorial Gym, 1963: On the dribble, Gus popped up at midcourt looking to throw a long pass. Somehow, his checker anticipated and jumped with him. Gus seemed to have two choices, repeal gravity or travel. Instead, Gus fired a half court, behind-the-back pass as he descended and curved it around the opponent and into a teammates hands.”

That gives you some idea of Gus Johnson on the basketball court. How great was Gus Johnson? In the same article, the GM of the Lakers in the 60’s said that “when we passed Gus Johnson in the first round, we blew two or three NBA championships.” Gus was that good. While Gus played for the losing Bullets for most of his professional career which caused his fame to be not as great as it could have been, the admiration Gus received from his peers was almost incomparable.

As Missildine says, “as long as basketball is played, Gus Johnson’s image will be lasting and bright…I hope the NBA Hall of Fame gets the message it should have gotten long ago.”

Gus was considered by many to be the prototype of the modern NBA player. He was known for his showboating (he had a gold star in his front tooth) both on and off the court. He was one of the first to dunk and shattered three NBA backboards in his career. He had acrobatic moves and shots. Although his main thing was assists, rebounding and defense, he is often compared to Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. High praise? You bet, and not just from Missildine. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called one of Gus Johnson’s backboard shattering dunks “one of the greatest basketball plays ever.”

Earl 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 Game, Gus deserves to be there already.”

Current Bullets owner Abe Pollin said, “I first saw Gus on television…I had never seen a player dominate a game so. Gus was the Dr. J of his time and anyone that ever had the privilege to see him play will never forget what a great basketball player Gus Johson was.” And from Butch Komives, “You’ve got to remember he was only 6-6. But he had the strength to play Wilt Chamberlain and the quickness to guard Oscar Robertson. No one played the Big O tougher. In my book, Gus was better than Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry or Dr. J. He did it all and never backed down from anyone.”

Back to Spokane during the 62-63 season. Idaho is playing Gonzaga before 6,000 fans at the Spokane Coliseum. Gus snagged a defensive rebound, turned to his left and started taking the ball upcourt, looking to start a fast break. He spotted a teammate at the other end of the floor and leaped as he began to make a long pass, but a Gonzaga defender went up with him, blocking the passing lane. Still in the air, Johnson pulled the ball back, then whipped it behind his back three-fourths the length of the court, hitting Chuck White one step from the basket for an easy layup. Wayne Anderson and Joe Cipriano (Idaho’s head coach) looked at each other and said, “Did you see that?” recalled Anderson. “It was the greatest basketball play I’d ever seen. But Gus Johnson seemed to make a play like that every game.”

No wonder lines formed for hours before game time outside Memorial Gym to watch Gus play and fans hung from the rafters. No wonder he’s a legend at the Corner Club. There, while drinking beers in 1963, Gus was challenged by someone to demonstrate his leaping ability. Standing flat footed, Gus jumped up and slapped a beam on the ceiling where a nail was driven in. For years, many tried, including Bill Walton, but the nail remained untouched until Joey Johnson, the little brother of Dennis Johnson grabbed it and bent it in 1986.

How high was the nail? The Tribune reporter that wrote an article about it measured it at 11 feet, 6 inches. But, remember, Gus Johnson was greater than his legend. While in the NBA, only Gus Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and “Jumpin” Johnny Jackson of the Harlem Globetrotters could pick a quarter off the top of the backboard. That’s a leap of 13 feet in the air.

During his one year at Idaho in 62-63, Johnson averaged 19 points as his Vandal team went 20-6. Against Idaho’s main rivals of the day, the Vandals went 4-0 against Oregon, 4-1 against WSU and split with Washington. Gus waged a season long battle against Paul Silas for the NCAA rebounding title but lost by the smallest of margins, 20.6 to 20.3 rebounds per game. Gus did set the Idaho single game record with 31 rebounds against Oregon. In 9 pro seasons, Gus averaged 17.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and played on 5 all-star teams. He scored 25 points in 25 minutes at the 65 all-star game. Knee injuries slowed Gus down. Near the end of his career, he stole the ball, dribbled to the foul line for take off and missed the stuff shot. Recalling the play, Johnson laughed and said, “You know, there aren’t too many guys in this league that can say they’ve lost a step in midair.”

Sadly, almost all of this information of mine was in the papers between when Gus was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in 1986 and when he died in 1987. Shortly before his death, Boise State and Idaho were playing before a Big Sky record 12,000 fans. No doubt to rub Idaho fans the wrong way, Boise State elected to use this occasion to induct the dying Gus Johnson into the Boise State Hall of Fame (Gus played one year at BJC before transferring to Idaho). Gus was introduced wearing a gold sweatshirt. On the front, it had “Boise State” written on it. The crowd cheered. Then, Gus turned around to show off the back of his gold sweatshirt. In black letters, it read “IDAHO.” It was a quite fitting way for the greatest Vandal basketball player of them all to leave the stage.

As Gus’s ex-Idaho teammate Rich Porter said, “you hear so many stories, but believe me almost all of them are true. He was really something special.”

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