In 16 unlikely years as a point guard who was shorter and lighter than his program listing of 5-10, 175, Avery Johnson overachieved slowly – but doggedly.
When he finished his college career at Southern University, a historically black college in Baton Rouge, La., Johnson found 25 disinterested NBA teams.
He had led the nation in assists with 13.3 a game and he was a showman – a miniature Magic Johnson with no-look assists and cross-court bounce passes to open teammates. But in 1988, 75 players were taken in the three-round draft and Johnson was not one of them.
He was not deterred. He managed to sign as a free agent with Seattle. That began a career that featured him being traded three times, waived twice (including once on Christmas Eve), and not-resigned when his contract expired five times.
But he always got another chance. Teams always saw something special in him. He eliminated the flair from his game and dedicated himself to fundamentals. He was a positive force in the locker room. He was passionate, articulate and relentless. He was also stubborn and pugnacious. As the resident elf in a league of giants, he had to be.
He possessed exceptional leadership skills and he knew basketball. He had a natural feel for the game that shouldn’t have been surprising. When you average 13.3 assists at Southern University, you probably aren’t surrounded by great scorers. So it’s likely you are creating a lot of easy baskets simply because you have superior basketball smarts.
Ultimately, Avery Johnson found a home in San Antonio and not only became a champion, but also made a champion. With 47 seconds left in Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals, Johnson hit an 18-foot jump shot from the left baseline that gave the Spurs a 78-77 victory over the New York Knicks. That was San Antonio’s first of four titles.
The irony of Avery Johnson is that all of those wonderful traits he possessed as a player have led to mixed results as a head coach. When he was fired by the Nets on Thursday, he had a 14-14 record. He had been Eastern Conference coach of the month in November. He did not seem to be the leading candidate in the league to lose his job.
But the public statements and the whispers out of the Nets locker room were not much different from those out of Dallas when Johnson was fired in 2008.