As a senior basketball player at St. Augustine High in New Orleans, one of Southern University’s greatest athletes wasn’t good enough to sniff the starting lineup.
“I was kind of a 30-point guy,” Avery Johnson said. “When we were up by 30, I would have an opportunity to go in the game and play a little bit.”
The diminutive backup had his number called when St. Aug’s starting point guard was suspended from the team during the 1983 state playoffs.
Off Johnson went, helping the Purple Knights complete a perfect 35-0 season and win the Class 4A title.
Several potential roadblocks would arrive in later years, but Johnson was determined to dribble far beyond his humble beginnings and never lost sight of his dream to one day play professional basketball.
Now, as he returns to the campus where his deft passing fueled the golden era of Southern basketball, Johnson hopes his unlikely story will assist Jaguars of every ilk as they pursue their goals.
The stage will be his, just as it was 25 years ago, when Southern celebrates Johnson’s legacy Saturday during halftime of the Southern-Grambling men’s game.
A ceremony will commemorate the renaming of Southern’s home court after the famous point guard. A banner bearing the No. 15 will drop from the F.G. Clark Activity Center rafters.
“I’m hoping this will inspire kids,” Johnson, 47, said. “If you work hard and you’re disciplined and you have a good attitude, it doesn’t matter where you come from. Great things can happen. Not just in sports, but in any field of life.”
Most fans of Southern basketball can look at the old team portraits that decorate the hallways of the Mini Dome and tell you what the youngster wearing No. 15 would someday become.
They may have followed Johnson’s career in the NBA, a 16-year odyssey in which the former Southern star played 1,054 games — third-most (behind Moses Malone and Ben Wallace) by an undrafted player.
They may have cheered him as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who made their first NBA Finals appearance, in 2006, with Johnson at the helm. Or in his next stop with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, whose controversial firing of Johnson in December came after he went 14-14 to start his third season.
But they may not know how the youngster in the old pictures came to be the star of Southern’s show.
Or the odds he beat to become an NBA champion.
Long, winding road
Having languished on the bench of so many Catholic League gyms, Johnson used his cameo as a St. Aug starter to catch the eye of a New Mexico Junior College coach, who put Johnson on a plane for the first time in his life and presented the kid his first opportunity to play basketball on scholarship.
Johnson spent one year in New Mexico, then transferred to Cameron University in Oklahoma for one more.
“I was back to my basketball cheerleading position,” Johnson said of his time at Cameron. “I hardly played at all there.”
At the end of the season, he called then-Southern assistant Bernard Griffith, who’d coached under Watson Jones when Johnson was at St. Aug, and told him he wanted a chance to play Division I basketball close to home.
Southern agreed to bring him aboard, but Johnson had to sit out the 1985-86 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.
The following year, Ben Jobe arrived from Alabama A&M and installed the up-tempo, edge-of-the-seat offense he learned from John B. McClendon, who taught fast-paced basketball decades before “Showtime” arrived.
The Jaguars would lead the nation in scoring three times in the early 1990s.
But the running and gunning began with Johnson, whose flashy full-court brilliance made him the poster child of Jobe’s aggressive style.
Johnson led the nation in assists as a junior and senior.
He had 22 of them in a victory over Texas Southern in January 1988, an NCAA Division I record he shares with Syracuse’s Sherman Douglas and Charleston Southern’s Tony Fairley.
For his two-year career, Johnson averaged 12.0 assists, also a Division I record.
The only thing more impressive than the number of strikes Johnson threw was the manner in which he delivered them.
In the SWAC championship game his junior year, Johnson received an outlet pass at the opponent’s free-throw line, cocked his left arm, and bounced a 75-foot dart to forward Kevin Florent, who finished with a dunk and never broke stride.
Johnson’s nifty bounce passes became his calling card.
“He kind of paved the way and really started that thing at Southern with his style of play and his leadership,” said Carlos Sample, who inherited the point guard position from Johnson after the 1987-88 season.
With their star point guard leading the way, the Jaguars won 43 games in Jobe’s first two seasons, each year winning the SWAC and advancing to the NCAA tournament.
They were especially tough at home, going 14-0 at the Mini Dome during Johnson’s senior season.
“They had cars parked all on the bridge,” Johnson said. “They had folks sitting in the aisles. We basically were breaking the fire code. It was just packed every night in our building.”
Bounce passes to dunking teammates made Johnson a fan favorite.
The tone he set in the locker room made him a natural leader.
“He was just as much the coach as I was,” Jobe, now a scout for the New York Knicks, said.
“Maybe more in some cases. He should have been getting some of the salary I was getting.”
Blessed with a quarterback’s knack for dissecting defenses, Johnson was every bit as valuable in keeping his teammates in line.
One night on the road, Jobe watched one of Southern’s top scorers break open time after time.
He couldn’t figure out why Johnson wasn’t getting him the ball.
“I didn’t know it, but the player had broken curfew the night before,” Jobe said. “That was Avery’s way of making sure it wouldn’t happen again.”
But none of the waves Johnson made on The Bluff quieted the naysayers who questioned his future in the game.
Some said his success in college was a reflection of the competition he faced.
Some knocked his ability to knock down jump shots.
Most could agree he had a heart the size of Lacumba’s cage. But he stood only 5-foot-10 and weighed only 175 pounds.
“It’s OK for people to say things about you,” Sample said. “You just have to go prove them wrong.”
Off Johnson went, fueled by a familiar resolve.
He spent his first few months out of Southern playing for the West Palm Beach Stingrays in the United States Basketball League.
Then he got a shot in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics, making the team as an undrafted free agent.
He spent two seasons there, then one with Denver. Then he went to San Antonio for a couple of years.
Then to Houston. Then back to San Antonio. Then to Golden State.
He never averaged more than 18 minutes until his fourth season in the league.
Johnson’s breakthrough came after Gregg Popovich was named the general manager of the Spurs in 1994 and signed Johnson as his starting point guard.
Johnson spent the next seven years in San Antonio.
In Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals, he sank a baseline jumper against the Knicks that sealed the franchise’s first NBA title.
“To say someone started here and ended up an NBA champion, that sends a very important and inspirational message to our current students about what kind of goals they should be setting for themselves,” Southern Athletic Director William Broussard said. “They can be as ambitious as they want to be in setting those goals.”
When he took over at Southern two years ago, coach Roman Banks inherited a program that had averaged 22.8 losses over the previous five seasons.
He wanted to turn the page and get the Jaguars moving in a new direction.
But he also wanted to touch the past.
One night last season, Southern honored Bob Love by retiring the number worn by one of the program’s original stars. On another night, the school honored the late Bobby Phills, inviting his widow, Kendall, to a game and replacing an old banner bearing the player’s retired number with a more modern one.
Banks hopes the tribute to Johnson will serve as the latest reminder to today’s Jaguars that greatness can happen here.
“When you understand that there’s been a great tradition, if you have anything about you as a player, you want to work hard to keep that tradition,” Banks said.
Johnson aims to coach in the NBA again, but said he has enjoyed getting to spend more time with his family.
He and his wife, Cassandra, have two children.
Their daughter, Christianne, is a college sophomore. Their son may very well be the next Avery Johnson.
Avery Johnson Jr. plays point guard for John Cooper High in The Woodlands, Texas. He stands 5-11, 175 pounds.
As a sophomore last year, he averaged 17 points and three assists.
“He’s a little better than I was at that age,” the elder Johnson said. “We’ll see how he continues to improve.”
His son’s team isn’t the only one Johnson follows.
Banks has Southern, the leader of the SWAC race, building the kind of excitement not seen since the program’s glory days.
The Jaguars won 10 games in a row before losing at Alcorn State last weekend. They won their first eight conference games by an average of 19.6 points.
None of it’s lost on a certain ex-point guard.
“A text or phone call may come out of nowhere,” Banks said. “He’s very much in tune with what’s going on.”
More than a cheerleader, Broussard said Johnson has also supported the university from a financial perspective.
“Coach Johnson has made a long-term commitment to helping us raise money and helping us identify people who will support Southern University,” Broussard said. “He made a previous commitment to the university — a major gift — and has committed to doing that again in the future, and in the meantime is assisting us in identifying prospects for private donations.”
But the biggest contribution Johnson could make to his alma mater may be the legacy he left.
“When you look at where he started and where he is now, it’s a hell of a thing to tell a young person,” Banks said.
“Knowing where he came from and where he went, it gives me chills up and down my own spine.”