Basketball courts dotted the city, spread in points from the Lafitte Projects in New Orleans like uneven spokes on a bicycle wheel.
Tonti Courts. Lemon Playground. Treme Center. Hike it to Algiers or City Park or Lawrence Square. Any place with a net and a hoop and a game.
And that’s all Avery Johnson and his friends in the 1970s in the heart of New Orleans needed: a bicycle and a basketball and a place to play.
Johnson kept finding courts, first the concrete ones at home and later the best courts in the world, hardwood that welcomed him into one town and one coliseum after another throughout a 16-year NBA playing career.
Metaphorically, as he did year-round as a boy looking for a place to play, he’s never quit pedaling. It’s been a passionate journey, one that’s led Johnson into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches, where he’ll be enshrined on Saturday, June 27.
A star at St. Augustine High and then Southern University, Johnson played in 1,054 career games with six NBA teams. He logged 10 seasons with San Antonio, the franchise that retired his number 6 in 2007.
Johnson has been the head coach of two NBA teams — the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets — and was an ESPN analyst when hired in April by Alabama to become the school’s 20th men’s basketball coach.
It’s quite a resume for a self-described “journeyman.”
“As a young man, you look at other people going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, people you’ve wanted to play like … to be like,” Johnson said.
“During my time as a journeyman in the NBA and at Southern, at St. Aug, my getting there wasn’t something I necessarily thought about. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know if I was good enough.”
He was. It all started in New Orleans, where he can’t remember not having a basketball around.
“I was not a ‘get up Saturday and watch cartoons’ kid,” Johnson said. “We played from 8-til-8, basically. Maybe grab a sandwich if we could.
“We always had games. The thing is, we had our main courts, but we could travel all over the city on our bikes,” he said. “Wherever the games were, that’s where we wanted to go. The games were so good, if you lost, it might be an hour before you’d get to play again. So you can understand that those games were fierce and highly contested.”
The practice paid off. As a tiny 5-foot-3 senior at St. Aug — he’d grow eight inches during the next couple of years — Johnson and his teammates were 35-0 and state champs.
He played his final two collegiate seasons at Southern, led the NCAA in assists both years and was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the SWAC tournament his junior and senior seasons.
He owns or shares several NCAA Division I records, including most assists in a game (22), most games with 20 or more assists (four), highest single-season assists average (13.3) and highest career assists per game average (12).
But none of that got him drafted into the NBA after his graduation in 1988.
He finally caught on with Seattle, the first of six NBA teams he played for, and in 16 seasons averaged 8.4 points, 5.5 assists and 25.3 minutes played.
Gregg Popovich, who coached Johnson for nine seasons in San Antonio, said his former star point guard “has a unique blend of desire, basketball knowledge and compassion.”
Johnson was a key part of the 1998-99 NBA champion Spurs, who beat the New York Knicks in five games to win the title; it was Johnson who hit the last-minute Game 5 game-winner, a left-baseline jumper in Madison Square Garden — quite a long bike ride from the French Quarter.
Johnson was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
After retiring in 2004, he was hired as an assistant to head coach Don Nelson with the Dallas Mavericks and five months later became the team’s head coach.
He was the league’s coach of the year in 2006, when his Mavericks made the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance and lost to Miami in six games.
After working for ESPN the last few seasons, he returned to coaching in April when Alabama came calling.
While his work there is just beginning, his improbable road to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame will be completed.
“I’ve had some nice things happen to me but, when you talk about the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I mean, that’s kind of the crème de la crème,” Johnson said. “This is the top … the top of the line. No matter where I’ve gone — and I’ve spent most of my career outside the state, and I’m now coaching in Alabama — I’m still a New Orleans guy. My roots are still in Louisiana.”