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Fran Blinebury

Gus Johnson averaged 17.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game in his 10-year NBA career.
NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Image

At last, the Hall of Fame gets a taste of 'Honeycomb'

Posted Aug 5 2010 9:34PM

It was another icy winter's night in Moscow, Idaho, when the crowd crammed inside Memorial Gym felt the heat and the excitement rise.

The muscular, swift forward was the first man heading down court on a fast break when a long pass sailed far over his head and took a high bounce just inside the end line.

Most of the onlookers figured it was a wasted scoring opportunity, just one more turnover that would eventually be lost in the minutiae of the game.

But the man out front of the charge never gave up. He took one giant leap that carried him far up and over the out of bounds line, reached out to grab the ball with both hands, turned his entire body in midair, dropped a slick underhand pass to a trailing teammate for a layup and came down five rows deep in the stands as gently as a kitten onto the lap of a female spectator.

Elgin Baylor? Connie Hawkins? Julius Erving? Michael Jordan? LeBron James?

No. Gus Johnson.

In the 1970s, he'd have been a cult figure whose legend traveled by word of mouth across the land.

In the 1980s, he'd have been the kind of breakout star that lifted a league into the mainstream of sports consciousness.

In the 1990s, he'd have become a regular staple on SportsCenter and now, finally, Johnson, who died at age 48 of inoperable brain cancer in 1987, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame with the Class of 2010.

Johnson could run like an Arabian stallion and jump like a frightened bullfrog. He was quick enough to beat even the swiftest of point guards down the floor and strong enough rip a basket right out of the Plexiglass backboard, which he did at least twice in NBA games.

They called him "Honeycomb" because he was sweeter than a bee's knees and he also happened to have had a gold star on one of his front teeth until it was knocked out by an opponent's flying elbow while battling for a rebound.

As both a player and personality, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Johnson was as ahead of his time as a spaceman running around in the days of the dinosaurs, and maybe that's why it's taken so long for him to just his just recognition. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game in his 10-year NBA career (1963-73), nine spent with the Baltimore Bullets, was a five-time NBA All-Star and a four-time member of the All-NBA team.

Johnson could hold his own in the low post against the well-known frontline stars of the day, Baylor and Hawkins, and was quick enough to guard Oscar Robertson away from the basket.

"This is long overdue," said Johnson's teammate and fellow Hall of Famer (1990) Earl Monroe. "I don't know why it's taken all this time. Nobody who ever played with Gus or against him never had any doubt.

"I remember the first time I saw him on TV. I was in college, probably my sophomore year, and was watching a game with some of my friends. The Bullets were playing Boston and he jumped right out of the corner and dunked on Bill Russell.

"For one thing, that's a long way to come from out of the corner to dunk. For another, that's Bill Russell and I'm telling you it was amazing. I told the guys, 'I wouldn't mind playing with that guy someday.' Lo and behold, it happened."

As the best player ever to come out of Akron until LeBron James came along, Johnson was always overshadowed by the exploits of Jerry Lucas, who won an Olympic gold medal and a national championship while playing for Ohio State. He went west for college, playing a year at Boise Junior College and then moved over to the University of Idaho, where the list of exploits and the legend grew.

From Harry Missildine, long-time columnist at the Idahonian:

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 teammate's hands."

Lines routinely began forming outside the gym hours before tip-off to watch Johnson play. Fans literally hung from the rafters at the old arena.

Once at a bar called "The Corner Club" in Moscow, Johnson was hanging out with some other students. He was challenged to a bet by Herm Goetz, the owner, and won it by leaping flat-footed to touch a beam high up near the ceiling. The spot he touched was measured at 11-feet, 6-inches. Goetz hammered a nail into the spot and offered a free drink to anyone who else who could touch it. Many tried. Even a young Bill Walton failed and no one accomplished the feat until 1986. Goetz reportedly promptly paid off and then raised the nail up a half-inch.

From his college days all through his career, Johnson took a backseat to nobody on the court.

"He loved to play against the best, because he thought he was better," Monroe said. "He loved playing against Dave DeBusschere, because he admired and respected Dave. And he always got up for any game that involved Jerry Lucas, because of their background in Ohio he felt like he had something to prove. He'd go night after night against the toughest big guys, power forwards and centers in the league, and then he'd switch off and guard Oscar and Jerry West when he ran into their teams.

"He really was a one-of-a-kind physical specimen," Monroe said. "The only one I could compare him to with the size, strength, speed and the hops is LeBron James."

Johnson was breaking backboards in the NBA back when Darryl Dawkins was still in diapers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called one of the glass-shattering events "one of the greatest basketball plays ever."

Monroe recalled the scene.

"We were in Milwaukee, the last stop before heading out to the West Coast and we are all excited to be going to hang out in L.A.," he said. "We were getting hammered by the Bucks. We were losing by 52 points with a couple of minutes to go.

"Here comes Gus down the floor and he shattered the backboard and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Of course, in those days, they didn't have spares on hand. So it took them nearly two hours to find a replacement and we had to stand around to play the last couple of minutes to finish getting beat by 50.

"Meanwhile Gus had left the game because he'd gotten cut. He wound up going straight to the airport and caught a flight to L.A. We had to spend the night in Milwaukee and when we finally got out there, he was just smiling."

West once said that the Lakers probably cost themselves two or three championships by passing up Johnson in the first round of the 1963 NBA Draft. The late Abe Pollin's Bullets made him the No. 10 pick in the second round.

"Gus was the Dr. J of his time," Pollin once said, "and anyone that ever had the privilege to see him play will never forget what a great basketball player Gus Johnson was."

Finally, they remembered. At long last, the Hall of Fame gets a taste of sweetness from Honeycomb.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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