By John Hareas

Long before he was known as the Little General, Avery Johnson was merely trying to hold onto an NBA roster spot. The undrafted rookie out of Southern University, who had bounced around the USBL, Seattle and Denver, saw his dream deterred once again, this time at the hands of a young San Antonio Spurs assistant coach named Gregg Popovich.

“I was the one who cut him,” said Popovich, who was on Larry Brown’s staff at the time. “I went down to his apartment, sat down with him and his wife and gave him the bad news. It was some time over the Christmas holiday, pretty darn close to Christmas, and it was the toughest thing I ever did as a coach.”

That was 16 years ago and the irony isn’t lost on Popovich who visited Johnson at his home this past summer to deliver the news that the organization wanted No. 6 to hang in the rafters next to the likes of other Spur legends Johnny Moore (00), James Silas (13), Sean Elliott (32), George Gervin (44) and David Robinson (50).

“It just shows you the kind of relationships that can be established in sports,” said Popovich. “Thinking back 16 years ago and to turn around and do this is really special for me.”

Johnson’s journey to the AT&T Center rafters on Saturday night is truly an amazing one. The first six years of Johnson’s NBA career saw him play for five different teams. It was a vagabond NBA life that even included being cut on Christmas Eve by the Nuggets. Yet Johnson didn’t just persevere, he ultimately thrived. The man refused to listen to his doubters, many of whom questioned whether he can lead an NBA team.

“You don’t have to be first to come in first,” said Johnson, now in his fifth season as Dallas Mavericks head coach, and who recently became the fastest coach in NBA history to reach 150 wins. “You can be last and still come in first. And I was last. I didn’t get drafted. I didn’t play on my high school team. I wasn’t one of the star players. I didn’t go to a big school. I got cut. So a lot of years I was last. But you can go from last to first. Hopefully my dishonor can encourage young people to know not to give up, that you can go from last to first.”

Johnson forever earned a spot in Spurs lore when he hit the biggest shot in franchise history. It was Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks and Johnson silenced the 19,763 fans at Madison Square Garden by calmly nailing an 18-footer from the left corner with 47 seconds remaining to clinch the Spurs first-ever NBA title.

The man who once got cut by the Spurs on the same day he served as a groomsman in David Robinson’s wedding was now a champion. Johnson went on to play 10 seasons for San Antonio and eventually became the franchise’s all-time assists leader.

Yet the squeaky voiced point guard who had told him teammates to get their game face on a time or to is as beloved for his work in the San Antonio community as he was for his inspirational play. Whether it was his involvement in the midnight basketball leagues, helping build a family life center or the countless school visits, Johnson made a huge impression.

“It is really a big honor because you go and work in a community on and off the court and you’re not necessarily the one who scores all the points or dunks or the one who is real big in stature,” said Johnson. “But you go and try to be honest and you work hard and you try to have as much of an impact as you can, and in return you get honored years later. So it’s really a thrill for my family and my friends that were all a part of my playing days in San Antonio.”