"Honeycomb" first of ABA Pacers to enter Hall of Fame
Gus Johnson was with the Pacers for a relatively brief period of time but the star called "Honeycomb" managed to leave a very big impression.
A 6-6 forward with an outgoing personality and a fierce on-court persona finished his career by helping the Pacers win the 1973 ABA championship and will become the first player from the teams of that era to be inducted (posthumously) into the Basketball Hall of Fame tonight in Springfield, Mass.
"I'm tickled to death that he's going into the Hall of Fame," said former Pacers Coach Bob "Slick" Leonard, who was instrumental in the beginning of Johnson's NBA career. "He loved to play the game and he deserves the honor."
Preparing for the draft while with the Chicago Zephyrs in 1963, Leonard noticed Johnson's name atop the NCAA rebounding statistics. You didn't have game film, reports from dozens of scouts or digital media archives to use for research in those days. You had the telephone. So Leonard called Joe Cipriano, Johnson's college coach at Idaho.
Leonard (Indiana) and Cipriano (Washington) had known each other since battling in the 1953 NCAA Final Four.
Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson. (Pacers photo)
"Back then you didn't have a lot of money for scouting but they sent out the NCAA stats and (Johnson) was leading the country in rebounding," said Leonard. "I called Joe up and I said, 'Joe, can Gus Johnson play?' He said, 'I'll guarantee you he can play.' So I took him in the second round.
"I never will forget I went over to the hotel and when he got off the elevator and took one look at him I knew he was a player. He ended up being one of the great defensive forwards."
The Zephyrs moved to Baltimore before the 1963-64 season and Johnson immediately became a star, averaging at least 17.3 points and 11.6 rebounds in his first eight seasons. A powerful forward with tremendous leaping ability, Johnson shattered three backboards in his NBA career and became legendary for his remarkably accurate behind-the-back outlet passes – not to mention the gold star he had embedded in one of his front teeth.
Though hobbled, a big contributor
By the time he Johnson joined the Pacers in 1972, however, knee injuries had sapped the magic from his legs. He averaged 6.0 points and 4.9 rebounds during the regular season but his impact went beyond the court.
"Gus came to us at the end of his career when he had lost a lot of his physical abilities, but he really wanted a shot at making a run at a championship," said Darnell Hillman, who played for the Pacers from 1971-77 and currently is the franchise's associate director of camps & clinics and alumni relations. "And his coming to the team made us that much more solid. He was a great, great individual.
"The locker room was where he was really an asset. He always knew the right things to say and he could read people. He knew who would be a little bit off or down and he could just bring you right back into focus and send you out on the floor. He was also very instrumental in being like an assistant coach to Slick on the bench. Sometimes when Slick didn't go to the assistant coach, he'd ask Gus."
But Johnson still had a little something left as a player, too, which was made clear in the championship series against border rival Kentucky, when his legacy in Indianapolis was cemented.
Legacy cemented during title run
With the series tied 3-3, Game 7 was played in Louisville and the Pacers were teetering when standout center Mel Daniels was forced to the bench with foul trouble. Hillman had his hands full guarding Dan Issel. Leonard needed someone else to contend with 7-2, 240-pound Artis Gilmore.
"I looked down the bench and here's Gus at about 6-6 and I said, 'Gussie, you're going to have go to in and play Artis Gilmore,' " Leonard said. "Gus was so strong in the upper body. He never lifted weights or anything but just had this natural strength. And he went in there in that seventh game and with his forearms pushed Artis Gilmore out of the middle.
"By the time Artis caught the ball he was 12-15 feet out on the floor and there wasn't any place for him to go with it. Gus did a heck of a job. Consequently, that was Gus' first championship ring. That's the only championship ring he ever got."
Hillman remembered the moment vividly.
"I knew Artis was getting ready to have his head full of fire ants," he said. "Gus was dirt strong, he understood how to play big people and he could get you out of position very easily. He gave up 7-8 inches to Artis but with his strength and intelligence about the game, he knew where to allow Artis to get the ball and literally locked Artis up."
The Pacers won the game 88-81 and with it their third and final ABA title.
"This guy was something else, always had the big smile on his face, always enthusiastic," said Leonard. " … He was one of those guys. He's the kind of guy you win with, one way or another."
What about the others?
As were so many other Pacers of that era, including Daniels, Roger Brown, George McGinnis – and Leonard himself. Despite three championships, despite their standing as the stars of the most dominant franchise in the ABA, those players – and so many others including Gilmore – have not been recognized by the Hall of Fame.
"Hopefully the (Hall of Fame) will start to see that Gus wasn't the only one here they should recognize," said Hillman. "The things that Mel, Roger and George have done, and Slick … "
Johnson, who died in 1987, is the first of the Pacers' ABA legends to enter the Hall; let us hope he is not the last.