One of a Kind

Two decades later, Vinnie still the standard for NBA sixth men

Vinne Johnson
Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson was a uniquely valuable piece of the Pistons.
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty Images)
Chuck Daly was blessed in a way only Red Holtzman and Red Auerbach among NBA coaching greats ever really knew. That’s the list of NBA head coaches who had two Hall of Fame guards as long-term backcourt partners.

You could make a very strong case that Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were the best backcourt combination in NBA history. Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe were terrific for the Knicks a generation before Thomas and Dumars, and before that Bob Cousy and Sam Jones rode the coattails of Bill Russell as the Celtics’ dynasty was blossoming.

During the heyday of the Bad Boys, the other great backcourt combos were all ones the Pistons would have to beat to win their two titles: Magic Johnson and Byron Scott with the Lakers, Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter with the Trail Blazers, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge with the Celtics, Michael Jordan and the designated shooter du jour (John Paxson, Craig Hodges, Steve Kerr) with the Bulls.

But there were nights – even some of the biggest nights – when Joe D’s shot wasn’t dropping and Isiah’s daring resulted in turnovers instead of magic. The Pistons, for all of their depth and flexibility, really didn’t have a go-to scorer they could count on for four quarters up front, either.

(Adrian Dantley in the pre-title days fit the bill, but they eventually decided he was no longer a net plus and traded him for Mark Aguirre, whose great scoring days were behind him. James Edwards became a low-post weapon, but as a complementary piece, not an offensive mainstay.)

And on those nights, Daly turned to Vinnie Johnson.

And in Vinnie Johnson, the Pistons had one of the most unique players in NBA history. In the two decades since the Bad Boys rose to NBA dominance, I’ve heard countless point guards come into the league compared to Isiah and parallels drawn between Joe Dumars and many shooting guards. But I’ve never heard anyone say so-and-so reminds them of Vinnie Johnson.

Oh, sure, countless guys who’ve come off of somebody’s bench have provoked someone to comment that they provide the type of scoring punch Vinnie did for the Pistons – though how many did it with such dogged consistency, season after season? But nobody – nobody – has done it quite like “The Microwave” did it for the Pistons.

The most obvious thing that was so unique about Johnson was his physique. He had the heaving chest and broad shoulders of a heavyweight, slabs of muscles that gave him the appearance of ambling side to side as he walked. And he had the thighs of defensive tackle, as wide as they were long. He used that physique to great advantage, too, a master at dipping that shoulder to turn the corner or sticking it into the chest of a big man when he creased the defense and got into the paint.

His head fakes were mesmerizing. He never needed much space to get off that line-drive jumper that seemed to rip the nets more violently than anybody else’s shot would, but between those massive shoulders and the head fakes, he’d get the inches he would need almost every time to get off his shot.

As you watched Vinnie operate when he’d go into one of those ethereal zones of his, you could imagine him on the Brooklyn playgrounds, dominating NBA games – 16-point, 18-point quarters seemed routine for Vinnie in those years – the way playground legends dominate the asphalt.

I remember a terrific piece on Vinnie written by the late Shelby Strother of The Detroit News where Johnson recalled the self-preservation methods that growing up in crime-riddled Bedford-Stuyvesant required. Among them, he’d have to stick the handlebars of his bicycle well up into the mesh of the chain-link fences surrounding the court to prevent it from being stolen while he was playing.

I don’t know how that type of experience prepares a man for the different types of pressure that assert themselves in the heat of an NBA playoff game, but I can only imagine it helps.

As pretty much everyone on those teams was, Johnson was enormously prideful. I don’t think he’d have traded his place on the Bad Boys for a greater role elsewhere – and he’d have been a starter pretty much anywhere else in the NBA in the late ’80s with the exception of the places mentioned above – but I know this: He always believed he could have been an All-Star if given the minutes and shots to prove it.

Everybody remembers Vinnie for hitting the shot with 00.7 left on the clock to clinch the Game 5 win over Portland that iced the 1990 NBA title. Overlooked, perhaps, is the mere fact Johnson was on the floor at the time. He got hot in the fourth quarter while Joe D sat, then stayed on after Isiah got shaken up, and for the last possession – tie game, 20 seconds to go – Daly used a three-guard lineup he rarely employed.

And with two Hall of Fame guards on the floor and an unusually good perimeter-shooting big man in Bill Laimbeer as options, Daly called the play to win an NBA championship for his sixth man. Could there have been a greater testament to Vinnie Johnson’s ability or the trust his teammates and coaches had in him than that?

Later that night, in the hotel in Portland the NBA reserved for media, Vinnie showed up to have a few beers with the writers who were relaxed after the long grind of playoff travel was coming to a close. And he talked about his future, how if he wasn’t back with the Pistons, he could be a starter for anybody else in the league, and, he said, he could be a point guard if a team needed him to be that. I had no doubt he believed that, or that he could have done whatever was asked of him.

But there was never a peep from him in those days about wanting more or wanting out. They gave him a role and he filled it admirably, filled it the way almost nobody ever has. There’s a reason Pistons fans react to every promising bench scorer by wishing he could become the next Vinnie Johnson. I suspect they’ll still be invoking Vinnie’s name generations into the future, too.