A great sixth man rarely gets the appreciation he deserves but can be a key contributor that turns ordinary basketball teams into world champions. They come in cold from the bench, are expected to rest the starters and after this must deliver clutch performances.
Perhaps, no other player in Detroit Pistons history epitomizes the value of a sixth man better than Vinnie Johnson.
Johnson was the unsung hero during the original heyday of the Pistons, teaming up with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in the Pistons vaunted three-guard rotation. He scored points in spurts and heated up quickly, earning the moniker the “Microwave”. Johnson’s shining moment with the Pistons came in the 1990 NBA Finals against Portland when he sank the winning shot with 00.7 left in the game to clinch Detroit’s second straight NBA title.
Like many other members of the Pistons, Johnson stayed in Detroit after his retirement and started his own business, Piston Automotive. Through his venture, “VJ” has created many job opportunities in Detroit’s inner city. In his more than two decades in Detroit, Vinnie as he has come to be known, has left an indelible imprint on the Detroit community for his work on and off the court.
The Early Years
Born September 1, 1956, Vinnie grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Vinnie was one of eight children in his family. Like well-known New York legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain as well as lesser known Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Herman “The Helicopter” Knowings and Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, a young Vinnie Johnson honed his skills on Brooklyn’s famous street courts including Rucker Park in Harlem. Bob Pertsas, Johnson’s assistant coach in high school and now athletic director at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School says, “Vinnie was the most underrated player in Brooklyn."
From 1971-75 Johnson attended Roosevelt where he starred on the basketball team. As a junior, Johnson, no more than 5’9’’, started at forward for Roosevelt’s varsity squad. By his senior season, Vinnie continued to astonish onlookers. This time at guard. Pertsas says, “ He amazed you with his athletic ability and potential.” By the end of the season, Vinnie was an all-city selection and named Roosevelt’s athlete of the year. Johnson averaged around 20.0 PPG during his high school career. After high school, Vinnie decided to go to McLennan Junior College in Waco, Texas.
After two years starring at McLennan Junior College, Johnson went to Baylor University and majored in physical education. As a senior, Johnson was the Southwest Conference’s leading scorer, averaging 25.2 PPG. During his two-year stint at Baylor, Vinnie was named to the AP’s All-American second-team twice and became Baylor’s second all-time leading scorer (1,231). As a senior, Johnson scored 50 points against Texas Christian, setting a Baylor individual game scoring record and a record for field goals made in a game (21). Johnson left Baylor as one of the school’s most prolific players. Currently, Johnson ranks eighth on Baylor’s all-time scoring list, first all-time in scoring average (24.1 PPG), sixth in assists (308) and sixth in field goals made (503).
Drafted seventh overall in the first round by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1979 NBA Draft, Johnson joined a team that was fresh off winning its first NBA championship. The Supersonics roster was deep and had plenty of star power including guard Dennis Johnson and center Jack Sikma. With minutes available on a scarce basis Vinnie only averaged 3.2 PPG and 1.4 APG and played only 38 games during his rookie season.
In his second season, Johnson finally got the opportunity to showcase his talents, starting 63 games and leading the team in minutes played (2,311). Vinnie also led the Sonics in average assists (4.2) and field goal percentage (53.4%), helping Seattle to a 34-48 record. The muscular 6’2’’ shooter was the NBA’s top guard in offensive rebounding, averaging 2.3 per game. Johnson also scored 31 points in a 143-139 victory over the Houston Rockets on November 15, 1980.
The following campaign would be Johnson’s last with the Supersonics. He played in only seven games with Seattle before being traded to Detroit for Greg Kelser on November 21, 1981. In his inaugural season with the Pistons, Vinnie played in 67 games, averaging 7.7 PPG and 2.4 APG. Johnson became a stalwart off the bench for the Pistons during the 80’s and was a key figure in the franchise’s resurgence.
Vinnie was a valuable piece in Pistons GM Jack McCloskey’s quest for a championship. Vinnie became known for his ability to penetrate into the lane and hit jumpers. He also had a pension for offensive rebounding. The same year he acquired Vinnie, McCloskey acquired Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. The three talented stars would become cornerstones of the Pistons franchise for years to come. In Johnson’s first full season with the Pistons, he almost doubled his scoring, averaging 15.8 PPG. Johnson helped lead the Pistons to a 37-45 record, finishing third in the Central Division.
The 1983-84 season saw the Pistons continuing to creep up the ladder in the Eastern Conference, winning 49 games and making the playoffs for the first time since 1977. Playing in all 82 regular season games, Vinnie averaged 13.0 PPG including a season high 28 points against Utah. In the Pistons first round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Johnson averaged 10.2 PPG, hitting double figures three times. Vinnie had solidified himself as the Pistons top bench performer.
Johnson’s bench status became legendary on May 5, 1985. On that night he earned his “Microwave” nickname. Vinnie scored 34 points against the Boston Celtics, hitting 16 of 21 shots including 22 points in the fourth quarter. He led the Pistons to a 102-99 victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series. After the game, Johnson told reporters, “ When I get going I feel it even against a big man.” Johnson’s moniker came from Celtics guard Danny Ainge who commented in the locker room, “If that guy in Chicago is the ‘Refrigerator’ then Vinnie Johnson is the ‘Microwave.’ He sure heated up in a hurry.” Thanks to Ainge, Johnson had a nickname that would stick the rest of his career.
The 1985-86 campaign saw the arrival of Joe Dumars, a shooting guard from McNeese State. Together, Johnson, Dumars and Isiah Thomas would combine for a lethal backcourt that propelled the Pistons into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference and the NBA. During the season, Johnson averaged 13.9 PPG and 3.4 APG, helping lead the Pistons to a 46-36 record. The Pistons finished third in the Central Division but lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
By the 1986-87 season, the Pistons had become legitimate contenders for an NBA championship. Johnson was a runner-up for the NBA’s Sixth Man Award, averaging 15.7 PPG. The “Microwave” also helped lead Detroit to a 52-30 record and the Pistons advanced to the 1987 E.C. Finals against the Boston Celtics. On one of the strangest plays in NBA history, Vinnie and Adrian Dantley dove for a ball at mid-court during Game 7 and knocked heads. Both players lay unconscious as play stopped. Both players were out of the game and the Pistons would lose 117-114 and be eliminated from the post-season. The series, however, had set the tone for the Pistons
The 1987-88 campaign was a breakthrough season for the Pistons and their talented sixth man. Johnson averaged 12.2 PPG and 3.3 APG while helping lead the Pistons to a 54-28 record, winning the Central Division. The Pistons vanquished their Eastern Conference rivals, the Boston Celtics and made it to the NBA Finals where they eventually lost a hard fought series to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games with Johnson averaging 11.0 PPG.
The following year saw Johnson and the Pistons win their first NBA championship, sweeping the Lakers. The Microwave averaged 13.8 PPG while playing in all 82 games during the regular season. The next season, 1989-90, was Johnson’s most defining as a player. During the season, Johnson eclipsed 10,000 points for his career. Johnson also filled in admirably for the injured Joe Dumars, starting 11 straight games and averaging 15.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG and 4.5 APG as a starter. The Pistons once against made it to the NBA Finals where Johnson’s heroics clinched the championship for the Pistons against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Microwave hit the game winner, a 15-foot jumper from the right side with 00.7 seconds left to give the Pistons a 92-90 series clinching victory. Johnson told Steve Addy in his book, Four Decades Of Motor City Memories, “ I’m not going to say I knew the shot was going in, but it felt good. It was just beautiful to see it go in.” Together Johnson and the Pistons were back-to back to champions.
The 1990-91 season would be Johnson’s last with the Pistons. The “Microwave” played in all 82 regular season games for the Pistons averaging 11.7 PPG and 3.3 APG. The Pistons went 50-32 but were dethroned by the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. The 1991-92 season was Johnson’s swan song. After being waived by the Pistons over the summer of 1991, Johnson joined the San Antonio Spurs, playing 60 games and averaging 8.0 PPG and 2.4 APG. .
In 10 seasons with the Pistons, Johnson played in 798 games. Currently, Johnson ranks sixth all-time in Pistons history in points (10,146), fifth in assists (2,661) and fifth in steals (708).
A Successful Second Career
On February 5, 1994, Johnson’s Number 15 jersey was raised to the rafters by the Pistons, honoring his 10 seasons of dedicated service. Since retiring, Johnson has done radio work with the Pistons, teaming up with George Blaha as an analyst.
Staying a part of the Detroit community, Johnson created Piston Automotive in 1995. Piston Automotive assembles work and parts sequencing. Piston Automotive is centered in the City of Detroit’s Empowerment Zone. Creating job opportunities, Vinnie’s company now has over 200 employees. Vinnie also serves as the chairman of The Piston Group. Johnson formed a joint venture, joining Piston Automotive with Continental Teves, Lear Corporation and Sachs Automotive. As chairman, Johnson has led the organization to sales exceeding $85 million. In his post NBA career, Johnson has provided oversight, advice and authorization to his organization’s managers and officers.
Johnson also extends his contribution to the Detroit community to local charities. He is a member of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Minority Business Development Council. Crain’s Business Magazine chose Johnson as one of the Black Business Leadership 100. Johnson’s accomplishments in athletics include being selected to both the Michigan and New York Sports Halls of Fame.
Vinnie Johnson was the unsung hero for the Pistons on many winter nights. The Microwave heated up when the starters were cold and torched opponents, with his hustle, rebounding and mid-range jumpers. Thanks to Johnson, the Bad Boys were back-to-back champions, and arguably one of the greatest teams of their generation.