Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by John Maxwell
Vinnie Johnson spent 10 seasons in Detroit, scored 22 points in one quarter of playoff basketball to earn his nickname, “The Microwave,” and on Feb. 5, 1994, had his No. 15 retired. But he’ll always be remembered for another number: 00.7.
The trade that brought Johnson to Motown from Seattle on Nov. 21, 1981, came in the midst of a whirlwind of activity that also saw the Pistons acquire Isiah Thomas, Kelly Tripucka and Bill Laimbeer over a nine-month span. Pistons GM Jack McCloskey’s moves were desperately needed as Detroit stumbled to a 21-61 finish in the 1980-81 season. They would prove to be the foundation of the Bad Boys.
As a member of the Super Sonics, Johnson established himself as a starter in 1980-81, his second NBA season. He did a little bit of everything – shooting (53.4 FG%), scoring (13.1 ppg), rebounding (4.5 rpg), ball distribution (4.2 apg) and defense (1.0 spg). The versatile guard was the perfect backcourt complement Thomas and John Long, who was later supplanted by Joe Dumars, in head coach Chuck Daly’s three-guard rotation.
VJ’s sixth-man role with the Pistons was one that many a budding star would be reluctant to accept. But for Johnson, it was all part of being a team player. “It didn’t bother me at all to come off the bench,” he said. “I knew I was coming off the bench for a great team, and I knew we had the opportunity to win championships.”
Even as a backup, Johnson would not stay unheralded for long. Johnson’s abilities were first showcased to NBA fans everywhere on May 5, 1985, the night he earned one of the more colorful, and appropriate, nicknames in recent sports memory: “The Microwave.”
It was Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the Pistons trailed the defending champion Boston Celtics two games to one. The Celtics were leading, 87-76, going into the fourth quarter and appeared well on their way to a commanding series lead. Johnson had other ideas. The Pistons scored 26 points in the fourth – and Johnson scored 22 of them, on his way to a then career-high 34 points on 16-of-21 shooting. Following the Pistons' 102-99 victory, Celtics guard Danny Ainge commented on Johnson’s performance by saying, “If that guy in Chicago is the 'Refrigerator’ then Vinnie Johnson is the ‘Microwave.’ He sure heated up in a hurry.”
As the Pistons climbed their way to the top of the NBA throughout the 1980s, there were countless other “Microwave” moments, none bigger than his personal favorite. “Winning the championship in Portland – Game 5, hitting the championship shot,” he said. Trailing the Trail Blazers by seven with two minutes to play, the Pistons ended Game 5 of the 1990 NBA Finals with a 9-0 run, capped by Johnson’s “championship shot,” an 18-footer that left 0.07 seconds left on the clock. Johnson’s heroics sealed the Pistons’ second consecutive NBA title on June 14, 1990.
But the shot almost didn’t happen. “The play was designed for Isiah to have the ball and take the last shot. Joe Dumars was the second option on that play – both of whom were double-teamed,” Johnson said. “When I got the ball and saw that both Isiah and Joe were covered, and with time running out, I took the shot.”
Johnson would later tell 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. They still had a chance to get a shot off, and my concern was that the game was not over.”
But the game was over, and after one more season, so was Johnson’s tenure as a Piston. Detroit waived him in September 1991 after ten memorable years. After one last NBA season in San Antonio, Johnson returned to Michigan where he established Piston Automotive. The business opened with a handful of employees, and is now a successful assembly and sequencing company with nearly 500 workers.
Though he never won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, Johnson epitomized the role, and is still considered one of the greatest “sixth men” in league history. His place in Pistons lore also is indisputable, substantiated by the banner with his name and No. 15 that now hangs from The Palace rafters. “It was a huge honor,” he said. “The fact that they retired my jersey tells me that I did some great things for the organization.”
Johnson still ranks among the Pistons career top ten in scoring (10,146), games played (798), field goals (4,202), assists (2,661) and steals (708). And he delivered that “championship shot.” Not bad for a guy off the bench, huh?