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Exclusive interview with Clemon Johnson - 8/10/2011

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Clemon Johnson was a back-up center/power forward who arrived in Philadelphia just in time to help them win the 1983 NBA Championship and remained with the Sixers for several more years. After nine seasons in the NBA, he played an additional five in Italy, where he won the Coppa Italia and Saporta Cup with Bologna in 1990. Following his professional career, he taught high school economics and coached basketball in Tallahassee. He served as head coach at University of Alaska Fairbanks for the previous four seasons and was named head coach at Florida A&M in May of this year.

Sixers.com: Congrats on recently being named head coach at Florida A&M. How happy are you to return to sunny Florida after coaching in Alaska for a few years?

Clemon Johnson: I’m overjoyed at the opportunity to come back to Florida A&M University and to the Tallahassee area, which is my home. I’m excited to be able to coach and try to assist the young guys to have the success I had when I played at Florida A&M University.

S.C: Obviously getting your first Division I coaching gig is a huge milestone, but does it mean that much more getting to coach your alma mater?

CJ: It means more to me to come back and coach at Florida A&M University than to go anywhere else. I honestly think the chance to start my D-1 career here is the most joyful moment I could have.

S.C: What influence did the years you spent playing for Billy Cunningham have on your coaching style?

CJ: The thing that I remember from Billy was that he was a player’s coach and that’s what I’m trying to become. Everyone understands that Coach Johnson is going to let you play your game and that I will instruct you as needed. That’s what I learned from Billy. As long as we were playing well, he’d say ‘you’re doing the right thing’ but as soon as we needed a hand placed on our shoulder, that’s when Billy stepped in. I won’t tell you about the other things he did to us! [Laughs].

S.C: What was it like coming into the NBA as a late second round pick from a small college and having to battle Maurice Lucas in practice everyday?

CJ: It was a learning experience. Coming from a small college, it was a little different from the attitude of the kids today. I came from a small institute and I wanted to learn. I didn’t come in thinking I could do everything. Maurice Lucas kind of took me under his wing and said ‘Hey Clem, this is what needs to be done.’ I listened to him. He beat up on me a couple times but I took the punishment. When I left there, other people had to suffer the same consequences; I’d beat up on them! I learned these things instead of going out there pretending like I knew it all. The Portland Trail Blazers really had no idea about me at Florida A&M University. Some people put in kind words to help me get to that position, John Chaney being one, so I was just showing my gratitude at having that opportunity.

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S.C: What was going through your mind in February of 1983 when you were traded from one of the worst teams in Indiana to one of the best teams in Philadelphia?

CJ: I’ll never forget. We were in Chicago, having just played them. We were at the Marriott and I was on the bus. Coach Jack McKinney said ‘Clem, I want to talk to you.’ We went back into the hotel and he said ‘I got some bad news.’ I’m like ‘oh man, something happened to my family.’ He told me that I was traded to the 76ers and just looked at him like ‘well, what’s the bad news?” [laughs]. The opportunity to come and play with those guys, it was just...man...that was mind-blowing. You just knew that they were destined to win a championship.

S.C: One of the reasons why the Sixers ’83 team is so memorable is because of the 12-1 run in the playoffs. How focused was the team heading into that postseason?

CJ: Billy had the team totally focused. When the playoffs came about, you could look into the eyes of the starters and see it was now time for business. I only went to the First Round of the playoffs with Portland and Indiana so I followed [the Sixers veterans'] lead. One game against Milwaukee, I actually caught myself standing around watching. Billy brought it to my attention and you know Harold Katz brought it to my attention! I never went that far. Here I am on the floor watching Doc and Moses do their thing. For one or two plays, I was just totally caught off guard with my surroundings. Doc, being the leader he is, next game said ‘Clem, I heard what’s going on. Relax and go play basketball.’ The next game I had about 10 points going from zero the previous game. I keep telling people that I’m not going into the Hall of Fame as Clemon Johnson but I’ll definitely be there when you look at the 1983 76ers.

S.C: Given that the Sixers lost the Finals to the Lakers the previous year, did you sense that guys like Doc and Maurice Cheeks wanted to sweep L.A. in the ’83 Finals to make up for that?

CJ: I just got the sense from the statement Moses made about winning them all. There was never a point in their minds when they doubted what was going to happen. We’re coming to get this game. We’re coming to get this series. We’re not worrying about taking this back to Philadelphia. We’re going to end this right now.

S.C: Have you enjoyed the bond that winning the title created and being able to celebrate with teammates at events like the final game at the Spectrum back in 2009?

CJ: I like to come back and see them, especially the guys off the bench. We seem to be a little closer, because being on the bench, we spent a lot more time together.

S.C: Having played with and against Moses Malone, what was it like trying to box him out?

CJ: You don’t! You just hope that you get the basketball. If you try to box him out, he’s just going to go around you so you just try to make sure you’re in position to get the rebound when you can. I was playing against Moses when he was still in Houston. I think he already had like 28 or 30 points. The clock was winding down and he told me ‘Clem, if they pass me the ball, I’m going to shoot a 3-pointer’ and I said ‘quit talking that noise!’ He actually took the ball, dribbled out from underneath the basket and went out to attempt a 3-point shot. It was great playing against him and the opportunity I had to play with him was tremendous. Unfortunately, some nagging injuries caught up with me when I was with the Sixers, because playing with him, you learn a lot of things. We played one game in New Jersey. I missed about a 3-foot jumpshot but I got the rebound and I dunked on two of their players. Doc walked up to me and said ‘okay little Moses!’ and I thought ‘yeah, I’m starting to fit in.’

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S.C: You were with the Sixers when Charles Barkley started his career. Did you know he was going to be a great player?

CJ: No doubt. The level of confidence he came in with, I knew he was going to be a great player. I was just wondering if his mouth was going to get him in trouble first! There were situations where I had to sit down and talk with the young guy because that’s what Maurice Lucas did for me. I didn’t have the mouth Charles Barkley did, but Lucas took me under his arm and said ‘look, this is what needs to be taken care of.’ Same thing with Charles. I’d said ‘Charles, you have great talent but you have Doc here, Moses here and Bobby Jones here. You’re going to get your chance but right now just keep playing, keep improving and watch and learn.’ We were in Boston and he couldn’t get a shot off on Kevin McHale because Kevin kept blocking his shot when he went to the basket. We sat on the bench and talked the situation through and I said ‘Charles, what you’re going to have to do is hit a couple jump shots. That’s going to bring McHale out, now you can get by him and get to the basket.’ So we had our talk and he actually listened and went back to the floor and put the plan into action.

S.C: How have big men changed over the years in the NBA? Is there anything they’ve gotten away from doing that you’ve picked up on and what impresses you the most about them?

CJ: It really hurts me when they talk about big men in NBA history that they don’t talk about Moses. Most of the big men during my era were post players while the big men of today have the ability to stretch the floor more and run the floor a little faster. I wouldn’t necessarily say they jump much higher because we did have some great leaping centers and forwards in my era, but these guys do it more consistently. So, I think they’re more athletic but I think the guys I played with were more thinking athletes.