Amongst the numerous players the Seattle SuperSonics acquired in remaking the team during the summer of 1977 and early part of the 1977-78 season, John Johnson did not stand out. He didn't have a colorful nickname like Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster, or a championship pedigree like Paul Silas. He wasn't an up-and-coming young prospect like Gus Williams, or a top draft pick like Jack Sikma or Wally Walker. Still, Johnson was just as important as the Sonics developed into championship contenders and then winners.
When the Sonics traded for Johnson during the first week of the 1977-78 season, we appeared to be on the downside of his career at age 30. A college teammate of Sonics legend Fred Brown at Iowa, Johnson was the seventh pick of the NBA Draft a year later, and also the first pick ever by the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970.
Johnson immediately became a prolific scorer for the Cavaliers, finishing second on the team at 16.6 points per game during his rookie season, earning an All-Star berth. He improved that to career bests of 17.0 points and 7.7 rebounds per game the following year to return to the All-Star Game. After the acquisition of yet another Sonics legend, Lenny Wilkens, cut into Johnson's output during his third NBA season, he was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he was the team's third-leading scorer the next two seasons.
Johnson moved on again shortly into the 1976-77 season, dealt to Houston for Steve Hawes. With the Rockets, Johnson was only an occasional starter and not the same scoring threat, averaging less than 10 points per game for the first two times in his career. As a result, Johnson was deemed expendable by the Rockets, who tried to trade him to Boston in a deal that was nullified, returning him to the Rockets.
That presented an opportunity for Wilkens, who had coached Johnson in Portland in addition to teaming with him in Cleveland. Wilkens, then the Sonics director of player personnel, sent a pair of second-round picks to Houston to pick up Johnson for a reserve role. That's what Johnson played during his first month with the Sonics, but when Wilkens replaced Bob Hopkins on the sidelines, he shook up the team's starting lineup. One of the changes was to make Johnson the starting small forward.
"That makes the fast break that much more explosive," Wilkens said at the time of adding another ballhandler to the starting lineup. In addition to his scoring, Johnson had always been a fine passer, peaking at 5.1 assists per game during the 1971-72 season. With a pair of scoring-minded players in the backcourt in Williams and Dennis Johnson, John Johnson played a "point forward" role long before the term was coined. He played it very well. When Johnson made his first start on Dec. 2, the Sonics were 6-17. They finished the year 47-35, 41-18 after the starting lineup change. Johnson also provided leadership for a young group starting two third-year players, a second-year player and a rookie.
As a starter, Johnson showed he had plenty left in his legs, averaging 10.6 points per game. He would only get better in the seasons to come. During the 1978-79 season, Johnson pushed his scoring average to 11 points. More importantly, he led the Sonics with 358 assists, an average of 4.4 per game, as the team won 52 games and went on to win its only championship. Johnson had a pair of critical games during the NBA Finals, scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Game 2 and handing out 13 assists and pulling down nine boards while playing a team-high 50 minutes in Game 4.
Johnson's best season in Seattle, statistically, was the 1979-80 season, as the Sonics set a new franchise record with 56 games. Johnson again topped the team in assists, handing out a career-best 5.2 per game, while scoring 11.3 points and pulling down 5.2 rebounds per game.
The following season, Johnson's game began to show signs of slowing down at age 33. While his 11.5 points per game were actually his highest scoring average during his five years in Seattle, Johnson's shooting percentage slipped by 5.8 points, and namesake Vinnie Johnson replaced him as the team leader in assists.
A year later, Johnson played in just 14 games because of injuries in what would be his final NBA season. He was replaced as the starting small forward by Wally Walker, and averaged just 4.2 points per game. Johnson gave it another go the following season, but was released by the Sonics during training camp, his career over.
Johnson concluded his Sonics career having averaged 10.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 333 career games. He continued to rank in the team's all-time top ten in assists, with 1,333, until this season, when he was passed by Brent Barry.
After his playing career, Johnson has continued to live in the Seattle area, and he regularly attends Sonics games and participates in the team's legends program. Johnson's son, Mitch, is a junior at O'Dea High School, where he was named MVP of the 2004 Washington State Class 3A basketball tournament after leading the Fighting Irish to the state title.