Ervin Johnson to be Inducted into Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame

Twelve years after the conclusion of his long NBA tenure – and 25 years after he capped a legendary career at the University of New Orleans – Ervin Johnson still stands tall in and for his sport.

Johnson will be one of four standout local sports figures to be inducted into the Allstate Sugar Bowl’s Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 4 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Johnson will be joined in the 2018 Hall of Fame class by Tom Benson, A.J. Duhe and John Fourcade. Each year’s Hall of Fame class is selected by the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee, a group of current and former media members who annually recognize a variety of award-winners, including the Hall of Fame, the Corbett Awards and the Eddie Robinson Award. The group also selects the Greater New Orleans Amateur Athlete of the Month each month.

 A total of 23 individuals, including this year’s Hall of Fame class, and three teams will be honored at this year’s banquet.

Anyone familiar with Johnson would not be surprised at his generous givebacks. He organized a girls AAU program, EJ Hoops, and helps with the coaching. And as a member of the Denver Nuggets Community Ambassadors, he has shared his spoken autobiography with youth – 10,000 to 15,000 a year, Johnson estimates -- and brought smiles to residents of assisted-living facilities.

“I really enjoy telling my story,” says Johnson.

What an amazing tale he can tell. Johnson quit his team in the 10th grade at Block High School in Jonesville, La. -- about 45 miles northeast of Alexandria in tiny (about 10,000 residents) Catahoula Parish -- and grew eight inches after graduation to 6-feet-11. He worked in a Baton Rouge supermarket for 2½ years before enrolling at UNO in January 1989. He offered his services to Tim Floyd, then in his first season as UNO's head coach, on the final night of the early signing period in November 1988 after hearing of UNO's need for depth and height. Floyd, whose first UNO team had no starter taller than 6-5, instantly awarded Johnson a scholarship and redshirted him.

Johnson survived that initiation, plus a threat from Floyd to ship him to a junior college -- "At that point we just didn't think Ervin was ready to play at the D-I level," the coach said -- before blossoming into one of the city’s greatest college players.

By the time he finished his UNO career in 1993, Johnson had started for three conference-championship teams, played in two NCAA tournaments and set UNO records for career rebounds (1,287), field-goal percentage (.591), blocked shots (294), games started (116) and minutes played (3,694). His 1,608 points ranked second in UNO history. He was Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as a senior center on a team which was 18-0 in conference, 26-4 overall and No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll. Though his ranking on UNO's career scoring charts has changed, this fact hasn't: He's UNO's only first-round NBA draft choice.

"I was blessed to get a scholarship.” Johnson said. “I was a bad player when I got to UNO, but people there believed in me.”

So did the NBA. The Seattle SuperSonics drafted Johnson, and he played there for three seasons. He spent a year in Denver and averaged 7.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while starting all 82 regular-season games, but he was traded for three players the following year to Milwaukee Bucks, where he spent seven of his final nine seasons. He also played for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Johnson started more than half of his 845 NBA games with career averages of 4.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 20.1 minutes per game.

“I thought I was prepared and mature,” Johnson says of his ability to build a lengthy NBA resume. “I believed in hard work, and I was willing to do anything to help the team. I had great coaches on every team, and I had good teammates. I had a desire to play, and I was always willing to put in the time. I’m sure I surprised a lot of people. I beat the odds. I just took it one contract at a time.”

When Johnson shares his life's journey, he offers eight points. "One, education," he said. "Two, keep a positive attitude. Three, believe in yourself. Four, make good decisions. Five, set goals for yourself. Six, respect yourself and others. Seven, never quit or give up. Eight, build positive habits."

Recently a young girl asked Johnson if she would be famous. “I told her she can do whatever she wants,” he said. “I said she could do it if she works hard and stays focused. What kids need is the confidence that they can do it. I try to encourage. There was a time when I needed that encouragement, and I got it.”

One of Johnson’s greatest confidence-builders at UNO was his progress in the weight room. “I couldn’t even bench-press 135 pounds when I got there,” he said. “When I got to UNO I was one of the weakest. But I left as one of the strongest. Spent a lot of time there lifting with (teammates) Darren Laiche and Fred Hill. It was a smelly old facility, but it wasn’t about the facility – it was about working hard and grinding it out.”

The induction will be Johnson’s second in six years. He was a member of the 2013 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class. In addition, UNO retired his No. 40 jersey on December 29, 1997.

The Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee began in 1957 when James Collins spearheaded a group of sports journalists to form a sports awards committee to immortalize local sports history. For 13 years, the committee honored local athletes each month. In 1970, the Sugar Bowl stepped in to sponsor and revitalize the committee, leading to the creation of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1971, honoring 10 legends from the Crescent City in its first induction class. While adding the responsibility of selecting Hall of Famers, the committee has continued to recognize the top amateur athlete in the Greater New Orleans area each month - the honors enter their 62nd year in 2018. To be eligible, an athlete must be a native of the greater New Orleans area or must compete for a team in the metropolitan region.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 93 Hall of Fame players, 49 Hall of Fame coaches and 18 Heisman Trophy winners in its 84-year history. The 85th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, featuring top teams from the Big 12 and the SEC, will be played on January 1, 2019. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1.6 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors nearly 100,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.5 billion into the local economy in the last decade. For more information, visit www.AllstateSugarBowl.org.

Story by Ed Cassiere of the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee.