The Golden State Warriors were the chalk of the NBA this season with a record setting 73 wins, coming on the heels of an World Championship title last year.
It had been a long dry spell prior to last season, going all the way back to 1975 , since they had captured their last championship.
On that 1975 team was a prominent part of their success who had local ties to the Crescent City. His specialty was rim protection. The shot swatter. by the name of George Johnson excelled in college at Dillard University.
George’s childhood ambition growing up was to play with and against the very best. His goal was to make it to the NBA.
He never wavered, but the journey to reach his lifetime dream took some interesting twists and turns. He grew up in Tylertown, Mississippi.
Although his family always supported George, his dad was a high school principal and placed a high premium on education.
The 6-foot-8 forward fielded offers from Grambling, Alcorn State, Southern University and Dillard in New Orleans.
“I wanted to play in the NBA, but my dad said that I would need an education regardless,” Johnson recalls. “He told me that Dillard would be the best place for me.”
George would go on to make the Dean’s List six times, just missing cum laude while majoring in Business Administration and Economics. He was also captain of the basketball team.
John Singleton coached the Bleu Devils during George’s freshman campaign but John Brown assumed the reigns the following season, remaining on the Gentilly campus for 14 seasons.
“It was a good program when I arrived,” Johnson said. “Malbert Pradd was there. He was fearless. He could score 40 points at any moment. As a freshman, I was the tallest. We had a good recruiting class. A couple of 6’4″, a pair of 6’6″ and two 6’8” guys. We called ourselves the Magnificent Seven.
That group won four Gulf Coast Independent conference championships during Johnson’s years at Dillard.
The place to be in post season was Kansas City, the home of the NAIA championship, where all the NBA scouts took up residence during the championships. But Grambling or Southern always knocked Dillard out of the running the round prior to a spot in Kansas City.
Following the conclusion of his days at Dillard, big George had a choice to make, make a go of it in the NBA or the relatively new ABA.
In 1970 NBA draft, the Chicago Bulls took the now 6-foot-11 Johnson in the fifth round while the local New Orleans Buccaneers also selected him in the ABA draft.
“I really wanted to play in the NBA against the Bill Russell’s and Wilt Chamberlain’s,” he explained. “The Bulls brought me in for the rookie camp.”
It was an abbreviated visit. Head coach Dick Motta instructed the frail looking center (at just 205 pounds) to go home and work out. Johnson wasn’t in their immediate plans.
Motta did point Johnson in another direction though. “He told me that the Harlem Globetrotters were looking for replacements. A week later, I’m on a plane headed to the Globetrotters. It was interesting, but not the kind of basketball that I wanted to play. I didn’t make the cut after one week.”
Soon thereafter, his life took another dramatic turn. He became engaged and put his basketball dream on hold for awhile. Having to earn a living, he headed to the west coast working as a operations officer at a bank. His recreation time was spent playing semi pro basketball. Opportunities to play against high level competition were scarce. There weren’t a lot of developmental leagues like there are now.
As fate would have it, Johnson crossed paths with an NBA referee who was officiating in the semi pro league. He advised George to tryout for the local Golden State Warriors. Little did he know that the Warriors head coach Al Attles had witnessed the shot eraser’s prowess on the court.
After being assured that Security Pacific would hold his job, Johnson jumped back on the path to the NBA once again. The league minimum in 1972 was $17,500.
Defense was the key to his future in the Association. George was blessed with length, but he had been defining his skills as a shot blocker since his formative years in Tylertown.
“Growing up as a 10 year old I played against guys 3-4 years older. We would play 2-on-2 basketball. I wasn’t as talented so I had to compensate and realized what I did was similar to Bill Russell. Timing was a talent. You did what you had to stop your opponent.”
During his first three seasons in the NBA, Johnson was a quick study. He began to be recognized for blocking shots. Due to his timing, anticipation and tremendous reach he paced the League in block shots in 1978, ’81 and ’82. He completed his 13 year career averaging 2.46 blocks per outing. He blocked 10 shots in a single game on six occasions.
Johnson swatted away 12 New Orleans Jazz shots in the Superdome while playing with the New Jersey Nets on March 21, 1978. “When I was down there, I wanted to show (New Orleans) that this kid from Dillard can play,” he exclaimed.
On February 24, 1981 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, he demonstrated a dominating skill against an old team, the Golden State Warriors. The sharp-minded veteran dominated young center Joe Barry Carroll with a 10 block performance. “I could anticipate what (Carroll) was going to do.”
Johnson also led the NBA in disqualifications. He was called for fouls that maybe weren’t fouls, in his opinion. “I would go for the head fake. I would cause the shooter some hesitation, then I would block his shot. Referees anticipated fouls,” said Johnson, who was disqualified 20 times during the 1977-78 season alone.
Sticking around the pros for so long, Johnson experienced highs, lows and oddities.
During the 1977 campaign with the Buffalo Braves, a franchise blessed with talent, Johnson saw how his team was dealt a tough hand. “We had Adrian Dantley , Ernie DiGregorio and John Shumate, a solid team. When I just arrived, there was a heavy snowfall. It ruined the Braves arena. We couldn’t play home games for a awhile. For one month, we would have to play 3-4 consecutive games to compensate.”
In the 1974-75 season, the Golden State Warriors finished 48-34. The year prior, the Attles-coached team had posted a better mark at 59-23. But the 1974-75 bunch boasted skill and chemistry, with Clifford Ray, Butch Beard, Jamal Wilkes, Cazzie Russell, George Johnson and Rick Barry. The surging Warriors overtook Seattle in round one of the playoffs before beating the Chicago Bulls 4-3.
In the 1975 NBA Finals, the Washington Bullets were the Eastern representative. The Bullets were loaded with talent like Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld, Clem Haskins and Jimmy Jones (a former New Orleans Bucaneer).
“We played them earlier in the season. We continued to get better,” George explained. “We just got past the Bulls. That was a tough series.”
Golden State was ready for the Bullets.
George Johnson and Clifford Ray normally alternated quarters, with Ray playing the first and third. That meant Johnson played in crunch time. He played about 18-20 minutes per game. Against Chicago, Attles changed the rotation.
“I started the third quarter and locked three or four shots early. It got the momentum turned around. Rick Barry got hot.”
Barry, a future Hall of Famer, would complain about being fouled often. The refs began to hear his pleas.
The Warriors were the underdogs from the outset of the playoffs, so no one expected them to be where they were.
The Ice Capades was already scheduled for the Arena forcing the Warrior home games for the NBA championship to be played in the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
“We stayed in a hotel, and we played hard. We won the third game of the series, the first home game for the Bullets. We then had a psychological advantage.”
Golden State swept Washington in four straight for the championship. The World Champion fondly remembers the coach who pulled it all together. “Al Attles was a father figure to me. We had a special bond,” Johnson noted.
Always looking to improve, Johnson also learned a basketball lesson from Barry. “Rick would shoot free throws underhand between his legs. He showed me how to do it for two weeks. Overhand I was 65 percent; Rick’s way I was 80 percent .”
Johnson played with and against some of the greats of the game. He recalls many of those in a special way.
“Wilt Chamberlain, I was in awe of him. A great player, his finger rolls. When I was playing against him, I was in a different time zone on the court. John Havlicek, a great professional on or off the court, is a gentleman that I have deep respect for. Wes Unseld, body by Fisher. He set a pick I ran into. It felt like a brick wall. I almost blacked out,” joked Johnson.
“Jerry West, most respectable. He never quit. He was like the energizer bunny, never stopped. Julius Erving , can’t say enough about Dr. J on or off the court. He was a perfect gentleman, a class act. David Thompson, the guard that I most respected. High flying. I felt that the goal was my territory. He dunked over me.”
A former teammate dazzled him often. “Adrian Dantley, he was a rookie when I got to Buffalo. He and Bernard King were the best on the baseline. Adrian was a demon on the baseline. He could do amazing things.”
Johnson enjoyed his time up-close and personal with some of the legends of basketball.
“Larry Bird, I didn’t like him at first. You respect guys that could go out and do it. He had no ego.”
“George Gervin, can’t say enough about The Ice Man. No one could hold a candle to him. He could really turn it on. Whatever you needed he could deliver. He could drop 40 points or more on any given night.”
“Dominique Wilkins, he would challenge me at practice. He was a human highlight film. I had a chance to watch him develop. He was one of the best dunkers ever!”
“Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the hardest guy to defend. He had that sky hook mastered from 30 feet. I was one of the first guys to block his shot. It would force him to see exactly where I was. I had him thinking. I admired Kareem. We went on a couple of trips. I was a union representative. I got to see a different side of him. Being from a small school like Dillard, I can’t imagine what he must have endured during his life. He attracted so much attention everywhere he went.”
Of course, there was a more famous NBA Johnson who helped change the game.
“Magic Johnson, I didn’t believe him at first. I had heard about him. When he and Bird arrived everything changed. That’s when the NBA’s image changed.”
What does an old-school vet think of the future of the NBA? Plenty of positives actually.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver took office in Feb. 2014. His predecessor David Stern did a fabulous job and was recognized as perhaps the sport’s all time best leader. But George Johnson visualizes even brighter days ahead.
“It’s going to be better,” he stated with an eye to the future. “That’s saying a lot because David Stern stabilized our league. We will be going international in the next 10-12 years. I can see guys making $35 -$50 million per season. Adam will expand that NBA to countries like China. Maybe you’ll see a country owning a team instead of an individual or group.”
Silver agreed to a multi year partnership with China’s ministry of education to incorporate basketball curriculum in elementary, middle and high schools across the nation. It began in Beijing where the initiative will begin training three million students in 2017. The NBA will also supply players, former stars and coaches to Chinese schools for clinics and instruction.
Could the Johnson of his era compete in the NBA today? When quizzed on which current NBA player closely resembles George Johnson, he had a quick answer. “Ibaka,” he said in reference to the intimidating Oklahoma City forward. “I had all the talent that I needed. He and I both share similar skills. If I was playing today in the NBA, I could make $10-15 million based on playing time and productivity.”
Dillard University recognized George Johnson by retiring his college jersey No 22. It was an honor, and George is proud of his legacy.
“I was a small kid from Mississippi with big dreams. What I did was historic. When you look back, I measured up. I remember referees would tell me ‘great game.’ I learned that I could control the game. I was blessed to have played. I regret never having made an all star game, but I was competing against the biggest and the best.”
Johnson completed his 13 years in the NBA with 4,369 points, 4,887 rebounds and 2,082 blocks. He was NBA All-Defensive second team in 1981. He finished 16th overall in career blocks in NBA history.