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1999 NBA Playoffs

Little Big Man

Johnson comes through with shot that does in Knicks

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Posted: Saturday June 26, 1999 02:20 AM

  Avery Johnson baths in the glory of the NBA title after hitting the shot that iced the game for the Spurs. AP

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

NEW YORK -- Avery Johnson has been doubted all his basketball life. It’s not that he gets no respect. It’s that other teams and other players don’t even bother to think about him.

And so it was that the man the San Antonio Spurs call their “Little General” -- a man who’s kicked around for 11 years and who could only find work in San Antonio -- found himself wide open on the left baseline with Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals in the balance. That is, Game 5 and a possible NBA championship for the Spurs.

And so it was that Johnson would bury the game-winning 18-foot jumper that finally would silence the New York Knicks -- and, perhaps, finally silence his many critics around the league.

“He reads the papers. He knows what gets said,” said Mario Elie, Johnson’s mate in the San Antonio backcourt. “Everybody’s wanting to leave him open, all day. And then he shows them. It’s great. AJ comes through.”

Johnson was having a sub-par game to that point, turning the ball over six times and scoring six points on 3-for-9 shooting.

But with 47 seconds remaining and the Spurs down 77-76, Johnson spilled down to the left sideline to give teammate Sean Elliott some room to work. But when Latrell Sprewell, who was guarding Johnson, ran across the court to cover another open shooter, and Elliott found his way blocked, he got the ball to Johnson, who didn’t hesitate with the shot.

Nothing, as they say in the basketball biz, but net.

“It’s really incredible,” said the 5-foot-11 Johnson, who passed up an open look the previous time down. “That one -- that’s my shot. I love the corner shots. This playoffs, I really like any kind of shots.”

Johnson’s most vocal critic may be Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damon Stoudamire, who said that the Spurs could never win an NBA title with Johnson at the point. It wasn’t so much a slam at Johnson as it was a transparent attempt by Stoudamire -- stuck in Toronto at the time -- to get to San Antonio.

It didn’t work. And now Johnson has proven Stoudamire wrong once and for all.

“We had a nice little talk after the Westerm Conference finals,” said Johnson, whose Spurs ousted Stoudamire’s Blazers in four straight. “He wanted to play for a Texas team. Preferably San Antonio or Houston, but San Antonio had a point guard. So we know he couldn’t come here.”

But the Knicks did not pay much heed to Johnson, either, even though he went into Game 5 as one of only two San Antonio players -- Tim Duncan was the other -- to be shooting better than 50 percent for the series.

With his 4-for-10 effort in Game 5, Johnson ended the series 20-for-40.

“The guys have a lot of confidence in getting me the ball,” Johnson said. “In years past, they pump fake the ball [faking a pass] then shoot it. But this year ... when I was open, they got me the ball. And that really made me feel good.”

Johnson came out of Southern University in 1988, but he went undrafted. He signed as a free agent with Seattle, where he spent two seasons on the bench. He spent the next few years between Denver, San Antonio and Houston, San Antonio again and then Golden State.

Once, he was cut on Christmas Eve. He was learned he was cut by the Spurs one time after being in teammate David Robinson’s wedding.

He returned for a third tour with the Spurs in 1994-95 and has been a vital part of the Spurs' return to prominence, playing in all but 13 of San Antonio's games in the past five seasons.

He figures to be an integral part of their future, too.

“Little Big Man hits the ‘J,’” said teammate Jaren Jackson. “They’ve been killing him his whole career about that jumper. It was a dagger, it was a dagger.”

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