Apologize to Avery Johnson today, and you can avoid the late-June rush. Act now, or after the NBA Finals you'll have to stand in line with everyone else who has underestimated him over the years—all the opponents who insulted him, all the coaches and general managers who waived him, all the defenders who left him unguarded, as if he were some fire hydrant incapable of knocking down an open jump shot. They will all have to confess that they were wrong about Johnson, the San Antonio Spurs' point guard. Turns out he is good enough, after all. He's good enough to win a Western Conference title and, to Damon Stoudamire's surprise, quite probably good enough to help the Spurs win an NBA championship later this month.
The fortunes of Johnson and Stoudamire, the Portland Trail Blazers' point guard, were emblematic of their teams' play during the conference finals, in which the Spurs completed a four-game sweep with a 94-80 victory on Sunday in Portland. Like Johnson, the Spurs were savvy and controlled, and like Stoudamire, the Blazers were impetuous and done in by their rash decisions. By the time the series was over, Johnson had made Stoudamire regret his prediction of two years ago that the Spurs would never win a championship with AJ in their starting lineup. Johnson had 14 points and eight assists compared with Stoudamire's two points on 1-for-12 shooting in the Spurs' 85-63 devastation of the Blazers in Game 3. Stoudamire, a Portland native, had an even bigger problem—Rose Garden fans were so angry at him for grousing during the series about playing time that they booed him throughout the game as if he had burned down the neighborhood Starbucks.
"They're a great team, but they made it tougher on themselves throughout the series," Johnson says. "The things we heard them talking about in the media, like playing time and people's roles, aren't issues for us." With the Blazers dispatched, the only issue remaining for the Spurs is the Finals, which Johnson was thinking about just moments after Game 4 was over. "The first thing I need to do is curl up with some tapes of the Indiana and New York point guards," he said. "I've got some studying to do."
That's typical of Johnson, who knows he needs every edge to compete with more physically gifted opponents. The 5'11" Johnson is more likely to lead the league in blocked shots than to gripe about playing time, probably because he realizes that when you sneak into a party through the back door, you don't complain about the hors d'oeuvres. It's a small miracle that Johnson ever reached the NBA As a senior at St. Augustine High in New Orleans, he was only 5'3", and he knew his way around a bench better than most carpenters. "I was the 14th man on a 14-member team," he says. "I was the backup to the backup's backup." He worked his way up the depth chart so that when his team's starting point guard was suspended during the postseason tournament, Johnson moved into the lineup and helped win the 1983 Louisiana state championship.
He played well enough to catch the eye of a recruiter who gave Johnson his only scholarship offer, to New Mexico Junior College, and after one season there and another at Cameron University, he ended up on scholarship at Southern University. He led the country in assists in his two years at Southern but was ignored on draft day in '88. That discouraged him, but it didn't dissuade him. "I just wasn't ready to stop playing," he says. "If I wasn't good enough to be a pro, so be it, but I was going to find out for myself."
After a year with the Palm Beach Stingrays of the U.S. Basketball League, he warmed the Seattle SuperSonics' bench for two seasons before being traded in October 1990 to the Denver Nuggets, who were kind enough to waive him on Christmas Eve. Then came brief stops with the Spurs and the Houston Rockets before he returned to the Spurs for the '92-93 season. However, John Lucas, San Antonio's coach at the time, gave up on him after one year, believing that Johnson's slight stature and his lefthanded knuckleball jumper were too much for him to overcome, despite his speed and ball handling skills. The Golden State Warriors were the next team to give Johnson a shot, in 1993-94, and when starting point guard Tim Hardaway went down for the year with a preseason knee injury, Johnson filled in admirably, averaging 10.9 points and 5.3 assists. But the next season Hardaway was healthy again, and the Warriors decided not to re-sign Johnson; he signed with the Spurs for the third time in July '94.
What no one seemed to notice was that Johnson had been quietly but steadily getting better. His scoring average increased in each of his first seven seasons in the league, and his shooting percentage went from 34.9 in his rookie year to 51.9 by his seventh season. This season he averaged 9.7 points on 47.3% shooting and 7.4 assists. He may not be ready for the NBA All-Star Weekend's three-point shooting contest, but during the playoffs he has averaged 14.1 points, making defenders who leave him to double-team the Spurs' big men, Tim Duncan and David Robinson, pay for it.
He's not interested in getting even. He steadfastly insists that he ignores all the slights he has received—"I'm not interested in anybody's opinion of me," he says. "I'm too old to get all worked up over that"—but the lack of respect has surely fueled his fire. When former Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson wasn't initially selected for Dream Team II in 1994, he was irritated. "It's a joke," KJ said. "I figure the All-Stars will be Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson." KJ apologized to AJ in a letter and in person.
No such apology was forthcoming from Stoudamire, who refused to back away from his comments about AJ. "My thinking is that even if I take the statement back, it's already out there," he said after Game 3. But Stoudamire did seek out Johnson after Game 4 for a private talk in which he congratulated AJ and complimented him on his performance. "What he told me after the game was very professional," Johnson says. "Damon deserves a lot of credit for that."
It may take Stoudamire a little longer to work his way back into the good graces of the Blazers' fans, who gave new meaning to Portland's nickname, Rip City, with the verbal beating they gave their point guard on the sports talk radio shows. In the midst of this tumult Stoudamire seemed to have been consoled by his friend Gary Payton, the SuperSonics' point guard, who flew to Portland before Game 3 to boost his spirits. It was probably no coincidence that he responded with 21 points in Game 4.