Johnson was a brilliant performer in his one year at Idaho; he was the nation's second leading rebounder and averaged 19 points a game. In Moscow they still talk about Johnson stuffing a shot with one hand, catching the ball with the other and handing it to a startled referee. Nevertheless it is a toss-up whether his coach, Joe Cipriano, was relieved or disconsolate when Johnson decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to sign with the Bullets. Gus brought Idaho national recognition, but he was a source of continual anxiety to Cipriano, who never knew what his star would be doing next off the court. Gus was not known for cracking his books, and he broke every training rule Cipriano established. He did not really strive to be unmanageable; it was just his nature. Central Akron was still bubbling below the surface.
When Johnson reported to the Bullet camp at Fort Meade, Md. in 1963, Bob Leonard, then the Baltimore coach, took one look at him in action and muttered something that sounded like "incredible." He started Johnson at forward with rare instructions for a rookie: "Get me 15 rebounds a game plus 12 or 15 points, and play me a lot of defense." Johnson did the job. He averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in his first year and emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league. Now 26 and in his second year, Johnson appears well on the way to becoming a genuine superstar, the goal he has set for himself. He is the seventh leading scorer in the NBA, with a 20.6 average, and is fast becoming a complete player. His jump shot and hook from 10 feet out are remarkably accurate, but it is under the boards that his best game unfolds. Strong, quick and blessed with great jumping ability, he is a tough man to beat to the ball. Says Wayne Embry, "He's the only player I've ever seen go up for a rebound, take the ball at his waist and still dunk it before he comes down to the floor." Others speak of his strength and speed, but all end up talking about his jumping. Jay Arnette of the Royals says, "Johnson is driving down the floor for a layup this one time, and when he gets to the foul line he takes off into the air. I'm sitting on the bench. I look at Bud Olsen and we both chuckle. Ha-ha, we're telling each other, this is one time old Gus took off too soon. We're still snickering when Johnson, still in the air, dunks the ball. None of us on the bench could believe what we'd seen." (Recently, in St. Louis, he went up in similar fashion, tore the rim off the basket and shattered the glass backboard.)
Despite these talents, Johnson gets his biggest kicks from playing defense. Occasionally he will get boxed out on a rebound, especially by Bob Pettit, or he will be caught holding, but he is a solid defender—tenacious and with a flair for the sensational. The latter now and then gets him into trouble. He purposely will give an opponent a step advantage, then recover to make a spectacular block. Jerry Lucas, who has clashed with Johnson in many a duel, says: "He's tough on defense because he's so strong. He uses his hands a lot. To a referee it might look as if he's just resting his hands on an opponent. But the guy's so strong his hands are almost as effective as an iron bar when it comes to keeping you from driving for the basket." When Johnson was a rookie he requested pictures of all the players he would be guarding during the season so that he could prepare himself mentally by staring at their likenesses. At first erratic on defense because he was unfamiliar with their moves, he now speaks confidently of his problems.
On Pettit: "He's a great back-door man. Overplay him and he'll go behind you. He works off a lot of picks, and he is predictable. Good hands and strong. He's also the most protected player in the league. You can't touch him. He's more trouble than anybody."
On Baylor: "Completely unpredictable. He has all the moves and a lot of tricks. He doesn't need a pick. His favorite move is the yo-yo—he backs in dribbling until he moves you to where he wants you, and then he turns and pops a jump shot. You have to play him loose, so you can sag on his jump, and try to grab the ball in the air."
On Lucas: "Play Lucas nose to nose. Great shooter. Great rebounder. He is not a good driver. Strictly an inside game. You got to belt him now and then. He doesn't like to get hit."
Johnson's dislike for Lucas is easily apparent, and it is deeper than mere envy. Lucas, white, a good student, a celebrated All-America from a national collegiate power, represents all that Johnson was not and is not. In Ohio, Lucas and Johnson were playing prep basketball at the same time; Lucas shoved Johnson to the background. The two entered the NBA as rookies at the same time; Lucas joined the Royals to a chorus of trumpet blasts, Johnson was little known after one year of college ball. Lucas was voted Rookie of the Year, Johnson was second. "I get annoyed with people comparing us all the time," says Johnson. "I have to show Lucas all the time."
"This guy," says Bullet Coach Buddy Jeannette, "doesn't have to worry about Lucas or anybody except himself. He can be a superstar if he wants to be, but you know what his big ambition is now? Get this. He wants to retire at 30! I told him, 'Gus, you keep playing like this and they won't let you out of the league when you're 30, because they'll be throwing money at you."
"Yeah, man, comes 30 and I goes into business," says Johnson, his face contorted in laughter, that gold star glittering against the sunlight as he drives along—a million miles from the way things were, but just a wrong turn back.