SI Vault
Mark Kram
December 21, 1964
Pro basketball's Gus Johnson can be the game's next superstar. He is bursting with talent and drive, and all he has to overcome is a well-earned reputation for erratic behavior off court
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December 21, 1964

A Touch And A Tooth Of Gold

Pro basketball's Gus Johnson can be the game's next superstar. He is bursting with talent and drive, and all he has to overcome is a well-earned reputation for erratic behavior off court

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Gus Johnson comes across like a high note on a clarinet screaming in an empty hall. He has a gold star perfectly carved in the center of one long front tooth, wears $85 shoes, Continental suits and a tiny hat that sits cocked on the back of his large head. He is at once, in appearance and manner, the kingfish at a fish fry and a little boy on his knees—scared and wild-eyed—watching dice roll in an alley back home in Akron. At the wheel of his new and purple Bonneville convertible, sartorially precise, his gold star glittering against the sunlight and the car radio moaning "This is my heart, this is my baby," he seems far removed from what he so easily might have been—a member in good standing of the subterranean world of sporadic, aimless labor and even more aimless delinquency.

With the help of Samson, the people of Moscow, Idaho and a talent goaded by a monumental pride and ego, Johnson has become a professional basketball player for the Baltimore Bullets. But to say that he is just a player is to say that Charlie Parker was just a saxophone player. Johnson—6 feet 6 inches and meaner than hell, as the lyrics go in one of the many songs he sings of himself—is one of the most electric and multitalented young players ever to appear in the National Basketball Association. Johnson agrees with this description, and he has company. Cincinnati Coach Jack McMahon calls him the best second-draft choice he has ever seen, St. Louis Owner Ben Kerner just shakes his head at the prospect of Johnson becoming better and opposing players are lavish in their praise of him. "He has Elgin Baylor's equipment, only he jumps better," says Wayne Embry of the Royals. Says San Francisco's Nate Thurmond: " Johnson is the best all-round forward in the league. Bar none. A couple of more inches in height and he would be unstoppable."

It is easy to picture Johnson reacting to these comments. Grinning and slapping his knee, he would shout: "Oh yeah, oh yeah, babies, keep talkin'." It is this kind of recognition, more than the money and all the excesses that go with it, that Johnson seeks from basketball. Everything about him, from his gold star ("that cost $200, man") to his style of play, is calculated to draw the attention with which he feeds his insatiable egoism. "Man, what I like best," says Gus, "is when I'm playin' in Baltimore and them fans start yellin', 'Sock it to 'em, Gus, sock it to 'em, baby!' " Last year, when the Bullets were at home, a recorded sound of a rifle shot would whistle through the arena whenever a Bullet made a dunk shot. "When I dunked that ball and heard that shot for the first time," he says, "I said to myself, oh, oh, Gus. Somebody done gotchya. But, man, that was sweet music. It sure did make me feel good inside."

Johnson is always on the prowl for recognition, no matter how slight. One day recently in St. Louis he called a friend on the phone. "Hey baby," he said, "you play pool? Gus is lonely this afternoon, and he'd like to play a little." The friend said yes, he did play a game now and then and would be glad to accommodate lonely Gus. They took a cab to a poolroom, and Gus insisted on paying the fare.

Within an hour Gus had cleaned his friend of $7 after seven rounds of eight ball. "Man, look at that," he said. "And I ain't done any shootin' in a long time." Suddenly an expression of boredom crossed his face. "I'll tell ya what," he said. "I'll let you put all your balls in the pockets except one, that big, old black one there. Just knock that one in. I'll keep all mine on the table, and we'll play double or nothin'. What ya think of that?" The friend thought a moment and then said no.

"All right then," Gus said quickly. "I'll play ya one-handed. Double or nothin'. What ya think of that?"

The friend agreed. Gus ran the table, one-handed, and laughed all the way home. If the victim had asked for his money back, Gus would have obliged. The money did not matter. "Gus, you sure do make Gus feel good inside," he cackled. "Look at the way you jacked up that man's jaw. Shame on ya, Gus."

On the surface Johnson appears to be the embodiment of every stereotyped Negro character in every bad movie. His language is vintage Southland updated with thick strains of Birdland bop talk. Money is "long green," chitlings and pigs' feet is "soul food," and then there are the "rocks." "What's a rock?" he squeals, and then, pointing to his skin, he says in a deep voice: "Man, a rock is a member. One of us." But there is a lot of Northern slick to the Old South in Johnson, and he delights in being underestimated on first encounter. In private conversation a different Johnson emerges. The forced humor fades, the speech changes abruptly; inflection diminishes and each word is hammered out with brisk enunciation. He talks soberly of the talent he must compete against, and he betrays doubts about his own ability. Above all, he is still not sure he has made it across the thin line that separates Gus Johnson of central Akron from Gus Johnson of the NBA.

"There is this thing about Johnson," says a Bullet official. "You can't he around him very long without getting this peculiar feeling that something tragic is going to happen to him, and that one day Gus will suddenly be out of the league. Maybe it's that childlike quality about him that makes you feel this way. But you just feel he is very capable of blowing it all overnight."

Johnson came close to "blowing it all" while he was still very young. One of six children, he was raised in central Akron amid the decay and despair of a ghettolike slum. At 17, despite persistent policing by his parents, he knew every bartender in the neighborhood by name and every mark in every pool room. School was an annoyance; it cramped his style. "Despite my ways," says Johnson, "I never got into any real bad trouble in Akron. I just drifted around. Nothing mattered except basketball and the Bible. I used to read the Bible all the time. I still do. I'm real big on Samson. He's helped me a lot, I suppose. He stimulates me." Somehow Johnson managed to stay in school, and he became one of the finest high school players ever turned out in the state. He then went to the University of Akron but, still aimless, soon dropped out. After a year of AAU basketball he moved on to Boise Junior College and then transferred to the University of Idaho. "I wasn't too keen on going out there to Idaho," he says. "There weren't any colored people out there, and I didn't know how they'd take me. I guess I went out there with a chip on my shoulder, but I wasn't there long before I could feel the difference. The people welcomed me, they made me believe in myself. There wasn't any prejudice, and I felt I belonged. After I was there, I went back home one summer. I didn't feel like I belonged to that old life in Akron anymore."

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