Orr may have been a little off in his arithmetic, Michigan State's last Big Ten titles having come in 1957 and '59, but Spartan Coach Jud Heathcote recently said, "Orr's probably right. Earvin is a superstar. He's the best player in the open court today, better than Maravich, Thompson, Westphal or anybody you want to name. If he stays in college all four years, he will be remembered as the player who put the effectiveness of the pass back into the game. Cousy showed people the value of the pass on the fast break. Earvin is showing what it can mean in the entire offense. His court vision is tremendous."
Although Johnson averaged a highly creditable seven assists a game last year, in other respects he seemed to be just another good player. He had 17 points and eight rebounds a game and shot a mediocre 46%. But these numbers do not measure his ability or influence. Opponents have learned that they may be able to outrun, outjump, outmuscle or out-shoot Johnson, but it is almost impossible to beat him. Facing the basket from a 6'8" perspective at the top of the key, he not only sees the flow of play better than anybody, but he also seems to sense precisely what the best next move is. Then he reacts.
"In Earvin's case you don't talk about the points he scores," says Heathcote, "but the points he produces. Not just the baskets and assists, but the first pass that makes the second pass possible. He's conscious of scoring himself, but it isn't an obsession with him. He doesn't worry about getting his average every game."
By "controlling, not dominating" play, as Heathcote puts it, Johnson became the Spartans' Most Valuable Player, a unanimous All-Big Ten selection and the only freshman named to a major All-America team. He was also the only freshman to play for the U.S. in last spring's senior-dominated three-game series against Cuba, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. Before this season, Heathcote made Johnson Michigan State's co-captain, because "this could be the last season he's here."
Johnson may not know where he will be playing next year, but he is sure of what he will be doing: gliding down somebody's court, weaving in and out of traffic, frustrating his defensive man, checking the left and right lanes, waiting, waiting, waiting until just the right moment, and then—presto!—there it is, around his back, through his legs, side-arm, overhand, whatever sleight of hand it takes to get the ball to the right man in the right place at the right time.
"My whole game is court sense," Johnson says, "being smart, taking charge, setting up a play or, if I have to, scoring. I've tried to pattern myself after George Gervin and Dr. J. I don't shoot the way they do, but they're both big, and they handle the ball and they're smoooooth. That's what I really like, how smoooooth they are."
Johnson's own brand of smoooooth began developing as he watched games on television. "My father would point out things to me, like Oscar taking a smaller guard underneath, or the pick and roll," he says. "By the time I started playing organized ball, if the coach asked whether anybody knew how to do a three-man weave or a left-handed layup, I was the first one up."
Johnson took every opportunity to practice what his father, a Fisher Body worker, preached. He would shovel snow off the outdoor courts in the winter and play past dark in the summer. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes he'd go one-on-one, sometimes it was a pickup game where pride and maybe even a few dollars were at stake. While he was still in junior high school, he occasionally played in the Michigan State intramural building with Spartan star Terry Furlow. "The first time I just came to watch, really," he says, "so when Terry picked me I was scared. Then he started calling me his main man and bragging on me."
Johnson began perfecting what he calls his "hoopsy doopsy" style at the Main Street School, where the baskets are only eight feet high. "It was always packed with guys wanting to play," says Johnson, "so the only way you could hold the court was to win. That's why we went for the drives and the sure two instead of the outside shots."
When Johnson took his game out of the neighborhood, he was just as devastating. While visiting relatives in Rocky Mount, N.C. one summer during high school, he went looking for action at a local playground. As often happens to insatiable players like Johnson, what he found was a challenge from a 20-year-old player who was a local hero, second only to a Rocky Mount native named Phil Ford. The game was made, 15 baskets, and the bet was laid, $20. Obviously, the dude from Michigan was either very good or very dumb. The answer seemed clear after the hometown guy ran off six hoops without Johnson scoring. But the North Carolinian scored only two more after that, and Johnson doubled his money while almost doubling the score. "He was really upset," Earvin recalls. "He even tried to get his friends to lend him more money so he could play me again, but they wouldn't do it." The Rocky Mount boys had seen enough.