The Miami Heat's
Pat Riley won the ring (his fifth, by the way), but it was his 2006 NBA Finals
counterpart, Avery Johnson of the Dallas Mavericks, who earned the coveted (if
unofficial) title of YouTube Coach of the Postseason. A pair of Avery Moments
in particular were filmed, uploaded and frequently replayed, giving the
5'11" pepper pot a larger fan base than he had when he sparked the San
Antonio Spurs to a championship in 1999.
After victories in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, Johnson and his Dallas defense
were powerless to stop Michael Jordan impersonator Dwyane Wade from leading the
Heat to four straight wins. Despite that setback, it is difficult to look back
at the 2005--06 season without seeing Johnson stomping and smiling, joking and
juking his way to the NBA's Coach of the Year award. And without hearing him,
too, enunciating every word in an animated Louisiana patois--tran-ZI-shon
defense!--to which only Robert Penn Warren could do justice.
everybody," Brian McIntyre, the NBA's vice president of basketball
communications, would say to the assembled media before an off-day practice
session during the Finals. "Time for the Avery Show."
The YouTube clips
showed the 41-year-old Johnson at his excitable best and his excitable worst.
Avery Moment No. 1: Down the stretch of the Mavs' franchise-defining 119--111
overtime win over the Spurs in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals,
Johnson frantically ran to the end of the bench to make a quick substitution.
As he waved his arms like a drowning man signaling for a lifeguard, he
accidentally jabbed forward Josh Howard in a sensitive area. Howard recoiled in
pain, but Johnson didn't even realize he had hit him, grabbing swingman Adrian
Griffin by the warmup jersey and hurrying him to the scorer's table. (At last
check, the inadvertent crotch-chop had been viewed 243,625 times on
Avery Moment No. 2
was excruciating in a different way. It occurred as Johnson stood at the podium
after a 101--100 Miami home victory in Game 5, during which Wade shot 25 free
throws and hit 21, including two to ice it in overtime. The veteran beat
reporter from The Dallas Morning News, Eddie Sefko, asked, predictably, for
Johnson's reaction to the foul call that sent Wade to the line the final time.
The coach looked around for a moment, stuck out his chin pugnaciously
(actually, he does that all the time) and turned the question back on Sefko.
"Tell me what you saw," he said.
Johnson went on in
this vein, remaining just within the bounds of civility while putting Sefko on
the spot. "I want you to give everybody an honest answer," Johnson
said. "We got people from Israel and Minnesota, Chicago ... all over,
Dallas ... Germany." Who makes those geographical leaps? (At last look,
Avery's one-minute world tour had 20,436 hits.)
The rant, of
course, was Johnson's way of passing judgment on the call without getting fined
for criticizing the officials. It was wrong-headed and unnecessarily
confrontational, and as soon as he left the podium, Johnson knew it. Later that
night he called Sefko to apologize; he did it again at a press conference the
following day. The funny thing was, no one in the media really blasted the
coach. Everyone who knew him was sure that he would admit his mistake.
Johnson, you see,
is the anti-Machiavelli: He's without either the guile or the
been-there-done-that insouciance of his Finals counterpart. (To be fair, Riley
has been there a lot and done that a lot.) The championship showdown could have
easily been a duel of the dour, especially when Shaquille O'Neal turned
relatively uncommunicative after lackluster performances in the first two
games. But Johnson gave it life. After Dallas forward Jerry Stackhouse was
suspended for a flagrant foul on O'Neal, Johnson was off and running when asked
about it: "Well, I guess I've expressed my disappointment. And I don't
know--what am I supposed to do? Everybody's so amazed that I disagree with the
decision. I mean, what am I supposed to do, go out and have a parade and have a
party? Just because the league comes down with a certain ruling, what are we
supposed to do as coaches? Say, 'Amen'? I disagree with the ruling, all
When Dallas owner
Mark Cuban brought Johnson in as an assistant coach in September 2004, an
electric charge went through the Mavericks. The head coach, Don Nelson, was
losing his edge. His relationship with Cuban, never solid, was getting worse,
and his emphasis on offense, while entertaining, had not gotten Dallas to the
Finals. Del Harris, Nellie's top assistant, describes Johnson's arrival this
way: "Suddenly, we had this guy with all this energy running up and down
the court with the guys, hooting and hollering on every play. Nellie and I
would just fill in the blanks whenever we had to. Avery's voice became the
voice the players knew." (With that voice, what other option did they
have?) The inevitable occurred on March 19, 2005, when Nelson walked away--or
was nudged by Cuban--and Johnson took his place.
It happened by
degrees, of course, but the Mavs, as much as any team in the league, came to
assume the personality of their coach. Instead of talking about tightening up
on defense, they tightened up on defense. Instead of talking about
accountability on offense, they were held accountable. It wasn't in Nelson to
infuse the team with toughness. It was--it is--in Johnson, an undrafted,
undersized point guard out of unheralded Southern who had a 16-year NBA career
in which he averaged 8.4 points and 5.5 assists. " Avery brings a toughness
and discipline that we didn't have before," Griffin (now with the Chicago
Bulls) said during the Finals, "and he knows how to bring that out [in his
spirit," says Howard. "He's never backed down from anybody. That's why
he can sell toughness."