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
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
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
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.
But that wasn't nearly enough to slow the smoothly functioning
machine the Spurs have become, and Johnson is operating the
controls almost flawlessly, moving ever closer to the
championship ring that would quiet his detractors permanently.
So prepare your apology. He's been expecting you.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Small favors Johnson, going to the hole against Brian Grant (left) and Greg Anthony, hurt the Blazers from inside and out.