Long overlooked Gus Johnson deserves spot in Hall of Fame

February 03, 1997|By Vic Ziegel | Vic Ziegel,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK -- The cover of Sports Illustrated for Oct. 25, 1971 is inside a frame in Dave DeBusschere's office. DeBusschere, wearing his New York Knicks uniform, is sharing the cover with the headache that always seemed to come his way in the early spring.

The headache had a name: Gus Johnson.

"His mouth is wide-open -- he's calling for the ball -- and his elbow is in my chest," DeBusschere said.

The headline, "Classic Confrontations," gets no argument from DeBusschere. Or the New York fans who remember the playoff series of almost 30 years ago between the Knicks and Johnson's team, the Baltimore Bullets.

Today, the Basketball Hall of Fame will announce its new members. This latest class finally might include Johnson, who retired in 1973. He should have been voted in years ago. And it's worse than that. This is the first time he was able to jump into the final round of voting.

Johnson is in the group of players known as regular nominees. The other categories are for women, contributors, coaches -- Mount St. Mary's Jim Phelan is among the finalists this year -- veterans and international nominees. It's a crowded court, and maybe too much of a crowd.

You leaf through the Hall's 12-page magazine -- photos, bios, stats of the candidates -- and it's easy to see that Gus Johnson is in trouble. The other players (Alex English, Dennis Johnson, Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief, Jo Jo White, Jamaal Wilkes) are in color photos. Johnson is the only one in black and white.

That makes him the old guy, the player whose stats were kept on a cave wall. Most of the other Hall eligibles were still in the NBA in 1987 when Johnson made the mistake of dying, which never helps when you're shopping for votes.

When he was healthy, most of his 10-year pro career, he was a remarkable and exciting package: fast, agile, strong, a jumper, a dunker, a rebounder, a defender. But his knees were always a problem. So was his timing; he was never in the right place at the best time. He wasn't lucky that way. He was 48 when he died of a brain tumor. Not lucky at all.

Years before Julius Erving, decades before Michael Jordan, "He'd come from the foul line, grab a rebound and dunk it. Without coming to the ground."

That was DeBusschere's description of Johnson, the prototype for today's NBA stuntmen.

"He was an incredible talent," his old rival said. "He wasn't what you'd call a great shooter -- it didn't bother me when he went outside -- but he was great at running the floor, and around the basket. He loved to rebound, and get down the court. And he was strong."

DeBusschere paused for a split second, as if remembering their battles. "Very strong," he said.

Seymour Smith isn't sure about Johnson's chances at the Hall.

Smith's name belongs in this story, because without his efforts, Johnson would continue to be overlooked and unlucky.

Anybody can nominate to the Hall of Fame. You write a letter, and put Springfield, Mass., and a stamp on the envelope. Then you impress the screening committee by adding endorsements, clippings, letters from contemporaries of the nominated player.

Smith, 68, spent 45 years in the sports department of The Sun. He covered the Bullets when there was no 24-second clock, and when Johnson was still in grade school in Akron, Ohio. In 1963, when the Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets, it was Johnson's first year with the team and Smith's last. He moved up to assistant sports editor.

"I was able to send myself out on assignments, and basketball was my first love," he said. "So I saw Gus throughout his entire career."

He loved Johnson the player and admired Johnson the man. "A delightful person," he says. Smith remembers Johnson setting up a summer league for kids, and making sure that "juvenile offenders were allowed to play."

The last time Smith saw Gus was December 1986, when the Bullets retired Johnson's No. 25. Johnson died five months later.

After Smith retired, he wrote his first letter to Springfield on behalf of Buddy Jeannette, the Baltimore star of 50 years ago. Jeanette was elected to the Hall in 1994.

Smith and his wife, Eunice, were sitting around the kitchen table -- the table Johnson sat at when he had dinner at their home -- and she said, "You ought to work on Gus' behalf now." Smith response was, "You're right."

He made the nomination and put together the package. "The fact that he got this far shows they remember him," Smith says.

But if it takes another year or longer to collect enough votes, it won't be a surprise. Gus Johnson wasn't lucky.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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