Nearly half a century after he first wowed Baltimore Bullets fans with his windmill dunk, Gus Johnson was named Monday to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Johnson's teammates said his selection was long overdue.
"We were wondering, what took so long?" said Wes Unseld, a Hall of Fame center who played four years with Johnson, the Bullets' kangaroo forward who died of brain cancer in 1987.
In nine seasons with Baltimore (1963-1972), the 6-foot-6 Johnson averaged 17 points and 13 rebounds, made the All-Star team five times and helped the Bullets to three division titles and five playoff appearances.
"Gus was the toughest player I ever saw. He was a man's man, on and off the court," Unseld said. "He was breaking backboards with one-handed dunks long before these guys today started doing it with two."
One of the NBA's first flamboyant stars, Johnson wore long leather coats, drove a Lincoln Continental and had a gold star drilled into a front tooth. Fans called him "Honeycomb" and marveled at his high-flying antics at both ends of the court. Johnson could score on a dunk, then race downcourt to swat an opponent's shot right back in his face.
"As power forwards go, he was a pioneer, a prototype," said Jack Marin, the Bullets' other forward during their heyday in the late 1960s. "Gus was high entertainment, a showman, long before the game took that path.
"He overplayed potential injuries, too. He'd go down, writhing in pain, then get up and grab the next 12 rebounds and dunk three more times."
Johnson was the consummate pro, said teammate Earl Monroe, a Hall of Fame guard.
"He was the best defensive player I ever saw," Monroe said. "At times, we'd even have him guard [the Cincinnati Royals'] Oscar Robertson. In those days, you were allowed to hand-check, and Gus was so strong he'd be leading Oscar where to go."
A second-round draft pick out of Idaho, Johnson led Baltimore to division championships in 1969 and 1971, when the Bullets defeated the New York Knicks, their nemesis, in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals. There, stalled by injuries to Johnson, among others, they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in four games.
That Johnson played mostly before small crowds at the old Baltimore Civic Center likely kept him from getting his due, said Marin, adding: "Had Gus played in New York, he'd have been in the Hall of Fame 15 years ago."
News of Johnson's selection left his Bullets coach, Gene Shue, "ecstatic."
"Gus was an absolutely spectacular player whose life ended much too soon," Shue said. "Sometimes the years go by and these guys get overlooked.
Gus Johnson's career statistics SeasonTeamRPGPPG1963-64 Bullets 13.6 17.3 1964-65 Bullets 13.0 18.6 1965-66 Bullets13.0 16.1 1966-67 Bullets 11.7 20.7 1967-68 Bullets 13.0 19.1 1968-69 Bullets 11.6 17.9 1969-70 Bullets13.9 17.3 1970-71 Bullets 17.1 18.2 1971-72 Bullets 2.3 6.4 1972-73 Suns 6.5 7.8 1972-73 Pacers* 4.9 6.0 Career 12.1 16.2