Already under the radar of NBA history, it’s unlikely that 12-year veteran John Johnson‘s passing at age 68 will do much to raise his profile among fans in this millennium.
Johnson’s peak professional moments came as a role player for a franchise whose archives have been relocated to Oklahoma City. And that’s too bad, because in addition to Johnson’s two All-Star selections and his role as a starter on the Seattle SuperSonics’ 1979 championship team, the 6-foot-7, 200-pound wing from Milwaukee and the University of Iowa was one of the NBA’s first “point forwards.”
Others have been credited as pioneers of that unofficial and, three decades ago, rather new-age sounding position. Among them: Golden State’s Rick Barry, Houston’s Robert Reid and Milwaukee’s Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey, evolving eventually into Chicago’s Scottie Pippen, Detroit‘s Grant Hill and most recently Cleveland superstar LeBron James and Golden State’s Draymond Green.
But Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens, who played with Johnson in Cleveland and then coached him with the Sonics, made it clear in talking with the Seattle Times that Johnson did a lot of the same things from his small forward spot that Seattle’s backcourt stars accomplished:
“When I coached him I would tell Gus (Williams), Dennis (Johnson) and Fred (Brown) if JJ got the ball on a rebound you, guys take off because he will find you,” said Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Famer and former Sonics coach. “He could do that, and he did it very well.
“Before they coined the phrase point-forward, he was like that. I have great memories.”
“I coached him, but I also played with him in Cleveland,” Wilkens said. “He was a fierce competitor. He was a guy that when he was on the floor, he wanted to win, and that was most in his mind. We had that in common.
“He was a better player than a lot of people realized. He was a guy that could handle the ball, and if you were open he was willing to make that pass. I loved that about him.”
Johnson died this week at his Bay Area home, according to the San Jose Mercury-News, and his death was confirmed by godson John Herndon. “He just didn’t wake up,” Herndon told the Mercury News.
The No. 7 pick in the 1970 NBA Draft, Johnson averaged 12.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 869 games. His biggest seasons individually were his first two, when he represented the Cavaliers in the All-Star Game while averaging 16.6 ppg and 17.0 ppg.
But after stints with Portland and Houston, Johnson landed with Seattle in October 1977 for a pair of first-round picks. His own stats yielded to the Sonics’ deep roster – he averaged 10.8 ppg and just 10 field goal attempts vs. 16.1 ppg and 14.6 FGA in his first five NBA seasons. Yet in his five years in Seattle, the Sonics went 241-179, reached the Finals twice and beat Washington in 1979 in a rematch of the 1978 championship series.
It was during those years that Johnson’s court vision and playmaking skills were put to use in Wilkens’ ensemble approach. A 2009 article in Sports Illustrated about former Louisville player Terrence Williams delved into Johnson’s past for providing something of a prototype for the way Williams played in college:
John Johnson’s role as a point forward began as an experiment in December 1977, after the Sonics lost 17 of their first 22 games and coach Bob Hopkins was fired. Lenny Wilkens, who had been the club’s director of player personnel, took over as coach believing that Seattle had all the right pieces but was playing them in the wrong places.
… Before Wilkens’s second game as coach—a road date in Boston—he overhauled the lineup, benching every starter but center Marvin Webster.
John Johnson won an NBA title with the Sonics
Rookie Jack Sikma, the team’s No. 1 draft pick, was inserted at power forward; two young scorers, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, took over the guard spots; and John Johnson started at small forward, with instructions to help distribute the ball on offense. “I knew JJ had a great understanding of the game,” Wilkens says, “and so, after he’d rebound, I’d tell our guards, Just takeoff, and he’ll find you.”
The Sonics beat the Celtics that night and won 42 of their final 60 games, reaching the NBA Finals before losing in seven to the Washington Bullets. Johnson averaged 2.7 assists that season; it wasn’t until the following year that he truly became a point forward, leading Seattle in assists at 4.4 per game, while Williams and Dennis Johnson upped their scoring. They finished 52-30 and, in a rematch with the Bullets, won the finals in five games.
The etymology of point forward remains a question. Former Bucks star Marques Johnson says that he came up with the name when he played a similar role to Pressey’s for [coach Don] Nelson a few seasons earlier. … John Johnson, though, is adamant that Wilkens not only invented the position but also called it a point forward. “Lenny coined that phrase,” John insists.
Among the great players with whom Johnson was drafted in 1970 – including Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Nate Archibald, Dave Cowens, Rudy Tomjanovich, Geoff Petrie, Sam Lacey, Calvin Murphy – Johnson wound up ranked ninth in points (11,200), eighth in rebounds (4,778), sixth in assists (3,285), seventh in games (869) and eighth in minutes (25,681). His son Mitch, who played at Stanford, is an assistant coach at the University of Portland.