Original Old School: Sweet Honey With the Rock
SLAM 114: He played before SportsCenter and YouTube, but Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson’s exploits on the court still made a major impact.
When this year’s class of Hall of Fame inductees became official on Monday, there were plenty of names we were happy to see. One of those surely deserving of the honor was the great Gus Johnson. While these days another man may come to the minds of many when they hear the name in basketball circles, everyone should be familiar with Honeycombe. Lucky for you, if you’re not yet, here’s your chance with this Old School from SLAM 114.
By Alan Paul
Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson loved to smile. He loved to smile because he was a happy guy, always upbeat and feeling good about himself. He loved to smile because he enjoyed showing off the gold star sparkling in his front tooth. And he loved to smile because he was a beast of a basketball player, who likely just schooled someone in some unfathomable way.
Johnson may be the most overlooked great player in NBA history, a 6-6, 235-pound power forward who terrorized the League as a member of the Baltimore Bullets from 1963-72. He combined strength, athleticism and fierce determination into a single package that made him one of the most respected players in the League. But Johnson has been largely forgotten because he played on mostly mediocre Bullets teams, he played 70+ games in just four seasons (his final two years in particular were marred by degenerating knees) and he can’t make his own case for acknowledgement, having died of brain cancer in 1987 at age 48.
Sadly, if not surprisingly, Gus Johnson is not a member of the increasingly irrelevant Basketball Hall of Fame, but anyone who saw him play knows the truth. Just ask Oscar Robertson, the only man to ever average a triple-double.
“Gus was one of the truly great forwards of our time,” says Big O. “He was one of the best rebounders I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Johnson was a monster board man-probably the best ever for his size-grabbing as many as 17.1 rpg. He was also a ferocious and prolific shotblocker, though he played before swats were officially recorded. He was a second-team all-NBA selection four times and a five-time All-Star. The All-Defensive Team was added in ’69 and he made it two of the next three years. Johnson was also one of the first players to turn the dunk into an art form, a precursor to renowned high flyers like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, and an equal to playground legends like Jumpin’ Jackie Jackson. Unlike any of them, Honeycomb did it all with a tight end’s build, which he used to physically intimidate countless opponents. Johnson shattered at least three backboards in his career.
“Gus was ahead of his time, flying through the air for slam dunks, breaking backboards and throwing full-court passes behind his back,” longtime teammate and friend Earl Monroe told NBA.com.
“He was just a tremendously gifted player,” adds Paul Silas, another of that era’s great rebounding power forwards. “Gus was very athletic-he could jump out of the gym. But he was also very strong and he didn’t shy away from contact. In fact, he looked for it.”
It was this combination of attributes that people really remember about Gus-he was swift like a gazelle, strong like a bull and graceful like a swan. He took equal joy and pride in making flashy, crowd-pleasing plays and executing the game’s blue collar essentials like rebounding, defending and pick setting.
“He was spectacular, but he also did the nitty gritty jobs,” said The Pearl. “Gus was one of the best defensive players ever to play the game. He not only played strong forward-but he played the centers, the small forwards, and he played the guards, as well. Silas, who had many tough board battles with Johnson, has a favorite memory of Honeycomb: “When I was on the [St. Louis] Hawks, Gus was coming down the court on a break and we had one guy back on D-I think it was Joe Caldwell-positioned near the free-throw line. Gus just took off, went straight over the top of Joe and tore the basket down. It was
the first time I had ever seen that and we were all in awe. It showed you the kind of power he had and how strong he was.”
Phil Chenier joined the Bullets in 1971, a rookie out of Cal feeling his way in the NBA. Johnson was an eight-year vet coming off perhaps his greatest season, when he averaged 18.2 ppg and 17.1 rpg and teamed with Wes Unseld and Monroe to lead the Bullets to the Finals. The mature, vet-laden team was an intimidating place for an insecure rookie, but Chenier says that Johnson welcomed him with open arms and took him under his wing. Chenier went on to be a three-time All-Star guard, helping the Bullets to their lone title in ’78-all of it, he says, thanks to Gus Johnson.
“He went out of his way to help me,” says Chenier, the Wizards’ longtime broadcaster. “He introduced me to the city, lent me his car, took me to my first tailor, showed me neighborhoods. On the road, he looked out for me and I followed his lead about how to handle myself. I was 20 years old and didn’t know if I belonged in the NBA and he provided me with a comfort level that allowed me to gain confidence and grow. I will be forever grateful for his mentoring.”
This was typical of the way Johnson treated everyone, says Silas. “On the court he was a tiger, but off of it, he was very flashy in personal style but also really calm, serene and quick to laugh,” Silas recalls. “He was one of the most popular players; I never heard anyone say a bad word about Gus. He was just a very, very nice man and if he took to you he would do anything for you.”
By ’71, Johnson was hobbled by his gimpy knees, but he adjusted by relying on savvy and strength. “When he handchecked me in practice, it was like a steel rod was on my hip,” recalls Chenier. Johnson reveled in slapping old movie reels of his exploits onto the team projector before or after practices and sharing his dominance with anyone who was around.
“Had Gus played in the SportsCenter era, he would have been a staple because he made some amazing plays,” says Chenier. “The greatest slam I ever saw was on one of those films. He took a jumper and the miss bounced high off the back of the rim. He caught it with one hand, five or six feet in front of the rim, just kept soaring and threw it down one-handed. It was amazing footage and he loved everyone seeing that.”
Johnson grew up in Akron, OH, and attended Central Hower HS where he played with Nate Thurmond, now a Hall of Fame center. He enrolled at Akron U but dropped out before ever suiting up. After working in Cleveland for the county treasurer, he headed west for a single season at Boise (Idaho) JC, then one more at the University of Idaho. He averaged 19 ppg and 20.3 rpg for the Vandals, barely losing a season-long duel with Silas for the NCAA rebounding title. (Silas, at Creighton, finished with 20.6.) It was at Idaho that his coach, Joe Cipriano, tagged Gus “Honeycomb,” because his game was so sweet.
The Bullets snagged him 10th in the ’63 Draft and he made an immediate impact, averaging 17.3 ppg and 13.6 rpg to finish as ROY runner-up to his former Ohio prep rival, Jerry Lucas. He also brought his high-flying game to the big show, helping to
reinvent the game.
His knees, always a source of pain, began to give out following the Bullets’ first trip to the Finals in ’71 (where they were swept by the Bucks of Kareem and Big O). After
another injury, Gus played only 39 games in ’71-72, averaging just 5.8 rpg and 6.4 ppg. He was then traded to the Suns, who cut him after 21 games, thinking he was done. Slick Leonard-his first pro coach, who had been instrumental in the Bullets drafting Gus-knew better and signed him to the ABA’s Pacers. He was a solid reserve, eventually playing a crucial role in their ’73 ABA championship.
In Game 7 of the Finals, with star center Mel Daniels in foul trouble and the Kentucky Colonels’ Artis Gilmore on the verge of taking over the decisive game, Leonard looked down the bench and called on his trusty vet.
“I had just sent into the game a 35-year-old veteran who had been cut by the Phoenix Suns…a player barely functioning on knees that had undergone five or six operations,” Leonard recalled in a 2000 Basketball Digest article. “I had just sent in a 6-6 forward to guard a behemoth. I had just taken one of the biggest gambles of my coaching career, but I knew what kind of heart Gus had. I knew he could do it.”
Johnson gave up about eight inches and 11 years to the 7-2 Gilmore, but he manhandled the big man, pushing him off the block and denying him position. In the fourth quarter, with Kentucky mounting a comeback, Johnson dropped in a jumper to stop their momentum and the Pacers went on to win 88-81. That was Gus Johnson’s final game.
Today, a 6-6, 235-pound player would probably be a two-guard, and Honeycomb would have done just fine. “He had control of his athleticism-he wasn’t wild,” says Silas. “LeBron is a lot more talented-nobody in our era had that kind of talent, frankly-but Gus was in the same mold. He was a big man with speed who could really run the floor, handle the ball decently, jump and dunk.”
When his career ended, Johnson settled back in Akron. Years later, after he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, he remained optimistic. “He had a very upbeat attitude,” Chenier recalls. “The last time I talked to him he said, ‘I’m gonna beat this thing.’ I knew that he had lost weight and was getting weak but you didn’t hear it in his voice, which remained deep and powerful, as it had always been.”
Johnson made the trip to Maryland when the Bullets retired his number 25 in ’86, just four months before he passed away. He also attended the All-Star Game while battling his illness, where he had a reunion with many of his fellow ex-players.
“He was declining but you wouldn’t have known it,” Silas recalls. “He was as jovial and outgoing as ever. He didn’t feel sorry for himself; that just wasn’t Gus, wasn’t who he was. He always had a smile on his face, even to the end.
“He was a special human being. He really was.”