Induction Year: 2015
Nicknamed “The Little General,” the gifted playmaking guard carved out a solid 16-year NBA career with six teams — most notably the San Antonio Spurs from 1994 to 2001 – and has been head coach of the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets. As a player, he helped the Spurs win the 1999 NBA championship and the team retired his No. 6 jersey in 2007. Standing only 5-3 while a standout at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School, Johnson helped the Purple Knights to a 35-0 record and the state championship as a senior. Undrafted after two years at Southern University, he played in 1,054 NBA regular-season games (starting 637) and 90 playoff games. While his career numbers were modest at 8.4 points and 5.5 assists per game, he was invaluable as a floor leader while playing 25.3 minutes a game. His top scoring year was in 1995 when he averaged 13.4 ppg with the Spurs. He averaged more than 5.0 assists a game in 10 of his 16 seasons — including eight straight from the 1992-1993 to 1999-2000 seasons. He averaged 9.6 assists in 1995-96 (ranking third in the NBA behind perennial assists leaders John Stockton and Jason Kidd) and 8.2 assists in 1994-95. Johnson, a popular ESPN analyst recently hired as head coach at the University of Alabama, was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2005-06 when he led Dallas to the NBA Finals. In only two seasons as a player at Southern, Johnson averaged 10.7 assists in 1986-87 and 13.3 assists in 1987-88, with the totals ranking third and first all-time in NCAA history. His career average of 12.0 assists a game is an NCAA record, along with his mark for single-game assists (22) and most games with 20+ assists (four). He was chosen as the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and was MVP of the conference tournament both seasons. Born 3-25-1965 in New Orleans.
Playground games provided pathway to Johnson’s career
By Teddy Allen
Written for the LSWA
Basketball courts dotted the city, spread in points from the Lafitte Projects in New Orleans like uneven spokes on a bicycle wheel.
Tonti Courts. Lemon Playground. Treme Center. Hike it to Algiers or City Park or Lawrence Square. Any place with a net and a hoop and a game.
And that’s all Avery Johnson and his friends in the 1970s in the heart of New Orleans needed: a bicycle and a basketball and a place to play. Johnson kept finding courts, first the concrete ones at home and later the best courts in the world, hardwood that welcomed him into one town and one coliseum after another throughout a 16-year NBA playing career.
Metaphorically, as he did year-’round as a boy looking for a place to play, he’s never quit pedaling. It’s been a passionate journey, one that’s led Johnson into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
A star first at St. Augustine in New Orleans and then at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Johnson played in 1,054 career games with six different NBA teams. He played 10 years with San Antonio, the franchise that retired his number “6” in 2007.
Johnson has been the head coach of two NBA teams – the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets – and was an ESPN analyst when hired in April by the University of Alabama to become the school’s 20th head men’s basketball coach in the program’s 102-year history.
It’s quite a resume for a self-described “journeyman.”
“As a young man, you look at other people going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, people you’ve wanted to play ball like, to be like,” Johnson said in May after a charity golf tournament in Birmingham, only the latest in a long list of events he’s attended or duties he’s attended to since being named coach of the Crimson Tide. “During my time as a journeyman in the NBA and at Southern at St. Aug, my getting there wasn’t something I necessarily thought about. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know if I was good enough.”
It started in the heart of New Orleans, where he can’t remember not having a basketball around. His main courts were two outside one, each asphalt, and another with a hard indoor court. The courts wouldn’t wear out; neither would the boys.
“I was not a ‘get up Saturday and watch cartoons’ kid,” Johnson said. “We played from 8-til-8, basically. Maybe grab a sandwich if we could.
“We always had games. Always had games. The thing is, we had our main courts, but we could travel all over the city on our bikes,” he said. “Wherever the games were, that’s where we wanted to go. And the games were so good, if you lost, it might be an hour before you’d get to play again. So you can understand that those games were fierce and highly contested.”
The practice paid off. As a tiny 5-3 senior at St. Aug – he’d grow eight inches during the next couple of years — Johnson and his teammates were 35-0 and state champs. He played his final two collegiate seasons at Southern, led the NCAA in assists both years and was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and the Most Valuable Player of the SWAC Tournament his junior and senior seasons. He owns or shares several NCAA Division I records, including most assists in a single game (22), most games with 20 or more assists (four), highest single-season assists average (13.3) and highest career assists per game average (12).
“The first time I ever saw Avery play was as a collegian, and he and his Southern teammates would battle against arch-nemesis Grambling,” said Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame writer O.K. “Buddy” Davis of Ruston. “You could tell then that he had the makings of a bright future, both as a player and a coach, because he was so immersed in the game and exhibited outstanding leadership qualities.”
But none of that got him drafted into the NBA after his graduation in 1988.
He finally caught on after the summer of ’88 with Seattle, the first of six NBA teams he played for. In 16 seasons, he averaged 8.4 points, 5.5 assists and 25.3 minutes played.
Gregg Popovich, who coached Johnson for nine seasons in San Antonio, said his former star point guard “has a unique blend of desire, basketball knowledge and compassion.” Johnson was a key part of the 1998-99 World Champion Spurs, who beat the New York Knicks in five games to win the title; it was Johnson who hit the last-minute Game 5 game-winner, a left-baseline jumper in Madison Square Garden – quite a long bike ride from the French Quarter.
Johnson was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
He retired as a player in 2004, and in October of that year, he was hired as an assistant to head coach Don Nelson with the Dallas Mavericks. Five months later, he was the team’s head coach. He was the league’s Coach of the Year in 2006, when his Mavericks made the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance and lost to Miami in six games.
After a couple of stints with ESPN as an analyst and two-plus seasons as head coach of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Johnson accepted his latest challenge: head coach of the SEC’s Crimson Tide.
“Coaching is way more demanding than playing; it’s not even close,” Johnson said. “You’re responsible for yourself when you play. When you coach, you’re responsible for so many more people: your staff, auxiliary staff, decisions about travel, nutrition, the video department. Plus you have your sponsors on the NBA level and your donors on the college level.”
But that’s his job now, and it’s the challenge he was looking for, he said. The only time before now that he’s spent in Birmingham was in 1989 or 1990 when he and his SuperSonics teammate Derrick McKey, a former Alabama star player and No. 9 pick overall in the 1987 NBA draft, went to an Alabama football game together. In May, Johnson attended McKey’s induction into the State of Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to work on mentoring these student-athletes,” Johnson said, and told the assembled boosters, administration and fans the day of his hiring, “I promise you, I will work morning, noon and night to get the job done.”
Tabbed the “Little General” by Spurs teammate David “The Admiral” Robinson, the 5-11 Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern in 1988. He and his wife, Cassandra, were married in July of 1991 in New Orleans. They are the parents of daughter Christianne, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and son Avery Jr., who this winter finished his freshman season as a member of the men’s basketball team at Texas A&M.
They’ll be with Avery the last weekend of June in Natchitoches, along with “quite a few relatives and friends from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge area,” Johnson said. “Oh, they were all excited when they heard about it. It’s just such an honor to go in with this group, and especially my hometown guys like Coach Otis Washington and Frank Brothers.”
Washington established St. Aug as a prep football power in the state’s largest classification in the 1970s. For the first time this century, and what’s believed to be only the third time since the Hall was founded in 1958, two inductees from the same high school – Johnson and Washington — will be enshrined in the same induction class.
“I’ve had some nice things happen to me but, when you talk about the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I mean, that’s kind of the crème de la crème. This is the top. The top of the line. No matter where I’ve gone – and I’ve spent most of my career outside the state, and I’m now coaching in Alabama – I’m still a New Orleans guy. My roots are still in Louisiana.
“This recognition and honor is something for all those people who helped me become the type of pro athlete and person I grew into,” he said. “This is for all of them.”