By Felix Cunningham
It all started with a net and a ball in New Orleans, where Crescent City native Avery Johnson began his life-long dream of basketball.
Johnson was a fan of finding courts, whether they were concrete in his hometown or later in wooden courts that inserted him into fame during his 16-year career in the National Basketball Association.
A star at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and then up the road at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Johnson played in 1,054 career games with six NBA teams. He logged 10 seasons with San Antonio, the franchise that retired his number six jersey in 2007.
Johnson also coached two NBA basketball teams—The Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets and is currently the head coach of the University of Alabama. And his time on the court is not over.
His roots in Louisiana brought him back to Natchitoches to be one out of eight inductees in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on June 27, 2015.
Never did Johnson believe that a bike ride to a basketball court would land him such opportunities.
“As a young man, you look at other people going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, people you’ve wanted to play like … to be like,” Johnson said.
Johnson shared his humble journey through his travels in high school, collegiate and professional background.
“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,” Johnson said.
As a child, Johnson’s Saturday mornings were filled with basketball, not cartoons.
“We played from 8-til-8, basically,” Johnson explained. “Maybe grab a sandwich if we could. We always had games. The thing is, we had our main courts, but we could travel all over the city on our bikes.
“Wherever the games were, that’s where we wanted to go. 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.”
With a dream on his shoulders and a goal to be the best, his practice paid off when the 5-foot-3 senior at St. Augustine led the team an undefeated 35-0 state championship season.
In college Johnson was blessed with a growth spurt and in his last two years at Southern, he led the NCAA in assists both years and was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the SWAC tournament in his junior and senior seasons.
He owns or shares several NCAA Division I records, including most assists in a 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).
None of that got Johnson drafted into the NBA after his graduation in 1988. Johnson finally caught on with Seattle, the first of six NBA teams he played for, and in 16 seasons averaged 8.4 points, 5.5 assists and 25.3 minutes played.
Johnson was a vital part of the 1998-99 NBA 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.
“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,” Johnson said. “This is the top, the top of the line. No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve spent most of my career outside the state, and I’m now coaching in Alabama, and to this day I’m still a New Orleans guy. My roots are still in Louisiana.”