Avery Johnson: A Southern Icon Returns Home
"Back to the Future" was on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film and Microsoft released its first version of Windows in 1985.
In that same year, a New Orleans kid named Avery Johnson transferred to Southern University and had trouble adjusting to campus life - until a set of scrimmages put him on the fast track to the NCAA history books and becoming a Southern icon.
That track also brings him back to Southern Saturday to see the court on which he wowed the Jaguar Nation for two seasons formally dedicated as "Avery Johnson Court." The dedication is slated for halftime of the Southern-Grambling State men's game Saturday at 4:30 pm.
"We (he and his wife Cassandra) are just really honored to be a part of what we're looking at as a celebration of hard work," Johnson said. "We'll be able to share in that celebration with a lot of friends and family."
Johnson transferred from Cameron University, then an NAIA school in Lawton, Okla., to Southern in the fall of 1985. People closest to him knew what he was going through during the first months of that fall semester.
"My first couple of months on campus were horrible," he said. "There was somewhat of an anti-New Orleans sentiment on campus. I was fooled. I thought they would welcome me with open arms. I don't know who told me that."
Johnson also received the cold shoulder from some of the varsity players. He said the players never picked him to play pickup games in the Women's Gym, and the only time he was able to play when the basketball team finished playing and students began playing.
However, changes emerged when he saw an opportunity. The head coach at the time, Bob Hopkins, invited redshirt players to scrimmage against the varsity team at the F.G. Clark Activity Center just before the 1985-1986 season began. Johnson dazzled in those games, and word about him started to spread throughout the campus.
"This is not me bragging, you can ask around," he said. "They had guys that were All-SWAC players and all of this stuff, but there was no question after those two scrimmages who was the best player on campus. "I wanted to prove a point to those guys who never allowed me to play in the Women's Gym."
He started building relationships with the team, and Johnson said people were telling him they could not wait until the 1986-87 season to see him play. Johnson became eligible for the 1986-87 season, and the Jaguars welcomed a new coach - Ben Jobe.
"It was like a Disney movie. It was unbelievable," Johnson said. "His system fit my game and fit our game, and that's why we were one of the highest scoring teams in the nation."
Jobe installed his trademark offense, with Johnson serving as the engine. Johnson said Jobe did not mind him being fancy with the basketball, and the trust Jobe gave him during games served as a confidence boost for him.
He would spend time with Jobe and then-assistant Tommie Green behind the scenes, discussing basketball and life, in general.
"I just think Coach Jobe built me up in terms of helping me mature as a man," Johnson said. "He always had me focus on my academics and he promised my mom that I would get my degree. I think he was trying to hold the reins back because never wanted me to focus on the NBA."
With the confidence from the scrimmages in 1985 coupled with the confidence Jobe instilled in him, Johnson set the Southwestern Athletic Conference and nation on fire.
Johnson's two seasons on The Bluff rank as two of Division I's all-time highest marks for assists and assists per game. Johnson led the nation in assists per game in 1986-87 (10.74 assists per game) and 1987-88 (13.3 apg), with his '87-‘88 campaign as the nation's all-time best in the category and his ‘86-‘87 number ranking third all-time. Johnson's 399 assists led the nation in 1987-88 is the second-highest season total in Division I history. His 333 assists in 1986-87 are fifth all-time in Division I.
Johnson stellar play on the court earned him the SWAC's highest honor in both his junior and senior seasons as the conference's player of the year.
His 22-dime night against Texas Southern on January 25, 1988 still stands as the most by a single player in a Division I game, a feat only matched twice. Johnson also had one game with 21 assists, two games with 20 assists and two with 19 assists.
The key to reaching those assists numbers were playing with teammates that were able to catch and shoot, along with being able to play above the rim. With Johnson at the helm, the "Runnin' Gunnin' Jags" became a must-see attraction.
"The atmosphere of the Clark Activity Center was that of a sold-out NBA arena," Johnson said. Fans came with high expectations, and the team delivered on those expectations on a nightly basis.
"We not only delivered at the Minidome, we delivered on the road," Johnson said. "We were a road show, everywhere we went it was standing room only.
At the Minidome, just seeing people sitting in the aisles, cars parked all over the bridge," he said. "Every time our opponents missed and we got on the break, you just didn't know what was going to happen. We could see the fear in our opponents."
No matter how many points were scored, Jobe kept Johnson and the team focused on academics. He saw players have their scholarships taken for not performing in the classroom. Jobe also did not give Johnson special treatment, rarely discussing his NBA hopes until after he graduated.
"That's why we had quite a few guys on our team graduate," Johnson said. "There was a lot of accountability there. I think that's the perfect word for it. He held you accountable academically."
Saturday culminates a stellar collegiate playing career and a three-decade long affinity for Southern University for Avery Johnson, a young man who dribbled, shot, and passed many a time on a court that will forevermore bear his name.