Friday, December 21, 2007

Avery Johnson: More than just one shot

The image linked to Avery Johnson probably won’t ever change. Knocking down a baseline jumper – he wasn’t supposed to have one – to close out the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals clinched San Antonio’s first championship.

I witnessed that shot in person at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1999. I remember thinking at the time how important that title was for David Robinson, who endured a decade of criticism for being soft. We learned later that Sean Elliott somehow made it through the playoffs with a failing kidney. He would later need a transplant.

Robinson and Elliott were the first of the 1990s Spurs to have their jerseys retired. They were NBA bluebloods. Both picked up Play of the Year awards in college and both were picked at the top of the NBA Draft. They were supposed to be pillars in building a champion.

Johnson wasn’t. His story of perseverance is well-chronicled. He was cut once on Christmas Eve. Once the same day he was at the Robinson’s wedding. If it wasn’t for a 10-day contract in Houston, who knows if he would have made it. He had already played for four other teams before earning a foothold with the Spurs. By 1999, the Little General had earned a special place in the heart of San Antonio, a town that prides itself as an underdog.

“That’s where I really made my mark,” Johnson said. “The other teams were just pit stops. Playing there [10] years it means a lot, especially with the way my career started off. Hopefully, it serves as an inspiration for those young people out there that really aren’t the high-flyers or the dunkers or the 3-point shooters or the ones that aren’t big in stature.

“Here’s a guy that wasn’t drafted that was in obscurity, didn’t really go to a big college that had a chance to join the big boys in the rafters that went to the big schools that were bigger in stature that scored a ton of points and that made All-Star teams and Top 50. There’s an opportunity for them also.”

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