St. Augustine High School/Southern University/NBA
Attitude has been everything for basketball star Avery Johnson. His great attitude and a sense of responsibility to his parents, the late Inez and Jim Johnson, carried the under-sized guard from the streets of New Orleans to the pinnacle of the NBA.
“I never wanted to let them down,” he said, referring to his parents. “[My mother] went back and graduated from high school at the age of 55. She was determined, and went back to get her GED.”
Inheriting that same level of determination, Johnson made himself into a star at St. Augustine High School, leading the Purple Knights to an undefeated season and the 1983 Class 4A state championship.
Despite that success, he didn’t attract major college attention, making stops at New Mexico Junior College and Cameron University (Okla.), before returning to Louisiana and Southern University to play for coach Ben Jobe in an NBA-style system. Johnson said his years at Southern were the “two best years of my life.”
Jobe knew how to motivate players. “He told me I was too small, and too short to play in the NBA. But, as soon as I graduated he changed his tune. He told me that I was an NBA player.”
At Southern, Johnson led Division I in assists for two straight years, including 13.3 per game in 1988, and led the Jaguars to back-to-back SWAC titles. But once again, he didn’t get attention from the next level, so he signed with the USBL’s Palm Beach Stingrays, before earning a tryout with the Seattle Supersonics.
The 5-11 guard bounced around the NBA, but during a stint with San Antonio in 1991, he met assistant coach Gregg Popovich, another master motivator. When Popovich was named the general manager of the Spurs in 1994, his first move was to bring back Johnson.
“Pop coaches everybody,’ said Avery. “From the superstars to the last player on the bench.
“He would tell me I was the worst defender in the NBA. He would ask me how I got into the NBA,” said Johnson with a laugh. “Then he would take me out to dinner.”
Popovich took over head coaching duties of the Spurs in 1996 and his faith in Johnson paid off when the veteran guard buried the game-winning shot in Game Five of the NBA Finals against the Knicks to lift the Spurs to their first NBA title. That shot is one of the signature hoops in franchise history.
After retiring in 2004, Johnson moved into the coaching ranks, using the lessons learned from the likes of Jobe and Popovich to become very successful in that role as well – in 2006, he coached the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals, earning NBA Coach of the Year honors. He also coached the New Jersey Nets.
He is also a sought-after motivational speaker, inspiring young students around the country, referring to his mother telling him he would “get a lot of places” with a great attitude.
His message to students: “You have to be coachable…you gotta compete…care deeply about academics…watch carefully who you keep as friends…associate yourself with dream makers, not dream breakers.”
In his book written with Roy S. Johnson, Avery Johnson tells us to “Aspire Higher.” He tells us to win with determination, discipline, and decisions. Just as he has done throughout his life.
Story submitted by Ed Daniels of the Greater New Orleans Sports Selection Committee.