Ervin Johnson – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame

Basketball, 1989-2006
University of New Orleans/NBA

Inducted: 2018

Twelve years after the conclusion of his long NBA tenure – and 25 years after he capped a legendary career at the University of New Orleans – Ervin Johnson still stands tall in and for his sport.

Anyone familiar with Johnson would not be surprised at his generous givebacks. He organized a girls AAU program, EJ Hoops, and helps with the coaching. And as a member of the Denver Nuggets Community Ambassadors, he has shared his spoken autobiography with youth – 10,000 to 15,000 a year, Johnson estimates — and brought smiles to residents of assisted-living facilities.

“I really enjoy telling my story,” says Johnson.

What an amazing tale he can tell. Johnson quit his team in the 10th grade at Block High School in Jonesville, La. — about 45 miles northeast of Alexandria in tiny (about 10,000 residents) Catahoula Parish — and grew eight inches after graduation to 6-feet-11. He worked in a Baton Rouge supermarket for 2½ years before enrolling at UNO in January 1989. He offered his services to Tim Floyd, then in his first season as UNO’s head coach, on the final night of the early signing period in November 1988 after hearing of UNO’s need for depth and height. Floyd, whose first UNO team had no starter taller than 6-5, instantly awarded Johnson a scholarship and redshirted him.

Photo Courtesy of the Milwaukee Bucks

Johnson survived that initiation, plus a threat from Floyd to ship him to a junior college — “At that point we just didn’t think Ervin was ready to play at the D-I level,” the coach said — before blossoming into one of the city’s greatest college players.

By the time he finished his UNO career in 1993, Johnson had started for three conference-championship teams, played in two NCAA tournaments and set UNO records for career rebounds (1,287), field-goal percentage (.591), blocked shots (294), games started (116) and minutes played (3,694). His 1,608 points ranked second in UNO history. He was Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as a senior center on a team which was 18-0 in conference, 26-4 overall and No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll. Though his ranking on UNO’s career scoring charts has changed, this fact hasn’t: He’s UNO’s only first-round NBA draft choice.

“I was blessed to get a scholarship.” Johnson said. “I was a bad player when I got to UNO, but people there believed in me.”

So did the NBA. The Seattle SuperSonics drafted Johnson, and he played there for three seasons. He spent a year in Denver and averaged 7.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while starting all 82 regular-season games, but he was traded for three players the following year to Milwaukee Bucks, where he spent seven of his final nine seasons. He also played for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Johnson started more than half of his 845 NBA games with career averages of 4.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 20.1 minutes per game.

“I thought I was prepared and mature,” Johnson says of his ability to build a lengthy NBA resume. “I believed in hard work, and I was willing to do anything to help the team. I had great coaches on every team, and I had good teammates. I had a desire to play, and I was always willing to put in the time. I’m sure I surprised a lot of people. I beat the odds. I just took it one contract at a time.”

When Johnson shares his life’s journey, he offers eight points. “One, education,” he said. “Two, keep a positive attitude. Three, believe in yourself. Four, make good decisions. Five, set goals for yourself. Six, respect yourself and others. Seven, never quit or give up. Eight, build positive habits.”

Recently a young girl asked Johnson if she would be famous. “I told her she can do whatever she wants,” he said. “I said she could do it if she works hard and stays focused. What kids need is the confidence that they can do it. I try to encourage. There was a time when I needed that encouragement, and I got it.”

One of Johnson’s greatest confidence-builders at UNO was his progress in the weight room. “I couldn’t even bench-press 135 pounds when I got there,” he said. “When I got to UNO I was one of the weakest. But I left as one of the strongest. Spent a lot of time there lifting with (teammates) Darren Laiche and Fred Hill. It was a smelly old facility, but it wasn’t about the facility – it was about working hard and grinding it out.”

The induction will be Johnson’s second in six years. He was a member of the 2013 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class. In addition, UNO retired his No. 40 jersey on December 29, 1997.

Story submitted by Ed Cassiere of the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee.

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