Gus "Honeycomb" Johnson (December 13, 1938–April 29, 1987) was a professional basketball player who played nine seasons with the NBA's Baltimore Bullets, and part of one season with the Phoenix Suns and the ABA's Indiana Pacers. He was known for his strength and powerful dunks, breaking three backboards during his career .
As a Bullet, Johnson was named to 1964 All-Rookie Team, played in five NBA All-Star Games, was named to four All-NBA Second Teams, and was twice named to the All-NBA Defense First Team. His number twenty-five jersey was retired by the Bullets organization. As a Pacer, he was a member of the franchise's 1972–1973 ABA championship team.
Johnson starred at Akron Central Hower in high school as an All-Ohio star. One of his teammates was future Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond. Despite his obvious talent and athletic ability, Johnson was offered few college scholarship opportunities, which was unfortunately common for African Americans in this era. Johnson ended up attending and playing college ball in the Northwest, first for a year at Boise Junior College, then for his final college season at the University of Idaho, where he developed into a 6'6" 235 lb. force with considerable skills and athletic ability. The Vandals were 20-6 during the 1962-63 season, the last of three seasons under coach Joe Cipriano, who moved on to coach at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Gus Johnson was drafted in the second round of the 1963 NBA draft by the Baltimore Bullets as a 24 year-old rookie. Johnson was an immediate success and was runner-up Rookie Of The Year to Ohio prep rival Jerry Lucas. Johnson joined Lucas and former prep teammate Thurmond on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
The Bullets played in the NBA West Division for the first three years of Johnsons's career before being shifted to the more competitive East due to expansion. Very good teams in Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati would have to decline before the building Bullets could move up. Johnson was both a remarkable power player and an exciting open court player. During his career in the NBA in the 1960s, Johnson was among the most respected rebounders in the league, using his combination of strength and leaping ability. His drives to the basket were comparable to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins, and he was one of the league's first famous dunkers. A star who sold tickets during the days of ten and twelve-team NBA ball, Johnson was also injury prone and battled constant knee problems. Despite those injury issues, he was a perennial All-Star.
His best years with the Bullets were 1968-71. As the team was more successful, Johnson received more recognition for his play. The 1968-69 team had the NBA's best regular season record, but faded in the playoffs when Johnson was out with injuries. After a third-place finish in 1970 to eventual champion New York, Johnson and the Bullets upset New York and made the NBA Finals in 1971, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Lew Alcindor. Johnson reached All-Pro status during this period.
Injuries dropped Johnson to the Bullets' bench in 1972, his last with the team, and limited Johnson to 10 pro seasons, NBA and ABA combined. His career averages of 16 points and 12 rebounds included seasons as a reserve which lowered his numbers. Those injuries have also likely prevented numerous post-career honors, such as Hall of Fame induction or placement on the NBA 50 Greatest Ever group.
Gus Johnson died of inoperable brain cancer in 1987.
When Gus Johnson was playing at Idaho in 1963, he already had a reputation as a fantastic leaper. One evening at the Corner Club, a local tavern on Main Street in Moscow, Johnson was requested by owner Herm Goetz to display his extraordinary jumping ability for the patrons. The CC was a very modest establishment, converted from a small chapel in the 1940s, with hardwood floors and a beamed ceiling. From a standing start Johnson touched a spot on a beam 11'6" (3.505 m) above the floor, which was ceremoniously marked with a nail by Goetz, who then proudly proclaimed that anyone who could duplicate the feat could drink for free. A 40-inch (1.016 m) diameter circle was painted on the floor, and both feet had to be inside the circle to ensure a standing start. Twenty three years went by with many attempts at Gus Johnson's Nail (including Bill Walton in the summer of 1984), but no successes.
That was until January 1986, when the College of Southern Idaho basketball team from Twin Falls stopped in town on their way to a game in Coeur d'Alene. Joey Johnson, a younger brother of former NBA star Dennis Johnson, was brought into the Corner Club for a try. The 6'3" guard had a 48" vertical leap and could put his chin on a basketball rim with a running start. "JJ" laced up his shoes, then grabbed and bent the legendary nail on his third try, and Herm Goetz raised the nail half an inch. (CSI posted a 35-3 record that season and finished fourth in the national junior college tournament.)