Professional basketball consumed Avery Johnson's life for 20 years, but now Johnson is consuming professional basketball in an entirely different way. After 16 seasons as a player in the National Basketball Association and three-plus seasons as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson is working as a television analyst for ESPN. These days, the New Orleans native takes frequent trips between his longtime home in suburban Houston and ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
Johnson made his initial foray into television broadcasting during last season's NBA conference finals after he was fired by the Mavericks in April, not long after being named the NBA's Coach of the Year.
"It gave me a chance to see the game from a different angle," Johnson says. "There's not as much pressure, but there's a different kind of pressure at the same time."
As the 2008-09 NBA season tipped off, Johnson was in the unusual position of observing from afar the game he played and coached professionally for the past two decades. "It did feel kind of odd," the 43-year-old says. "Because even in the three times when I was out of training camp (as a player), trying to catch on with a team, you always felt you were going to be on somebody's roster at some point, whether it was November, December or January. Now I know for sure I'm going to be out all year, so it's a little weird. But at the same time it's something that I'm enjoying and I'm not sure if I'm going to have this opportunity again for quite a while when I get back into it."
Getting back into it is inevitable for Johnson. In his current role at ESPN, he is a natural whose charisma and communication skills translate well on-air, but at his core he is still a coach — a teacher, a motivator and a leader. His coaching resume, while lacking in longevity and diversity, is an enviable one that will make him one of the most coveted coaches in the league. Lately there have been rumors the Oklahoma City Thunder will target Johnson, who played a season of college ball in Oklahoma. The Thunder fired head coach P.J. Carlesimo in November after a 1-12 start to the season. (He was replaced by interim head coach Scott Brooks.)
The ESPN analyst chair, whether the sport is basketball, football or baseball, is a plum position for ex-coaches to occupy. It gives them a high-visibility perch from which to survey the landscape of their league while they ponder their next move. And Johnson has a keen eye trained on the terrain.
"Right now all the (head coaching) situations around the NBA, for the most part, are pretty much set," Johnson says. "We have two interim situations (Oklahoma City and Washington, and, since the interview was conducted, Toronto). My agent and I have decided to fulfill my obligations with ESPN, but at the same time if somebody calls or comes knocking on the door we'll listen."
Lofty expectations will accompany Johnson to his next coaching destination, wherever it may be. That's an ironic twist for the man known as the "Little General," an undersized point guard who was the quintessential overachiever as a player.
The son of a carpenter, Johnson grew up in the Lafitte housing project, where the left-hander spent countless hours honing his skills on the playground. He was one of 10 children — both of his parents had children from previous marriages — and by his own admission, the Johnson family did not have a lot of luxuries. But his upbringing did impart rich lessons.
"My childhood shaped who I am today," Johnson says. "Nothing is going to come easy. You have to work for it. Having a strong family structure around me as a young man in the inner city, I know how important family is. Not having a vast amount of resources and still being able to persevere shows you that money can't buy you everything."
As a senior at St. Augustine High School, he led the Purple Knights to a 35-0 record and a 1983 state championship.
Despite Johnson's prep pedigree, the postgraduate options for a 5-foot-11-inch point guard were limited. Tipped off by former University of New Orleans coach Tim Floyd, the coach at tiny New Mexico Junior College offered Johnson a scholarship.
Johnson spent a year in desolate Hobbs, N.M., and transferred to Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. Then it was home to Louisiana, where he played his final two college seasons at Southern University in Baton Rouge. As a senior, he led the NCAA in assists.
Still, Johnson's seemingly Sisyphean climb persisted.
Passed over in the NBA draft, Johnson played summer ball in the minor league United States Basketball Association.
In the fall of 1988, he caught on with the Seattle SuperSonics as a rookie free agent, thus beginning a career that would rival some Amtrak conductors. In 16 NBA seasons he made stops, sometimes multiple ones, in six different cities.
His combination of durability and stature was nothing short of remarkable. He became only the second player under 6 feet to play in 1,000 NBA games. The signature moment of his career came in 1999 while playing for the San Antonio Spurs. He hit the game-winning shot in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to clinch the championship for the Spurs against the New York Knicks.
As a coach, Johnson landed on the fast track. He retired as a player in 2004 and became the Mavericks' head coach-in-waiting to Don Nelson. Later that season, Nelson resigned and was succeeded by Johnson. Under Johnson's direction, the Mavericks finished the season with a record of 16-2 and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals.
The following season, he took Dallas to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and was named Coach of the Year. But Johnson's Achilles heel was exposed during that postseason. In the finals, the Mavericks squandered a 2-0 series lead against the Miami Heat and lost in six games.
The following season brought more unprecedented success. The Mavericks won a franchise-best 67 games during the regular season, but they suffered a shocking upset in the first round of the playoffs against the eighth-seed Golden State Warriors.
Last season, the New Orleans Hornets eliminated Dallas from the first round again. In the last three postseasons, the Mavericks had lost 12 of 15 games.
Despite all the milestones — Johnson reached both 100 and 150 victories faster than any coach in NBA history — the Mavericks fired him in April.
In essence, Johnson was a victim of his own success.
"When I first took over, when you go back and rerun my interview, I talked about getting them to the finals and wanting the bar to be high and knowing that if the bar is high, there's going to be pressure to be a leader," Johnson says. "But that's what I wanted."
When asked if he was treated fairly in Dallas, Johnson is unequivocal.
"Absolutely. No shadow of a doubt," he says.
Nor does Johnson have any venom for Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, one of the most outspoken and flamboyant executives in professional sports. The boisterous billionaire has been fined more than $1.5 million by the NBA, mostly for his public barbs lobbed at the league and its officials.
Johnson calls working for Cuban "a great experience," and says the two routinely had discussions about various management styles.
"Every owner has his own different personality and a different way they like to conduct themselves," Johnson says of the inimitable Cuban. "There are 30 different owners and 30 different personalities and business structures ... and they do whatever works well for their situation."
There are also only 30 NBA head coaching jobs, the most coveted basketball gigs in the world. And whenever one becomes available, Johnson is a good bet to become a candidate — hence the Oklahoma City rumors.
Johnson's agent, Tyler Glass, says he has not reached out to the Thunder and the Thunder has not contacted Johnson about the job.
But given Johnson's track record and his unrelenting passion for the game, it likely won't be long before the "Little General" once again assumes a commanding position on an NBA bench.
"Right now you don't close any doors," Johnson says. "You kind of leave the door open. Right now it's not wide open. It's about halfway open or a quarter open. That's where we are right now."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26 in New Orleans.