Q&A: Avery Johnson

Posted by Unknown on Friday, November 14, 2014 with No comments
Courtesy of Dan McCarney 

What has it been like to watch from afar as the Spurs have blossomed into this historic dynasty?
I think all of us who wore a Spurs uniform, especially those were part of the first championship, we feel a sense of pride and ownership. We feel like we’re part of the Spurs legacy, and the future legacy. It’s great to see it happening in San Antonio, because if you’d asked somebody 25 years ago, which NBA city would have the potential of winning five championships in a 15-year period, is it New York, Los Angeles, Boston or San Antonio, I’m sure San Antonio would be last on the list. So it’s great because the fans have always been so supportive. I’ve said it all along, and some of the old guys get mad at me – obviously George Gervin was great – but when David Robinson was drafted, it changed the playing field of the Spurs being an elite team. And then Tim being drafted took it to a whole new level. So I take joy of knowing that we were part of the program, especially with Coach Pop getting it off the ground.
I remember hearing so many stories, besides what we saw on the basketball court, about what a freakish athlete David Robinson was. Just how great was he?
First of all, he was the fastest person on our team. Still, to this day, I marvel at how fast and agile as a big guy he was. For the most part, centers were always back-to-the-basket players. But David was agile, he could play with his back to the basket, he could face you up, he was a great – not good, great – defensive player, on the ball, off the ball. He communicated on the floor. He was an unbelievable tennis player. When you talk about a guy with athleticism, who was 7-1, it still amazes me. He was the fastest I’d ever seen at blocking a shot and leading everybody down the floor and getting a dunk at the other end. It just amazed me, and you’d see it all the time.
What are your thoughts about the criticism he used to get, about being soft or too nice or not working hard enough on his game?
I just think more than anything David was the franchise player. When he was drafted, and we started to have better role players around him, the stakes were higher. And when the stakes were high, and the team didn’t win the championship or go as far in the playoffs as people expected, David was the target because he was a nice guy. But there was nothing soft about David. He was an extreme competitor. He wanted to win as much as anyone else. But I think people confused that he liked to play the piano or the saxophone or whatever, and because he wasn’t out shooting jump shots in the gym at midnight, he didn’t care about winning. No – he cared about winning as much as anybody in the organization, and a lot of us combined. He just had a different way of expressing it. He wasn’t real boisterous towards the opponent on the court. He got a dunk, he ran to the other end. Some guys dunk on people, they want to growl and point. That just wasn’t in his DNA. David did it his own way, it worked, and those of us who played with him are proud to say we were his teammate.
It sounds like you and Pop are still really close. What was your first impression of him, showing up in San Antonio as this unknown assistant coach, with no NBA playing or coaching experience?
We spent a lot of time together, doing H-E-B Hot Dogs and Hoops camps and whatever. He was a young guy in terms of getting his feet wet in the NBA. I wouldn’t say he was an oddball, he was just a fun guy. He was the opposite of Larry Brown. Larry was the tough, hard-nosed practice coach, with no margin for error. Pop kept everyone loose. He was the comedian, he made you feel good, he made you laugh. He’d get out and play 1 on 1 with us, 5 on 5. He was an unbelievable assistant coach. Over the years we got closer and closer. I wouldn’t say he’s a father figure, but he’s like a big brother. In some ways, he’s like a teammate. Sometimes I felt like his assistant coach. We just have a great relationship. We don’t publicize it but our families are close. We do spend a lot of time together when I’m in San Antonio, or when the team is here in Los Angeles. We have a strong relationship, and I’m thankful that we do.
Along the same lines, what do you remember about all the hype surrounding Tim Duncan when he was drafted?
My first impression was, Wow. I’d heard a lot about him, watched some highlights, seen him a little bit in college. But when you have a chance to see him in an offseason workout, I’m like, I must be dreaming, this is not real. He had a little bit of Hakeem, the power of Shaq, the finesse of David. Inside-outside, the footwork, the passing ability. You’re like, Are you kidding me? Is this real? And then you come back and you see it the next day and the next day. Then you finally get into training camp and there’s nobody on the floor who can handle him – nobody. And you’re talking about David Robinson, who was Defensive Player of the Year. David and I just kind of looked at each other. It was time to pass the torch. If we want to win the championship, Tim’s got to lead us and we all have to get behind him and be the best supporting cast. He was basically the guy we handed the keys to the car.
What impresses you most about this incredible career he’s enjoyed?
I didn’t think he would play this long. But I’m also pleasantly surprised in the transformation in his body, the way he changed his diet, lost the weight, took pressure off his knees. I thought he’d play 10 or 12 years, win three or four championships and ride off into the sunset because Tim doesn’t need the spotlight. But his level of consistency and durability has been a joy to watch. Right now, I don’t want him to retire – next year, the year after. I want him to play at least until he’s 40 or 41. He’s that good. A 75 percent Tim Duncan is better than 90 percent of the guys in the league. I don’t want to stop covering him on ESPN.
How important do you think that aversion to attention was in building the Spurs, not just with him but David? I often compare them to Orlando, which also was so lucky to draft two Hall of Fame centers (Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard), but not ones who seemed content playing in a smaller market.
Here’s how I would answer that question. This is why David and I thought it was critical for us to win that first championship in 99. If we don’t, and Tim started to approach free agency, who knows? Obviously he went on that recruiting trip to Orlando, and you don’t know how that turns out. Same thing with Shaq – if he wins that first championship against the Rockets in ’95, there’s a good chance maybe he stays in Orlando for the rest of his career. The same thing with Dwight Howard (against the Lakers in 2009). That’s why we thought that first one was so important, so Tim could feel that ownership and a sense of urgency to win even more in San Antonio.
Where do you see Kawhi Leonard once he hits his ceiling?
We always joke with our colleague Bruce Bowen – Kawhi Leonard is a much more athletic, offensively-skilled Bruce Bowen, with the same defensive ability. I think he has a high ceiling. I know the Spurs are going to get a contract worked out with him next summer. He’s a Spur. He’s got that Spur-type DNA. He’s gritty, he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, he’s a hard worker. Pop said he’s one of the most coachable guys he’s every worked with. I’m predicting he’ll be an All-Star this year. That Finals MVP, that’s not a fluke. He has that ability on both ends of the floor, and he’s only going to get better.
How are you enjoying TV work compared to coaching?
At the moment, I love what I’m doing coaching millions of people with the opportunity to work with ESPN on all of our shows. So it’s great. I had a chance to cover the University of Kentucky’s open practice, I’m calling a high school game on Dec. 8, the high school my son attended. He’s now at Texas A&M. I love the opportunity to coach the audience and entertain. Obviously, if a coaching opportunity presents itself then I’ll address that at that time. But I love what I’m doing right now, and that’s what I see myself doing as time wears on.
It’s got to be a lot less stressful.
You know what – stress is good. People say, you don’t have the pressure and the stress (working in TV). But pressure and stress are good. I’ve always enjoyed trying to problem solve.