The forward was a two-time All-Star and a key part of the 1978-79 Sonics team that won the NBA title.
To family, friends and NBA fans, John Johnson was known simply as “JJ,” the man who could do a little bit of everything on the basketball court.
He died this week at age 68, leaving behind a legacy as a basketball pioneer and one of the key components who helped the Sonics win their only NBA title.
Johnson was found Thursday inside his San Jose apartment.
“He was a little weak and he had a cold and his body just didn’t have the fight to fend it off,” said his youngest son, Mitch. “It was probably a combination of things, but at the end of the day it was natural.”
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Johnson didn’t revolutionize basketball, but the 6-foot-7 forward did things that were uncommon for big men in the 1970s. He had the skills of a point guard and was a rare five-tool player who could dribble, rebound, shoot, pass and defend.
“When I coached him I would tell Gus (Williams), Dennis (Johnson) and Fred (Brown) if JJ got the ball on a rebound, you guys take off because he will find you,” said Lenny Wilkens, the Hall of Famer and former Sonics coach. “He could do that, and he did it very well.
“Before they coined the phrase point forward, he was like that. I have great memories.”
Even though the Sonics had a high-scoring backcourt, Johnson was the de facto point guard on the Seattle teams that made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1978 and ’79.
He averaged 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4.4 assists the season Seattle defeated Washington 4-1 to claim the city’s first major sports championship.
“They felt like they were one of the most underrated teams,” Mitch said. “According to them, they felt like they let one go in Game 7 in ’78. Then in ’79 they came back and handled their business. If they would have won back to back — not that they didn’t get their due respect — but winning back-to-back championships raises you to a different plateau in terms of championship teams.
“They didn’t have Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They were truly a team. If you ask five different people who was the best player on that team you might get five different answers.”
News of Johnson’s death spread quickly Friday through the close-knit Sonics community still dealing with the passing of Dennis Johnson in 2007.
“Everyone had the same reaction, which was, ‘Can’t believe it’ and ‘How did this happen?’ ” said former Sonic Wally Walker, who played five seasons with Johnson. “We’re up there in age, but in our minds we still think we can be playing so it doesn’t seem right that he’s gone.”
Born Oct. 18, 1947, in Carthage, Miss., John Howard Getty Johnson grew up in Milwaukee and starred at Iowa, where he was a third-team All-American.
In 1970, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him seventh overall in the NBA draft.
He made two All-Star appearances during a three-year stint (1970-73) with the Cavs. Johnson then played in Portland (1973-75) and Houston (1975-77) before landing in Seattle (1977-82), where he retired.
“Seattle was the place where he came full circle,” Mitch said. “His roots started when he won a championship and that’s when his closeness with community was born.”
Johnson moved to the Bay Area 10 years ago to be closer to Mitch, the former O’Dea High standout who played at Stanford.
“Our relationship went from father and son to big brother and little brother and almost a best-friend type of deal,” Mitch said.
Johnson is survived by his sons Jeremy and Mitch.