Forgotten Warriors: Neil Johnston

Years Active: 1952 – 1959
Career Stats: 516 games, 35.5 mpg
19.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 44.4% FG, 76.8% FT
Postseason Stats: 23 games, 30.5 mpg
15.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 39% FG, 73.4% FT
Accolades: 6x All-Star (1953-58), 4x All-NBA 1st Team (1953-56), All-NBA 2nd Team (1957); 3x PPG Leader (1953-55), 3x FG% Leader (1953, 1956-57), RPG Leader (1955); NBA Championship (1956)

Photo via Sports Illustrated

(note: this is one of my absolute favorite photographs of all time)

“I doubt if Johnston will ever receive the recognition that Mikan got because Neil didn’t come into the league with the fanfare and blowing of trumpets that accompanied Mikan.” And the fact that Chamberlain came immediately after him, in the same city, also didn’t help.

Via Eddie Gottlieb and Alex Sachare from the 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time

Joe Fulks was the pivot man to establish the Philadelphia Warriors as a force in the NBA, winning the inaugural title and being the league’s first superstar in 1947. However, as Fulks aged and wore down, the Warriors struggled to contend. The addition of F/G Paul Arizin in 1951 began the process of renewal. Then in 1952, a 6’8″, 210-pound center was added to the mix. He played a scant 15 minutes his rookie year, but thereafter, Neil Johnston would prove an indomitable force in leading the Warriors back to prominence alongside Arizin.

Although Johnston’s first and only NBA team, the Warriors did not draft the center. In fact no one did. Neil wallowed for years in the farm system of Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies as a pitcher, but, happily for Johnston, his fast ball died:

“It was my dad’s dream to see me play big league baseball. He would rather see me play one baseball game than 50 basketball games.”

So Neil went his father’s way, pitching at Terre Haute in 1949 and 1950… In 1951 he was moved to Wilmington of the Interstate League and there his arm started “tightening up.”

“I was a fastball pitcher without a fast ball.”

Sans fastball, Johnston setup a meeting with Warriors owner-coach Eddie Gottlieb and was signed for the 1951-52 season. The 22-year old rookie rode the pine as stars Arizin and Fulks took care of the heavy-lifting. The next season, though, Uncle Sam came calling and Arizin would miss the next two years in the marines. To boot, Joe Fulks was a shadow of what he used to be. Johnston stepped into the void with a breathtaking breakout season in 1952-53.

Seeing perhaps the largest jump in minutes per game in NBA history, Johnston went from 15 to 45 minutes a game. While shouldering Philadelphia’s immense burden, he commenced a trio of admirable streaks: 6 straight All-Star selections, 5 straight All-NBA selections, 4 of them 1st team, and 3 straight scoring titles.

With the aging and retirement of both George Mikan and Fulks, Neil Johnston became the finest scoring big man in the league. His defining move was a sweeping right-handed hook shot, but there was more to his game:

Rhythm, instinct and flash perception make [the hook] a deadly shot for Johnston; three times it has won for him the scoring leadership in pro ball, tying George Mikan’s all time record.

One shot, however, doesn’t make a pro. Johnston is also a strong threat with the one-hander, has led the Warriors in rebounding for five straight seasons and is a tenacious ball-hawk, a combination of skills that spells the difference between a truly great pro star and just another useful player.

Despite Johnston’s brilliance, the Warriors were atrocious.Philadelphia’s cupboard was barren and had to await the return of Paul Arizin. Finishing with 12 wins in 1953 and then 29 in 1954, Arizin finally returned in 1955 to create a stellar and dynamic duo:

When Neil Johnston is on the floor, Philadelphia’s strategy is to get the ball into him in the pivot for one of his hooks. If Johnston feels his chances are poor, his first option is to hit Paul Arizin in the corner, where Arizin is a marvel of accuracy. When Paul is being closely checked, which is often, he will instead come around in front of Johnston and take the pass at the top of the key for an almost unstoppable jump.

The Warriors continued improving. Finishing 33-39 in Arizin and Johnston’s first year together, they finished 45 – 27 the next season. The cupboard for Philadelphia was just about full at this point. Point guard Jack George enjoyed a career year with 14 points and 6 assists a night. Power forward Joe Graboski was in the midst of an 8-year run of 12+ points and 8+ rebounds a game. Finally, rookie forward Tom Gola filled in all the gaps and tied up the loose ends with 11 PPG, 9 RPG and 6 APG.

Despite the influx of talent, Johnston’s numbers remained nearly the same. During the doldrums of 1953 and ’54, Johnston averaged 23.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 45.5 minutes a game. During the resurrection and success years of 1955 – 1958, Johnston averaged 21.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 37 minutes a game.

And there surely was success as Philadelphia made the playoffs three straight seasons and took home the 1956 NBA title by defeating the Fort Wayne Pistons in five games. After a disappointing first round exit in 1957, the Warriors reached the Eastern Division Finals but fell to the Boston Celtics in five games.

The Celtics, of course, were beginning their dynasty having already won the 1957 title. Philadelphia was in obvious need of reloading to compete, but a fateful accident would stymie the effort:

Three weeks ago, during an exhibition game with St. Louis, Neil Johnston smashed into a wall and damaged a knee severely. Doctors predicted he would be out for most of the season. Until then there had been at least a reasonable prospect that Philadelphia would be an Eastern title contender all the way and might even beat Boston in the playoffs. The latest prognosis is considerably more optimistic, but no one can say when Johnston will be completely effective again.

Sadly, Neil would never be effective again. He managed to play in 28 games that season, but the mobility was gone and he averaged only 6 points. At age 29, he had to retire much too early.

And what a devastatingly bad time for him to go. The Warriors had just drafted point guard Guy Rodgers, who would go on to play in 4 All-Star games and lead the league in APG twice in his career. The very next season, Wilt Chamberlain joined the team. I hesitate to play the “what-if” game, but if Johnston hadn’t wrecked his knee, the Warriors could have trotted out a lineup very much formidable to the early incarnation of theĀ  Celtics Dynasty. Johnston, in his final healthy year, still averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes a game. Even without the retired Johnston, the Warriors reached two Eastern Division Finals pushing Boston to 6 and 7 games.

Injuries, though, are an unfortunate part of sports and Johnston absolutely proved his worth and enjoyed tremendous success with the time he had. He led the league in scoring 3 straight years, something only five other players (Jordan, Mikan, Wilt, Gervin and McAdoo) have done. Along with Wilt and Kareem, Johnston is the only player to lead the league in PPG, RPG and FG%. His right-handed hook shot was as devastating during its time as Jabbar’s skyhook would be a generation later.

Al Cervi, Johnston’s coach in 1959, explained why he trotted out the hobbled Johnston for his final 28 games: “On one good leg, he’s better than some of the other men in this league.”

On two good legs, he was better than most of them.

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