Born: February 4, 1929
Died: September 28, 1978
Philadelphia Warriors (NBA): 1951-’59
“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.
– Eddie Gottlieb
Via Alex Sachare’s The 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time
If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers dynasty came to a close. He faded as Bill Russell began constructing a new one in Boston. Dynasties get the glory, interregnums, however, get a shoulder shrug. –
His place in the mid-1950s, even if falsely reduced to merely a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.
For three straight seasons, Johnston led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was his hook shot that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively. He was the finest, most dependable offensive weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his Philadelphia Warriors teammate, Paul Arizin.
Johnston forming a dynamic one-two punch with Arizin would have seemed unfathomable in 1949. Neil wasn’t drafted by any pro basketball team. Instead his pro sports career began in the Philadelphia Phillies’s minor league system:
“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 Philadelphia 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 Joe 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 Marine Corps. To boot, Fulks – a former scoring champ who led Philly to the 1947 BAA title – 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 series of admirable streaks:
six straight All-Star selections,
five straight seasons leading the NBA in win shares,
five straight All-NBA selections,
four of them 1st team,
and three straight scoring titles.
With the aging and retirement of both George Mikan and Fulks, Neil Johnston became the finest frontcourt scorer 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. In 1956, they sported the league’s best record. In the playoffs, the Warriors survived a see-saw series with the always-tough Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Johnston pulled his weight with titanic performances like Game 2 (43 points) and Game 4 (35 points) of the series.
Defeating the Nats 3-games-to-2, the Warriors dispatched the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-games-to-1 in the NBA Finals. The series was more a struggle than the final tally would indicate. Johnston was kept in relative check by the Pistons burly frontcourt, leading to a somewhat disappointing series. But with their all-around starting squad, the Warriors could now survive if he had an off game, or an off series.
Unfortunately, Johnston’s time at the NBA summit proved short-lived like all interregnums. Bill Russell arrived in the NBA the next year revolutionizing defense and bolstering the Boston Celtics. The Warriors and Celtics clashed in the 1958 Eastern Division Finals, but the Celtics prevailed 4-games-to-1.
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 four 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 the 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 more Eastern Division Finals in 1960 and 1962, pushing Boston to 6 and 7 games, respectively.
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 NBA in scoring three straight years, something only six other players (Jordan, Mikan, Wilt, Gervin, Durant 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, Warriors 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.”
Indeed, someone had to fill in the gap between Mikan and Russell. Filling in that gap – and the way he did so – Johnston proved without a doubt that he wasn’t just a flavor of the month, but a talent for all times.
4x All-NBA 1st Team (1953-’56)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1957)
6x All-Star (1953-’58)
Regular Season Career Averages (516 games):
Playoff Career Averages (23 games):