“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.”
If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was the Philadelphia Warriors’ Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis dynasty was closing up shop. He then held a brief, but assured spot as the premier pivotman in the league and won an NBA title in 1956. But as that moment of prominence for Johnston faded Bill Russell began constructing a new dynasty in Boston quickly swamping out Johnston’s accomplishments.
Dynasties get the glory, interregnums, however, get a shoulder shrug.
Adding insult to injury, the year after Johnston retired because of injury, Wilt Chamberlain immediately showed up on the Philadelphia roster and made everyone forget about the previous scoring machine they had at center.
And of course, the Warriors ain’t even in Philly anymore. Johnston would have been a surefire lock for jersey retirement otherwise and people could point to the rafters and say, “Wonder who that guy is?” Hell, given what he did, he still should have his jersey retired by Golden State. But the California dreamers don’t really care for their East Coast roots except when it comes to hanging title banners.
So, basically, Johnston has been put into a memory void. Let’s dive in and see what we find…
For three straight seasons (1953-’55), Johnston led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was that hook that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively (1953, 1956, 1957). He was the finest, most dependable scoring weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his 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 whatsoever. Instead his pro sports career began in the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league baseball system.
A profile in 1954 chronicled how Johnston’s baseball career came to a fortuitous end.
“It was my dad’s dream to see me play big league baseball,” the lantern-jawed Johnston recalled. “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 and posting an 11-12 record in each of those years. In 1951 he was moved to Wilmington of the Interstate League and there his arm started “tightening up.”
“They sent me to Tri-Cities in the Western International League in 1952 but the arm was gone,” the towering blond explained. “I was a fast ball pitcher without a fast ball.”
That gave Johnston his “out.” Unable to pitch he maneuvered a meeting with Eddie Gottlieb, owner-coach of the Warriors. Gottlieb took one look, whipped out a tape measure and found that Neil was six feet, eight inches instead of six, six which he told Gottlieb.
“Maybe some people think I was taking a second best course… but actually I was always more interested in basketball than I was in baseball.”
Ed. note: Follow your dreams kids!
Sans fastball, Johnston signed with the Warriors for the 1951-52 NBA 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 now a shadow of what he used to be. Johnston shockingly stepped up with a breathtaking breakout season in 1952-53.
Seeing perhaps the largest jump in minutes per game in NBA history, Johnston went from 15 minutes per game in 1952 to 45 MPG in 1953. Shouldering Philadelphia’s immense burden, he commenced a series of admirable streaks:
6 straight All-Star selections
5 straight seasons leading the NBA in win shares
4 straight All-NBA 1st team selections
3 straight scoring titles
With the aging and retirement of Mikan and Fulks, Johnston became the finest frontcourt scorer in the league. His defining move was that sweeping hook shot, but there was more to his game.
Following through his famous hook shot on the opposite page, Neil Johnston completes one of the most difficult maneuvers in basketball. He starts with his back to the basket, goes through a rhythmic series of feints to confound his guard and, just as the hoop comes in view in a corner of one eye, he releases the ball. Rhythm, instinct and flash perception make it a deadly shot for Johnston; three times it has won for him the scoring leadership in pro ball, tying George Mikan's alltime 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. All together, that does make a pro, and has earned for Johnston selection on the East All-Star team six times.
Despite Johnston’s brilliance, the Warriors were atrocious.
Philadelphia’s cupboard was absolutely barren and had to await the return of Arizin. The Warriors had just 12 wins in 1953 as the roster was filled with flotsam and Johnston. For 1954, the club added Joe Graboski and Jack George pushing the team to mediocrity as they finished with a 29-43 record. Again, I cannot understate just how bad this roster was. Johnston, George, and Graboski lifting them to 29 wins is a miracle.
Arizin finally returned for the 1955 season and Philadelphia registered a 33-39 record. Still not great, but one could feel a dominant team brewing.
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.
With that dynamic duo as the core and power forward Graboski and point guard George as key pieces, the Warriors continued improving, especially when rookie forward/guard/center/everyman Tom Gola came aboard for the 1955-56 season.
With that awesome starting lineup, the Warriors surged to a 45-27 record, easily the best in the NBA that season.
In the playoffs, the Warriors survived a seesaw series with the always-tough Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Johnston more than pulled his weight with titanic performances in 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 of a struggle than the final tally would indicate. Also it was a good thing Johnston showed out earlier in the playoffs because he was kept in check by the Pistons’ burly frontcourt. Johnston averaged a 13.6 PPG and 11.0 RPG.
But with their all-around starting squad, the Warriors could now survive if Johnston had an off game, or even an off series. Besides, it was about damn time somebody else carried the team.
Despite the influx of talent, Johnston’s numbers remained nearly the same as when he was practically all alone on the court. Now some of that had to do with the introduction of the shot clock boosting overall counting stats. But that was some of the story not all of it.
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. So basically the same production and in eight less minutes. Having good teammates helps a million.
(And for the record… Philadelphia averaged 80.2 PPG in 1953 and 104.3 PPG in 1958. So the shot clock definitely had an impact. But Johnston’s TS% in 1953 was .534 and in 1958 it was .518. Again, he was essentially the same dude.)
Unfortunately, Johnston’s time at the NBA summit proved short-lived like all interregnums. Bill Russell arrived in the NBA the year after Philadelphia’s title run. Boston squeezed out the 1957 title in seven games over St. Louis as the Warriors slumped to a 37-35 record now that Gola was snatched by the military.
Ed. Note: The military did a great job ruining pro basketball in the 1950s by snatching All-Stars at any given moment. Jeez.
With Gola back and Johnston mustering his final great season, the Warriors and Celtics clashed in the 1958 Eastern Division Finals. This battle of the NBA’s previous two champs was lopsided with the Celtics prevailing 4-games-to-1. Johnston, now aged 29, was starting to show signs of slowing down that postseason. His percentages were pretty good versus Boston (actually great for the era) with a .469 FG% and .833 FT%. But he averaged just 13.2 PPG in 25 MPG.
With that whipping, Philadelphia was in obvious need of reloading to keep up with the Celtics, who were adding at least a good player, if not a future All-Star, every year.
But a fateful accident would stymie the Warriors’ efforts.
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 1958-59 season, but the mobility was gone and he averaged only six points. Al Cervi, Warriors coach in 1959, explained why he still trotted out the hobbled Johnston that year: “On one good leg, he’s better than some of the other men in this league.”
Appreciate coach sticking up for his player, but that wasn’t really true.
In any case, Johnston seemed to have a premonition that his time was coming to an end. Amidst the 1958 playoffs he spoke with the Chester Times and was politely griping about the wear and tear of pro ball.
In fact, Johnston will consider himself lucky if he can continue to play pro ball up to the age of 30. He already is contemplating a degree at Temple U. with the hopes of later landing a college coaching job.
“It’s not so much the rugged schedule that really hits you hard in pro ball,” said Neil. “It’s the traveling that socks you where it hurts. Before the present season, I’ll have traveled about 30,000 miles with the team, which is more than a major baseball league club travels in a season. I can’t get the proper rest while travelling. Just can’t seem to sleep when moving. Also playing pro ball robs you of a normal routine.”
Asked if perhaps the NBA should cut down on its schedule of 72 games… Neil put it this way:
“The club owners need a lengthy schedule to meet players salaries and other overhead costs. To whittle the schedule would hurt them very much in the pocketbook.”
Fortunately, Johnston also seemed at peace with his pro career possibly coming to a close (which became a reality just a year later). He noted that pro basketball has “been good to me and I’ve enjoyed it. And, like everything else, it has its ups and downs.”
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 six and seven games, respectively.
So maybe Johnston slides to power forward beside rookie Wilt Chamberlain. Or plays the role of backup center. Well, since Wilt always played like 47 minutes a game, he didn’t really have backups… ANYWAYS maybe they trade Johnston to another team in need of a center and they get a decent player in return.
The point is, Johnston’s career got shafted and so did the Warriors during their final years in Philadelphia.
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 seven other players (Jordan, Mikan, Wilt, Gervin, Durant, Harden, 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.
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 placeholder, but a player worthy of all-timer status.
Eddie Gottlieb, former Philadelphia Warriors coach and owner, quoted in Alex Sachare’s The 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time
Oscar Fraley, United Press, “Pro Basketball Star Johnston Credits Sore Arm With Making Dreams Come True,” The Daily Courier (Connesville, PA), March 18, 1954.
“Three In One: Tenacity, Natural Rhythm and a Quick, Sure Eye Have Made Lanky Neil Johnston Philadelphia’s Man of Distinction for Seven Seasons,” Sports Illustrated, January 20, 1958. https://vault.si.com/vault/1958/01/20/three-in-one.
Jeremiah Tax, “Patterns On Hardwood,” Sports Illustrated, March 11, 1957. https://vault.si.com/vault/1957/03/11/patterns-on-hardwood.
Jeremiah Tax, “Roundball Bounces Back,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1958. https://vault.si.com/vault/1958/10/27/roundball-bounces-back.
Matt Zabitka, “Neil Figures Wilt To Be Pro Star,” Chester Times, March 18, 1958.
I got to talk with Johnston a couple times when he was assistant coach with Blazers (72-74)
He seemed like a nice man to this young kid. I wasn't aware of his career until later and wished I coulda met him again
Thanks for illuminating Johnston's terrific contributions.
"flotsam and Johnston"? : - ) Perfect.
I'd also encourage "overstate" instead of "understate".