When Avery Johnson transferred to Southern University in 1985 after spending the year before as a benchwarmer at an unheralded NAIA school in Oklahoma, his new teammates didn't treat him with much respect.
The varsity players gave him the cold shoulder around campus the first few months and excluded him from preseason pickup games, forcing the future NBA point guard to play with regular students instead after the basketball team was finished using the court.
"Fortunately we had a little scrimmage a few months into the school year where the redshirts played against the varsity team," Johnson said. "I was the best player on the court. That changed the respect factor I was getting."
Johnson will surely receive a much friendlier welcome Saturday evening when he returns to his alma mater for the first time in years.
Southern will hold a ceremony for him at halftime of its game against rival Grambling State to rename the floor at the F.G. Clark Activity Center as "Avery Johnson Court." It's a fitting honor for a point guard who led the Jaguars to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 1987 and 88 and set a Division I record that still stands by averaging 13.3 assists per game as a senior.
"They called me back in July to give me the good news, and I was really, really honored," Johnson said. "It's going to be a great time for my family, friends and all of the people that were really instrumental in my life. A lot of my old coaches and teammates are going to be there."
A New Orleans native who led St. Augustine High School to an unbeaten season and a state championship in 1983, Johnson enrolled at New Mexico Junior College for a year before leaving for then-NAIA Cameron University in Oklahoma. The 5-foot-11 guard saw little playing time and had a hard time fitting in at the school, so at the end of the 1984-85 school year, he called his former coach at St. Augustine High, Bernard Griffith, and told him he wanted to transfer.
Griffith, who had just been hired as an assistant coach at Southern, suggested he enroll there, sit out a year as a redshirt and play his final two collegiate seasons for the Jaguars. That turned out to be a great decision both for Johnson and for Southern.
Even though Johnson is best known for a journeyman NBA career that peaked in San Antonio and stints as an NBA head coach in Dallas and Brooklyn, some of his favorite memories are from his days at Southern. Not only did Johnson meet his wife at Southern, he also served as the engine of coach Ben Jobe's high-powered attack, etching his name in the NCAA record books with his propensity for dishing out assists.
Thanks to his vision and creativity with the ball and the ability of his teammates to finish at the rim, Johnson led the nation in assists both his seasons at Southern and also earned SWAC player of the year honors twice. He dished out 20 or more assists four times in a single game, including a 22-dime night against Texas Southern on Jan. 25, 1988 that still is tied for the most by any player in a Division I game.
"Records are made to be broken and sooner or later somebody is going to break all of mine," Johnson said "I wouldn't have expected mine to last this long. I hope somebody comes along and breaks them."
Johnson is on hiatus from coaching for the rest of this season after being fired by the Nets in December when the team slipped to 14-14 despite a promising 11-4 start. He is taking advantage of the time away from basketball to spend more time with his wife and kids, but he's interested in returning to coaching as soon as next season, perhaps in the NBA or maybe on the college level.
"Right now, the goal is to take some time off and spend time with my family," Johnson said. "We've been in this situation before, and it seems like when we are, there's a brighter door that opens up. We think there's going to be one, but on April 1 or May 1, we'll have a few opportunities to look at on different levels."