Throughout his career he was pushed, cajoled, disciplined and nurtured by coaches and family who believed in his abilities. We discussed the journey that would lead the former University of Alabama basketball star around the world playing the game he discovered growing up in Birmingham.
Occupying a household populated by women, Buck rarely had a moment to get in a word edgewise. He was raised by his mother, Delores Johnson, and late grandmother, Callie (called Mom by Johnson), along with his sisters, Wynema, eleven months older and Juaria, ten years younger. He escaped the incessant conversation of the women by seeking out the comfort of the playgrounds where he learned to entertain himself playing the game of basketball.
An active participant in his early life, Grandmother Callie was the person who inspired him to become a basketball player. Around the fourth or fifth grade, his grandmother inquired about his school activities as she spoke with Buck's first coach in elementary school, Mims McCarroll. He said, "Buck's good and tall and has those long arms. I think he might be a good ball player."
She deemed from that initial conversation that Buck was showing signs of excellence already and proceeded to contact her niece Louise in Gary, Indiana, to brag on his abilities. In describing her premature exuberance Buck said, "I would hear her whispering on the telephone how the coach said I would be an excellent ball player. I would say, ‘Mom, you're embarrassing me. I'm not even on the team yet. The coach just said I had long arms.' She didn't want to hear it. She swore that I was excellent already. I used to get so embarrassed. She was my inspiration. I owe it all to her. I couldn't let her down. That drove me to keep working and develop myself."
Named after his dad, Alfonso "Buck" Johnson, Sr., who stands just under 6-0, little Buck quickly became Big Buck as he grew five inches the summer between ninth and tenth grade. He inherited his 6-7 stature from his mother's side of the family. Buck's mother Delores is 5-10 and her brother, his uncle, is 6-6. As a ninth grader at Hayes High School in Birmingham, Buck was a member of the state championship freshmen team winning the title in Scottsboro. His tenth grade season was not as successful as the coach was fired after his first year.
Entering his junior year, Jack Doss became the first white head basketball coach at Hayes High School and promptly challenged Buck to reach his full potential. The first meeting proved to be memorable as Doss said, "I remember Buck being a tall gangling young man with some ability but it wasn't great at that time. They told me that Buck was usually a week or two late coming back from Detroit every summer. So when he got back, I went down to the office to meet Buck and he was skinny as a rail and he told me he may be going to Phillips High School. He was trying to make up his mind if he wanted to play with Enis Whatley who I still consider to be the greatest guard I have ever seen in high school even today. They had a great team with two other Division I inside players. It was my first head coaching job and I was kind of brash and I told him you may go to Phillips and win one state championship with Whatley but we'll beat you the second year. So I think he wasn't sure but he knew I was confident. He stayed and we won two state championships." The father figure relationship Johnson forged during those formative years with his high school coach has endured throughout his life.
Lacking complete agreement concerning the practice habits created tension between the headstrong coach and stubborn player especially during the first year together. Coaching with an iron fist, stressing fundamentals and applying a disciplined approach adapted from Alabama's Coach Paul Bryant, Doss expected his players to work hard. "Buck wasn't playing or working as hard as I expected him to", said Doss. "He said, ‘Coach I'm just like these other guys,' as he gestured to his teammates." And I said, ‘No, the good Lord gave you something a little bit different. We are going to work and get that out of you. We're going to maximize your ability.'"
Speaking about Doss's approach, Johnson said, "He saw that talent in me. He would make me put in those long hours. After practice was over, I would have to stay around after everybody else left and I wasn't too fond of it. I had to work on my ball handling and shooting. He saw my potential. He told me I had as much ability as my idol, Julius Erving. He believed in me from the start and was a big influence on me."
Arriving thirty seconds late one day, Buck was locked out of practice and suspended for the subsequent game by Doss. To emphasize matters, he even made Buck buy a ticket to the game and excluded him from traveling on the team bus to the contest.
Doss tapped into Johnson's competitive nature to extract the greatness residing in the smooth, silky player famous for his soft jump hook. "No matter what we played, if we had competition, he wanted to win," Doss said. "That's what separates the great ones. They are competitive everyday. He had a ton of talent. He maximized that ability which most kids don't and that's the reason I am so proud of him."
The state championship tournament game in his junior year against Huntsville's Butler High School senior and future University of Alabama teammate Bobby Lee Hurt (6-9) was highlighted by a dramatic turn of events as they competed against the number three nationally ranked team in a packed house at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. Johnson was in foul trouble in the first quarter after being called for a charge on a reverse lay-up attempt. The Butler Rebels early second half lead of ten points evaporated as the Hayes High School Pacesetters held their opponent scoreless for six minutes in the third quarter while overcoming the deficit to take a five point lead which they never relinquished, propelling them to a state championship.
The following year as a senior, the semifinal tournament contest against Tuscaloosa Central provided the dramatic moment for the Hayes High School basketball team as Johnson sprinted from near half court to nullify a potential game winning lay-up with a defensive block in the closing seconds to seal a one point win for the Pacesetters. Johnson's team dominated Gadsden by over 30 points in the championship game, resulting in back to back state titles.
Named "Mr. Basketball" by the Alabama Sports Writers Association and a Parade All America his senior year, Johnson was selected to the east squad of the prestigious McDonald's All American game played at the Rosemont in Chicago. The recruiting courtship intensified during the summer of his junior year after he participated in the B/C Cronauer camp in Milledgeville, Georgia. Playing against the best talent from all over the country, Johnson performed well while showcasing his talents for coaches in attendance. Johnson remembers playing against one of the counselors who eventually garnered the nickname of "the human highlight film"
"I played against Dominique Wilkins and had a real good game in the counselors versus the campers game," remarked Johnson. "I even dunked on him and blocked his shot." Although he received letters of interest from schools around the country, the primary suitors vigorously seeking his services were the Crimson Tide of Alabama represented by assistant Leroy McClendon and assistant Larry Finch of the UAB Blazers.
The rebellious nature of the talented player surfaced again during the recruiting process in the spring of 1982 as Johnson initially gravitated towards accepting a scholarship from UAB refuting the wishes of his high school coach and family members who favored the Crimson Tide. The high school coach and star player's relationship became so contentious that Johnson was not on speaking terms with Doss and attended the McDonald's game in Chicago accompanied by the Hayes High School Assistant Coach, Craig Miller. When he came back from Chicago and the decision was made to sign with Alabama, head coach and player made amends.
Johnson recalls his demeanor during the process, He said, "I really feel like I made the right decision. My mother, Coach Doss, and my grandmother knew the right answers. I was young and headstrong. They promised me I could do everything there and be the Magic Johnson of UAB and play the point forward. It kind of really got my attention."
Commenting about the selection that brought him to Tuscaloosa, Johnson said, "But looking from an overall standpoint, making the decision to come to Alabama was the best thing I could have ever done. Playing against all those guys in the SEC like Charles Barkley, Melvin Turpin, Sam Bowie, Kenny Walker, Chuck Person, Dale Ellis, John Williams and Jerry Reynolds who went on to play in the NBA, at the end of the day was the right decision. The program was just outstanding, the weight program, the training table and from an educational standpoint, everything was fantastic. I played hard on both ends of the court, offensively and defensively. I'm very proud to have worn the crimson and white and be a part of the Alabama tradition."
As a member of the Alabama basketball team, Johnson was once again under the tutelage of a coach who valued the disciplined approach of Coach Bryant. Wimp Sanderson immediately indoctrinated the young freshmen with the foundation of the program. Hard work, mandatory class attendance and the work ethic were the dominant themes for all newcomers like Johnson to accept and learn as part of their new independence. Sanderson said, "We worked them very hard and some of then liked it and some of them didn't. I wasn't running a popularity contest. I'm not so sure that when Buck played he loved everything I did. Probably he realizes now that the way we tried to handle him and get him to play and work him was in his best interest. We tried to let them understand that we cared about them."
One night Johnson and a few Alabama teammates went to Birmingham and had a flat tire on the return trip back to campus. Bobby Lee Hurt had to sneak out of the dorm to rescue the stranded group. Coach Sanderson found out about the incident and suspended him. "The suspension was justified because we shouldn't have been gone," Johnson recalled. The camaraderie with teammates and occasional excursions along with Coach Sanderson to "Dreamland" to enjoy a good meal of ribs remain a constant source of fondness for Johnson as he recalls his days wearing the crimson and white.
According to Johnson, he became the standard bearer for the amount of time the team would practice each day. "They used to judge when to call practice off depending on how I looked in practice. If I started to tire just a bit, they knew that everybody else must be exhausted." Long practices of two and a half to three hours were the norm in those days to get your point across. Johnson felt that Alabama's program prepared you to be in shape more than any other school across the country because of Sanderson's adherence to a strong work ethic and the discipline adapted from Coach Bryant.
The night of January 28, 1983 represents the most memorable moment for Johnson as the unranked Crimson Tide traveled west to oppose the number one ranked UCLA Bruins two days after the death of Coach Bryant. "Actually we saw Coach Bryant the day before we left as he was walking around the coliseum. We wondered what was going on because we had not seen that before," Johnson recalled. "He was just exercising and he said, ‘Hello men.' He would always say that when he did see us. He was always nice. We were all in awe of Coach Bryant. We were all saddened and heart-broken about Coach Bryant. When we found out that day, Coach Sanderson was really, really upset. That is the first time I had ever seen him cry."
Naturally the locker room atmosphere was emotionally charged according to Johnson, "Coach Sanderson and Coach Bryant were real close. He gave one of the most inspirational speeches. He had us ready to jump through a brick wall if we had to." Starting in his first collegiate game against "Rocket Rod" Foster, Kenny Fields and Darren Daye of UCLA, Johnson was one of the scoring leaders with 15 points along with Enis Whatley's 20 and Bobby Lee Hurt's 23 contributing to a 70-67 Friday evening CBS nationally televised upset victory for Alabama.
About four years ago, Johnson received a telephone call from his high school coach, Jack Doss. A gentleman presented him Johnson's Alabama jersey worn during the UCLA game with the special black patch sewn on commemorating the death of Coach Bryant. "I had not even thought about that shirt for a long time. I was so glad to retrieve it and Coach Doss gave it to me for my kids. So now I will give it to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame to preserve it for a long time."
One other significant game for Johnson also occurred his freshmen year as he converted on 12 consecutive shots setting an individual game record for Alabama that stands today as he finished with 30 points against Mississippi State. Johnson ranks as the fourth leading all-time scorer with 1,869 points and the eighth leading rebounder with 933 rebounds. He made various All-SEC teams in 1984 through 1986 as well as the All-SEC tournament teams in 1985 and 1986. He played on four consecutive NCAA tournament teams making the sweet 16 in 1985 and 1986.
Sanderson spoke about Johnson's attributes and his days at Alabama. "He had overall good athletic ability and was able to shoot the basketball well. He could play with his face to the basket as well as his back to the basket. Buck grew the longer he stayed in our program. He went through a transition period. I think the one thing about the kids who came into our program is that I didn't make any of them NBA players but they were all better when they left than before they got there." Coach Sanderson is proud of the induction and wrote a letter on Buck's behalf to every member who could cast a vote for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
After his senior season, Johnson was invited to play for the South team in an all star tournament in Hawaii where he slipped on the court from rain water that had leaked from the ceiling and injured his back, subsequently affecting his projected draft status of being a top ten selection. Johnson suffered internal bleeding, a tingling of the toes and numbness due to nerve damage which prevented him from visiting teams before the draft. Bill Fitch, the head coach of the Houston Rockets, had experienced his own back trouble and disregarded the potential long term problems associated with the injury and drafted Johnson in the first round as the 20th pick overall. Spending the entire summer before his rookie season bed ridden and rehabilitating the injury, Johnson has not suffered any significant back problems since that episode.
Johnson played for three different coaches in six years as a member of the Houston Rockets. Bill Fitch was an old school coach and scheduled 30 days of full speed two-a-days as part of the pre-season regimen. "He was tough and hard-nosed. He taught me a lot and the value of having a basic go to move," Johnson said.
Don Chaney had an appreciation for Johnson's athleticism and skills. "I was his guy. I am real fond of Don and really respect him and like him a whole lot. He was actually my favorite professional coach."
Rudy Tomjanovich was a member of the Houston Rockets organization the entire time and he was the one who convinced Bill Fitch to draft Johnson. "Rudy is another good coach that I admired and like a lot. He was a player's coach. Rudy was the head coach for only the last half year I was with the Rockets," replied Johnson. The Washington Bullets signed Johnson as a free agent where he played for one season.
Johnson was part of a unique half time buzzer beater on December 22, 1988 against the Los Angeles Clippers in Houston, on the day he had signed a new contract. After in-bounding the ball, Johnson received the return pass and launched a fifty five foot shot from the left side behind the half court line which christened the nets cleanly with three seconds in the half. The Clippers in bounded the ball with one second to Danny Manning near the right side of the half court line where he promptly duplicated the mid-court shot.
His most memorable NBA moment came as a rookie during a pre-season game against the Philadelphia 76ers and his idol, Dr. J, Julius Erving. "He came in for one of those famous floating finger rolls. I was young and active and I blocked it. I'll never forget that moment. There was that night I mentioned it to him when I saw him about four or five years later on a plane coming to Birmingham," Johnson said. "I told him I don't know if you realize but I put down as my most memorable moment is when I blocked your shot as a rookie. He looked at me and didn't say a word. He kind of looked at me as this young kid, thinking to himself, as many times as I've dunked on people and this is the big issue he came to talk to me about? I had to let him know it. I just couldn't hold it in any longer. I wanted to let him know he made my most memorable moment."
The European basketball leagues were the next destination as Johnson continued his career across the Atlantic Ocean. Playing for teams in Turkey, Spain, Israel and Greece, he was a European all star six out of the eight and half years overseas. Johnson's Maccabi Tel-Aviv team won the Israeli Championship one year. The European schedule of one game a week enabled Johnson to spend time with his wife and young children while absorbing the different cultures of each country. As the children grew older, Johnson felt the need to come back to the United States where he could raise his family. Being separated from his family was not an option for Johnson who's dad was mostly absent from his life. Father and son have reconciled and talk from time to time.
Former Alabama tight end and friend, Thornton Chandler, played for the Dallas Cowboys when Johnson was a member of the Houston Rockets. Chandler's girlfriend at that time and now his wife introduced Johnson to his future bride Felicia. The two talked as friends but Johnson was dating someone else at the time. Felicia, a New Orleans native had an accounting degree and switched careers to travel and relocated to Washington D.C as an American Airlines flight attendant. Johnson signed as a free agent with the Bullets that same year and their paths crossed once again. Felicia's intentions to return to the crescent city and begin a career as a pharmaceutical representative was altered as the relationship blossomed and the Johnson's were married in 1994. They have three boys Alfonso III, called "B" is twelve, followed by Jamal who is nine and Trey who is seven. All three boys are outstanding students who rarely make anything but As in school.
The Johnson family's move to the Harvest area near Huntsville was influenced by the close association with his former high school coach, Jack Doss, who is at Butler High School now. Returning to Huntsville during the off season to instruct the young players coached by Doss, Johnson fell in love with the area. As the years passed, all his sons became interested in basketball and Johnson became intrigued with the idea of coaching, a thought he once disdained. Teaching his young boys and other youngsters in the area the game he came to love has filled his life with a newfound passion. The initially reluctant coach travels the Southeast coaching B's AAU team, devoted to the task of training and developing his sons. Jack Doss is most proud of Johnson's commitment to his family as he stated, "He is a better father and husband than he was a basketball player."
Since February, Johnson has been a part of Governor Riley's special projects office in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Economic And Community Affairs (ADECA). As a District 5 Special Projects Coordinator, the present assignment has Johnson compiling a state wide data base of churches and faith based community groups who are able to offer resources in response to natural disasters in an area comprised of eight north Alabama counties.
Last Sunday in his hometown of Birmingham, Buck Johnson was honored by induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Asked about his induction into the ASHOF, Johnson replied, "I just can't imagine that basketball would take me this far considering I started playing just as an outlet to escape from the house full of talking women. It has taken me all over the world playing at the highest level. It's an amazing accomplishment and a great, great honor for me to be mentioned in the same breath as a Coach Bryant, Hank Aaron, Kenny Stabler, Joe Namath, some of these guys that are legends. I'm just overwhelmed with excitement about it. I'll probably reflect mostly about my Grandmother Callie who inspired me from the beginning. I wish she was here to be part of it all. Being from a very poor background and be able to go out and compete at the highest level is truly an honor."
Editor's Note: A.P. Steadham is a special contributor to ‘BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com, concentrating on the coverage of former Crimson Tide athletes.