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Newz Forum: BASKETBALL: Johnson will be emergency backup at guard

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posted on Oct, 1 2004 @ 09:47 PM
DALLAS -- Here's a rare scene: The Dallas Mavericks held a news conference Thursday to announce the signing of a player who proclaimed that if all goes as planned, he won't play a single minute this season.

And his bosses happily agreed.

So goes the hiring of Avery Johnson, technically as a backup point guard but realistically as another coach -- possibly even the next head coach.

Johnson will spend the season on the injured list, unless a real injury to Jason Terry, rookie Devin Harris or swingman Marquis Daniels forces him onto the roster.

"If I'm out there starting, we're in trouble," Johnson said, flashing his ever-present grin.

Instead of a jersey, Johnson will wear a suit and work closely with coach Don Nelson and his staff. He'll spend halftimes with them, not his teammates. And when he's on the floor during practices, he's more likely to be blowing a whistle than leading a fast break.

It's not as awkward as it might seem. Johnson did the same thing during the 2002 and 2003 postseasons, drawing rave reviews from players and coaches. His pep talk before Game 7 of a first-round series against Portland was widely credited with helping Dallas advance, ultimately the Western Conference finals.

"He's a guy that I have hand-picked to eventually replace me as I go into my retirement years," said Nelson, who is under contract for this season and two more. "I am really excited to have him here working alongside of me."

Despite Nelson's succession plan, that decision belongs to team owner Mark Cuban. And he's not ready to commit to anything before he has to.

"I'm glad Nellie is that excited about AJ," Cuban said. "I don't make predictions on coaches, records or what's for dinner."

Having Johnson in the fold already has benefited the Mavericks.

Knowing all summer that this was going to happen, he helped persuade Erick Dampier -- his teammate at Golden State last season -- to work a sign-and-trade deal with Dallas, giving the Mavs their most well-rounded center in more than a decade.

"He was calling me every day. 'Damp, hold up. Don't do anything. We want you here,' " Dampier said. "He made it happen."

Taking on the rare role of player-coach is just another twist in Johnson's unlikely NBA career.

After going undrafted despite being a record-setting assist maker at Southern University, Johnson bounced around the league before becoming a key player on the San Antonio Spurs.

Feeding the ball to David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Johnson helped the Spurs win the 1999 championship and he's the team's career leader in assists. He and Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy are the only players under 6 feet to have played 1,000 NBA games.

Teammates have long considered Johnson a coach on the court, even dubbing him "The Little General." His people skills are so good that he made Robinson more aggressive and tamed Nick Van Exel.

"No matter what kind of player you are, he's got the ability to reach inside you, connect and get the best of your abilities, because he's had to do that to himself," said Donnie Nelson, Dallas' president of basketball operations. "The reason everyone has projected Avery into coaching for so many years is because he naturally has the things that make most coaches very successful. The only thing he needs is a chance to be in that position."

Johnson played for Donnie Nelson on a summer league team in the late 1980s, then for Don Nelson with Golden State in 1993-94. They were all reunited in Dallas in February 2002 as part of a trade that also brought Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz. He and Van Exel were traded to the Warriors in August 2003 for Antawn Jamison.

While Johnson was with the Mavericks, Don Nelson occasionally let him run practices. Donnie Nelson said the way Johnson handled those workouts, plus how he worked with coaches during the playoffs, "was a reaffirmation of everything we already knew about him."

It reaffirmed Johnson's plans for his post-playing days, too.

"Having that opportunity to go behind the scenes, to sit and listen and chime in a little bit, give my opinion, to see how they prepare, how they operate, it was a great experience," Johnson said. "I'm looking to do that more this year and just continue to learn, continue to grow."

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