People ask Dana Pagett about memorable basketball plays. He has three.
They happened consecutively, at the hands of one man.
“It was the Beverly Hills tournament,” said Pagett, the former USC All-American who was playing at El Segundo then.
“First, he dribbled down, got between two players and jammed it. Second, he got the rebound, stopped at the top of the key, hit a 21-footer. Then he came down, looked one way, bounce-passed the other way, but the shot was missed. So he followed it with a left-handed rebound and a slam.
“I said, ‘Boy, I’m glad we’re not playing them.’’’
The guy was Bart Johnson of Torrance High. The year was 1967. Johnson jumped out of a Gil Thorp comic strip, with a bag full of gloves, basketballs and golf tees.
“He would have been perfect for today’s NBA,” said Jim Harrick, who coached Morningside back then. “He could handle it, shoot it, and he had no position. He could get up and down the floor. He was terrific.”
Johnson and Pagett were on the same Parade All-American team as Curtis Rowe, Austin Carr, Howard Porter, Artis Gilmore and Spencer Haywood. John Wooden pushed hard to lure Johnson to UCLA.
“(Assistant coach) Denny Crum called and I recommended him highly,” Harrick said.
“I talked with Coach about that,” said Dan Evans, Johnson’s longtime buddy. “He thought Bart would have been a glorious player.”
But Johnson said no. A 94-by-50 court could not contain him. He had other tunes in his head, and he played them until the end. He died on Thursday at 70, from Parkinson’s disease.
Johnson’s birthday was Jan. 3. Until recently, he celebrated every one with a dunk. He went to Brigham Young and his freshman team beat the varsity, the same way Lew Alcindor’s Brubabes beat the UCLA varsity. Johnson averaged 28 points a game that year.
He said, perhaps incorrectly, that he would have been just another cast member in the NBA. To him a Cy Young Award was more realistic. He signed with the White Sox, went 16-4 for the Appleton Foxes, and in 1969 was on the Comiskey Park mound.
The White Sox had Goose Gossage and Terry Forster coming, but manager Chuck Tanner said Johnson had the best stuff. In 1974 he gave up six home runs in 126 innings and went 10-4 with a 2.74 ERA. And he found time to go to camp with the Seattle Supersonics and drew the interest of coach Bill Russell.
The next spring, the White Sox played an exhibition on a wet field, and Johnson’s herniated disk seized up on a follow through. He missed 1975. He went 231 innings the next year but his record was 9-16. After 1977 he was done, at 27.
And that is when Bart Johnson — mid-90s thrower, high scorer, scratch golfer — made the biggest splash, while sitting down.
Roland Hemond, the White Sox general manager, was remorseful over the way Johnson was hurt. He hired him to scout. From 1980 through 1997 Johnson was the advance man. He watched the next opponent, filed the reports and judged the players who might hit the market. He sat among fans who might have wondered whatever became of him.
“Most people have this cadence when they watch a game,” said Evans, who rose through the Sox organization to become the GM, and also did for the Dodgers. “The pitch is made, their eyes move somewhere else, and then they watch again. Bart never took his eyes off anything. He was looking in the dugout, checking out little things. He’d say, ‘Danny, did you see that? You’ve got to get locked in.’
“(Manager) Tony LaRussa considered everything Bart said to be gospel. He trusted every report. Bart would watch a guy and say, ‘You know, I don’t think he’d go over that well in our clubhouse.’ And unlike a lot of scouts, he would listen.”
Today’s MLB clubs consider the advance scout a Jurassic vestige. Few still use one. Evans argues that video scouting leaves you at the director’s mercy.
“Before a game you see guys working out at different positions, making mechanical changes,” Evans said. “You see the pitchers doing their ‘side’ throwing. You’re networking, talking with everybody there, getting opinions. Those types of scouts have unbelievable value. Yet Bart was open to anything new. I remember him asking for Bill James’ first Baseball Abstract.
“I remember him telling me, ‘Danny, don’t say anything is certain unless you’re certain it’s certain. Don’t hypothesize.”
Decades have passed and Dana Pagett is still certain he was certain. “What might have been” is an abstraction. He knows what Bart Johnson was.