John Johnson Almost Played for the Celtics?

If I were to tell you the Celtics acquired an All Star in 1977 and he remained on the team for 3 months in the offseason before having to be returned to his old team, would you believe me?  A guy who has his own t-shirt?  A guy who was a starter on an NBA title team and who maybe, just maybe, could've helped push Boston over the top in 1980?  Well it's very true.

On June 9th of 1977, the Rockets agreed to trade Johnson to the Celtics for their second round draft picks in both 1977 and 1978.  But after complications with Johnson's contract, commissioner Larry O'Brien in October of 1977 ordered that Johnson be returned to the Rockets and they got to keep Boston's two second round picks.  What a steal for Houston!

The dispute came in the beginning of that same month when the Celtics learned for the first time that Johnson had a no-cut contract with deferred compensation.  Apparently when the Celtics made the trade for Johnson in June, the Rockets proceeded to use Boston's first second round pick but didn't send the contract over until October.

Johnson would have looked good in Celtics' green
The Celtics thought that Johnson's contract called for less compensation for the two remaining years on it.  Houston contested that claim and said the terms of the deal had been disclosed properly at the time.

Commissioner O'Brien favored the Rockets.  His quote was:
I find that Houston did not willfully misrepresent the terms of the Johnson contract to Boston and I find that Boston did not believe it was assuming a 'no-cut' contract.

So who did the Rockets claim with Boston's two second round picks?  Well in 1977 they picked Larry Moffett out of UNLV.  Interesting to note that Houston's second, second-round pick that year was Robert Reid, he who wound up playing a key role for both the 1981 and 1986 Rockets' teams that made the NBA Finals where they lost both times to...the Celtics.  I remember Reid as a sound defensive player, great locker-room guy and inspirational leader.

As for Moffett he lasted only one year and 20 games in the NBA.  The next year the Rockets took Buster Matheny with what would've been the Celtics' second round pick.  Matheny never played a game in the NBA but wound up being shot to death in an alleyway in Los Angeles back in 2000, at the age of 44.

According to basketball-reference the Celtics technically sold Johnson back to the Rockets so maybe they did get something.  But the entire thing is really bizarre to me.  The Celts acquire Johnson as a rotation-player, a guy specifically brought-in to help back-up John Havlicek.  And then they get annoyed at the finer details of the contract?  Was Red trying to get greedy and get something back himself to sweeten the deal or was he genuinely alarmed by this?

We know DJ did this in Boston.  But could #27 have too?

Upon returning to Houston this wouldn't be any Robert Horry situation.  Johnson was almost immediately traded to the Sonics for draft picks.  And good for John.  He wound up being a pivotal guy on the 1979 squad, a team that won the NBA championship behind Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.  He was an integral guy on that team playing all 82 games and averaging 11 ppg in 29 minutes a night.

For his career, in addition to the 79 title, Johnson also made 2 All Star games while playing for Cleveland earlier in his career.  He had a 12 year NBA career and scored over 11,000 points.  Not too shabby.

John today

What does this all mean?  Well to this day Havlicek claims if he knew how good Larry Bird was going to be he would've stuck around to play with him for a season.  And since Hondo always logged a lot of minutes perhaps having Johnson there to spell him would've allowed John to play through until the 1980 season, Bird's rookie year.  Havlicek would've been 39 years old to start the 79-80 season but always kept himself in perfect condition.  And who knows even though Philly was extra tough that year, might having Havlicek as a 6th man gotten Boston over the top?  Remember the Celtics finished with the best record in the league that year and a little veteran guidance could've gotten them over the hump.

Or might Johnson himself, who was only 30 at the time, given Boston the added bench presence they needed to get past Philly that year?  His contract would've been up but maybe he agrees to stick around.

Or maybe they keep their own draft picks, draft that Buster guy who becomes the second Celtic to die too young from a bullet.

Who really knows.  All I know is that John Johnson almost played for the Celtics.  And now, you know that too.  And also, you can even still get this awesome John Johnson t-shirt today (pictured above) yourself, available on Amazon.