He answered the door with a dazed look, like a man who’d just been slapped in the face. “I don’t know why they did it,” he said, letting his guest inside and digging his hands into his pockets. “Maybe it was my birthday. I just turned 35. Maybe that’s it.”
He looked around his house, a new place, on a lake. He bought it a few months ago. They say never buy a house if you’re a professional athlete; it’s the kiss of death. “We were supposed to start some construction on Monday.” He forced a laugh. “Better hold off on that, huh? Aw, maaan.”
Aw, maan, indeed. The Microwave has been unplugged. Cut. Cut? Can they do that? Can they really cut the man who has played more games, taken more lumps as a Piston than anyone else in history? Can they cut the man who, just last summer, on a raucous night in Portland, threw in that final jump shot with :00.7 on the clock, the shot no one else wanted to take, the shot that won the Pistons their second consecutive NBA championship? The Microwave? VJ? Cut? Can they do that?
They just did. Johnson is gone because he is aging and because he costs too much and because general manager Jack McCloskey — who just a few months ago, after the brutal playoff elimination by the Chicago Bulls, insisted there was “no reason to shake up this team” — now seems intent on doing just that. Johnson is tossed off the roster in hopes that another team will take him and his salary so the Pistons can make more moves, as if the five guys they’ve dumped isn’t enough.
“I don’t know about all that,” said Johnson. “None of my business now, anyhow.”
He gazed out the window at his patio furniture and the lakefront. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, cool breeze, warm sun. Far too nice a day to die.
“If this was illegal,” Johnson sighed, “I could call the police. I could say I was robbed.
“But it’s not illegal. It’s business.” Business? What about memories?
It’s business. It’s business. Why is it every time someone says, “It’s business,” someone else’s heart is broken? Vinnie Johnson was the historical cornerstone of this team, the brick laid during the hungry years, when the Pistons were names like Paul Mokeski and Larry Drew and they couldn’t sell out if they gave away dinner. Johnson arrived one November day in a trade for Greg Kelser, a local hero. Fans said, “Bad move! Kelser is better!” Today, Kelser announces the games. Vinnie still plays them.
Or he did until Wednesday. Oh, another team will almost surely pick him up. But what does he do with all those Detroit memories? Vinnie Johnson can remember nights at Joe Louis Arena, nights at the Silverdome, nights at the Palace. He remembers when Atlanta was the hated rival, then Boston, then Los Angeles, then Chicago. He remembers conking heads with Adrian Dantley in that horrific seventh game at the Garden. And he remembers running off the court in LA, diving into a pile of champagne-soaked teammates, screaming, “WE DID IT, BABY! WE DID IT! BAAAD BOYS! BAAAD BOYS!”
He remembers all of it, good and bad. And yet the legend of Vinnie Johnson is not what he remembers, but what all those other teams will never forget. Folks in Boston still wince when you speak his name. New Yorkers just blow cheekfuls of air and shake their heads. Portland fans? They still haven’t forgiven him. All those blind turnaround jumpers, the spinning, twisting, no-way-he-makes-that-shot baskets? Raised on the playgrounds of Brooklyn, Johnson was that rare player who actually felt the basket; seeing it was unimportant. In a game in which defense wins and quickness decides, scoring is
still what makes your heart race.
And Vinnie Johnson could score like God.
‘I ain’t moving — this is my home’
He leaned now against the clean white counter of his new kitchen. Friends sat around, saying nothing, everyone sort of stunned. From the other room you could hear the TV playing softly.
“I don’t want to say anything bad,” Johnson said. “It’s been 10 great years here. I don’t want to be remembered for a controversy. I want to be remembered as making that last shot in Portland. As a champion.
“When I came here, this team was 21-61. It worked out. So maybe things happen for the best.”
He said it, but he didn’t mean it. The Pistons had just told him, in essence, that they would rather pay him not to play here than pay him to stay. How would you feel? A guy like William Bedford stays on the roster, at nearly
$1 million a year, and Vinnie goes? Where’s the justice in that? There is talk that Detroit is dropping Johnson to make room for Washington’s Darrell Walker.
There is talk of an even bigger trade about to come. There is always talk. It doesn’t change this: Once again, a player who gives his best years for a team is, in the end, tossed aside like smelly sneakers.
“Hey, if you’re writing a story, tell all those realtors out there not to call me,” Johnson said. “I ain’t moving. This is my home. No matter what happens. I’ve been here too long to change that.”
He walked the guest toward the door, passing a portrait of himself in mid-jump shot, the wrist about to flick another low- flying missile at the basket. “It’s business,” they say, but that doesn’t take the sting out of it. The face has been slapped. The Microwave has been unplugged. And things just got a little colder around the Palace.