The e-mail came this morning from a friend named Barry Smith, saying that Don Johnson, Tennessee basketball player from 1969-71, had died last night at his home in North Knoxville. That news recalled the magic moments of basketball UT-style from nearly 40 years ago.
Ray Mears recruited Johnson out of Roanoke-Benson High School in Benson, Ill., in the 1966-67 SEC championship season, joining Jimmy England and Rudy Kinard.
That was the season Ron Widby led the Vols to a surprise SEC title. Two years later, after a stellar freshman season, Don showed up at center court for the season opener against Buffalo wearing No. 52, the number Widby had worn during his career.
Widby must have influenced Johnson greatly. You never really knew how well each was playing until you totaled up the stats, and the thought came during Johnson’s career that he was an exceptional player, good enough to join England as an All-SEC selection in his senior season. If the Vols needed a big play, Johnson was one of several who could deliver.
He could shoot it with equal success from the top of the key and the corner and was tenacious enough at 6-5, 210 pounds, to battle inside for points and rebounds.
He scored 1,196 points in his three years, good for No. 33 on the all-time Tennessee scoring list. He was named All-SEC in 1970-71, with an impressive “double-double,” 18.8 points and 10.4 boards, on his resume. He was part of a solid, three-pronged attack that season, with England averaging 20.6 and Mike Edwards 17 points per game. Johnson averaged 11.5 points per game in 1968-69 and 14 in 1969-70. For his career, he also averaged 9.2 rebounds per game.
Johnson was one of the five iron men who played all 40 minutes in the historic 55-54 upset at No. 1 South Carolina Dec. 6, 1969, scoring 18 points against the heavily favored Gamecocks.
Johnson was drafted in the NBA and ABA drafts in 1971. The Baltimore Bullets drafted him in the fifth round (No. 77 overall) in the NBA draft, and the Memphis Tams selected him in the 16th round in the ABA draft.
It has been 38 years since Johnson last wore a UT uniform, but the memories linger on. Vol fans are like that, appreciating the efforts of those who wore the uniform and played the games.
Don Johnson could play the game.