Johnny Green: The Ultimate Walk-On
Feb. 24, 2009
February is Black History Month, and nowhere in major-college athletics is that history richer than at Michigan State University. From Gideon Smith, the first African-America football player at Michigan Agricultural College in 1913, to Steve Smith, an All-America basketball star whose contributions have an impact each day, it would take many months to tell the full story. In a series of profiles, longtime Lansing-area writer and radio broadcaster Jack Ebling will present some of the best of all-time in 2009.
He was the greatest non-recruit in college basketball history. But nearly a half-century after his last college game, green blood still flows through each vein.
You see, John M. Green never asked to have No. 24 retired. All he ever wanted was a uniform to wear. And no one has ever worn a jersey and a pair of shorts with more joy.
They called him "Jumpin' Johnny" - "Long John," "Pogo" and "Rubber Legs," too. They also could have called him Michigan State's accidental superstar.
The only coach who ever recruited Green was stationed at an Army base in Atsugi, Japan, in late 1954. Before that, his only basketball was at a local YMCA.
"You have to remember, I was really small," Green said. "I was under 6-foot when I graduated from high school. I didn't think I'd make the team, so I didn't even go out for basketball."
That was Dayton Dunbar's loss and a local bowling alley's gain, as Green spent many of his afternoons setting pins, not picks.
After graduation, he worked for a construction company and at a junkyard for six months, and then joined the military during the Korean Conflict.
There, after turning 20 years old, Green sprouted to 6-foot-5 and was a late bloomer in more ways than one.
"I kept practicing and playing pickup games," he said. "One night, I was shooting baskets and met Tom Foster, the coach at the base. He asked if I'd like to come out for the team. And I said, `Would I ever!'
"Dick Evans, the football coach there, saw that I could leap pretty well and asked me to dunk. I did it on the second try."
Evans had been a Spartan during the glory years in football under Biggie Munn and wrote a letter of recommendation to new basketball coach Forddy Anderson. Green followed up with a visit to campus while on leave in October 1955.
"When I was a senior, John Green came up and asked me to introduce him to Forddy," MSU standout Julius McCoy said. "I only have one regret. I wish he'd been there one year earlier. I don't think anyone could've beaten us that year. All we needed was someone to get a rebound."
The Big Ten title had to wait one year. First, Green had to handle every aspect of enrolling and becoming eligible.
"He told me to come back and see him when I got out of he service, so that's what I did," Green said. "I got my transcript, enrolled in school, then walked in and said, `Here I am.'"
A gift from heaven - the ultimate walk-on - wasn't appreciated by an angry head coach on Jan. 2, 1956.
"We'd just lost a close one at Illinois," Anderson remembered a decade ago. "I was really mad when we got back and said, `You're not going to your dorms! Get dressed! You're going to practice!' . . . I was ready to whip everybody.
"Then, my assistant, Bob Stevens, said, `There's a guy out here, a John Green, who wants to talk to you.' I said, `Arrgh, bring him in!' I couldn't remember him.
"I said, `You have to fill out a form to get into school.' He said, `I've already done that.' I said, `Well, you have to register for classes.' He said, `I've already done that.' I said, `Then, you have to get your books.' He said, `I've already done that.' Finally, I said, `OK, go up and work out with the freshman team,' figuring that would be the end of it."
Wearing a purple-and-white shirt, red-and-blue shorts, green stockings pulled over his knees and raggedy, black canvas shoes, Green took several shots in the upstairs Jenison gym and missed badly.
But when Stevens said, "Try to rebound the ball," Green soared above the rim and snatched every shot - "like a giant hawk snaring sparrows," as Hall of Fame Sports Information Director Fred Stabley often described it.
"I was a grad assistant, and so was Stan Albeck," said former team manager Bob Watts. "Forddy said, `Boys, take him upstairs and see what he has got.' The first thing he did was jump out of the gym. . . . Work him out, hell! How you work out a rebound machine?"
There was a rule around campus: "Never, never, NEVER interrupt varsity basketball practice unless Forddy's mother has died." But she was as healthy as ever when Stevens rushed downstairs and risked another life - his own.
"We'd already started practice," Anderson said. "And I was really mad. Then, Bob came down and said, `Have your guys shoot some free throws.' I hollered, `WHAT FOR?' And he said, `Just have them shoot free throws and follow me.'
"We went upstairs where they had three courts. One had a net that hung from a big cable about two feet above the basket. I walked in and saw John grabbing that 12-foot cable. I said, `Find out what this boy needs and get it to him, no matter what!'"
Green never minded that initial snub and said he'd have done the same thing in Anderson's position.
"Forddy didn't have any information on me - just that letter from Dick Evans,' Green said. "The next thing he knew, I was dunking the ball. I guess he was impressed."
With Green on the freshman team that winter and ineligible until January 1957, few knew what the Spartans could be. Anderson understood immediately.
"Forddy complained that Green couldn't play in the first eight games the next season," said then-Assistant SID Nick Vista. "I said, `Forddy, we can't be that bad! How good is Johnny, anyway?' He said, `John Green is the difference between nothing and winning the Big Ten championship.' He told me that in December of '56. One month later, we started our surge."
"He was our secret weapon once he became eligible," Anderson said. "But when John came to us, he was the rawest raw material you'd ever seen. Most of his points his sophomore year came on tip-ins and putbacks."
A preseason preview in The Detroit News talked about a "Greene," with three e's - one each for electrifying, enthusiastic and embryonic.
"I was a starter that season until John was cleared to play," said center Chuck Bencie. "We used to practice against each other. And once he started to pick things up, you knew he'd be a great one. I can still see those alley-oop passes from Jack Quiggle, the first play they ever ran for him."
"I really had no style of my own," Green said. "I was ready to be molded. If I'd see something from another player, I'd try to do it. Julius was left-handed, too, so I picked up some things that he did."
Green never scored like McCoy and had a career average of 16.9 points. But his rebounding and shot-blocking made him a constant factor.
In the Spartans' first NCAA Tournament appearance, Green dominated Notre Dame sophomore star Tom Hawkins and had 20 points and 27 rebounds. And in a huge upset at Kentucky, he was bailed out by Bencie.
"I'll never forget John fouling out with about 12 minutes left," WKAR broadcaster Jim Adams said. "He stood on the bench, waved his warm-up jacket and did everything he possibly could to keep Bencie going."
"You just didn't beat Kentucky at Kentucky," Green said. "Adolph Rupp's guys were dominant there. But long before they had any black players, he came up to me at a function and said, `Gee, I wish I had you on my team!'"
The following week at the NCAA semifinals, North Carolina All-American Lenny Rosenbluth was just as complimentary after Green grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked eight shots in a triple-overtime loss to the soon-to-be champs.
"He's 6-foot-5 and jumps like he's 6-10," said Rosenbluth, who was 11-for-42 from the field and had seven shots blocked by Green. "He has the quickest hands I've ever seen."
Playing in just 18 of 26 games in 1956-57, Green smashed the MSU rebound record, then upped that mark from 14.6 to 17.8 per game as a junior.
He also set a Big Ten standard with 53.8-percent accuracy from the field that season. In a head-to-head matchup with Indiana standout Archie Dees, Green outscored him 24-13 and outrebounded him 23-14.
"Here's how amazing he was," said his Bryan Hall pal and first MSU interviewer, Terry Braverman. "We had intramural track in those days. It was a pretty big deal. And we wanted John to join us. He'd never done anything like that. But they put the high jump bar at 6-foot. And he hurdled it!"
"I'd put him in a group with Jackie Jackson, the old Globetrotter, and maybe three other guys as a rebounder," McCoy said. "He jumped out of sight. I know Julius Erving well. And Julius wasn't in his league."
Green routinely touched the top of an NBA backboard at 12-foot-6 and once dunked a ball 10 times in 15 seconds.
"I remember an alumni game when Robin Roberts, the great baseball pitcher, went up as high as he could and was eye-level with Green's belt buckle," Vista said. "That was when Robin decided not to play any more basketball."
Though Green said he got more publicity that he deserved, often at the expense of players like teammates Larry Hedden and Tom Rand, his 1959 first-team All-America and Big Ten MVP awards were well deserved, if not a bit tardy.
"He's worth at least 50 points a game to us," Anderson said. "Combine his scoring and defensive play with a bunch of psychological intangibles, and I'm sure he's worth more than half our point total in any game we play."
Only Ohio State three-time All-American Jerry Lucas has a higher career rebound average among Big Ten players, 17.2 to 16.4. Green still ranks No. 2 on the Spartans' all-time list, grabbing 1,036 rebounds in less than three years.
He spent 14 seasons in the NBA with New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Philadelphia and Cincinnati/Kansas City. And he was the oldest player in All-Star Game history when made his fourth appearance at age 37.
"The guy was beautiful," said Royals coach and Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy. "What can I say about him? He was remarkable, fantastic, incredible!"
After retiring at age 39, Green went into the restaurant business and had one of the most popular McDonald's franchises in the world on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, near New York's LaGuardia Airport.
He was a charter member of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame and returned to see his number raised to the Breslin Center rafters.
"I always knew the meaning of work," Green said. "In school, I was married. Then, Jeffery and Johnny were born on Easter in 1957. I knew I had to be productive in order to support them."
Now a spry 75 and living on Long Island, Green and his son, Johnny, follow the Spartans' every step in football and basketball. They celebrate the triumphs and agonize over every defeat.
"I keep thinking, `I'd like to come back there one more time,'" Green said Monday night in this, the 50-year anniversary of the '59 Big Ten champs. "I don't know if they'd recognize me. . . . Maybe I'll just show up. I've done that before."