When Stanford University fired head coach Johnny Dawkins in March 2016 in the middle of March Madness, it was then I knew that college sports and its administrators were out of bounds. I was really upset because I thought Johnny would coach at Stanford forever or leave for the NBA on his own terms (I no longer wish the NBA on him).
This story is re-visited because the last time I saw Johnny was the summer of 2015 at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, DC. I was the restaurant’s in-house/outhouse historian. I remember it was a bright sunshiny day and I was standing out in front of the restaurant waiting for my next group of clients. I suddenly looked up to see a group of young men coming toward me. As they approached I asked, “Where are you guys from” and several young men proudly said, ‘Stanford University!’ I said to myself, ‘That sounds familiar.’ I looked through the rainbow of faces and spotted the smiling face of Johnny Dawkins. I was surprised and caught off guard because all I knew was I had a group at 1:30 pm, but I never checked to see who they were and where they were coming from.
The Stanford basketball team poses with restaurant owner Virginia Ali
I grabbed Johnny’s hand and said, “Johnny where in the hell did you come from?” He laughed and said, ‘California and we are headed to Europe for a little vacation before school starts.’ I then escorted him and his team to the backroom to have lunch and talk sports and discuss the history of his hometown.
During the discussion, I talked about Johnny’s legendary status among DC’s basketball elite. Those words were hardly out my mouth when he said, “If I was such a legend why didn’t you invite me on ‘Inside Sports?’ I was lost for words. Until he said, ‘Its okay Harold, I forgive you.’ I still cannot understand how I missed having him on Inside Sports. When I named my All-Time DC Basketball Legends All-Star team last year (1950-1975) he missed the cut by three years.
The most impressive thing about Johnny’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl was that I discovered on his staff there was another Washingtonian, Charles Payne, Jr. He was the grandson of my mentor Everett Payne, Sr. His father Charlie was the son of one of the greatest all-around athletes to come out of DC. Mr. Payne’s nickname was ‘Cookie’ to his followers and admirers at the historic Langston Golf Course located directly across the street from Spingarn High School in NE DC.
Mr. Payne was a father figure not only to his sons, Everett was better known as ‘Doc’, Carrol better know as ‘Skeezie’ and youngest son Charles, but he was like a father to guys like me who had no father.
Mr. Payne wore many hats, he was one of the first black DC cops hired by the DC Metropolitan Police Department in the early 50s. He walked a beat in the rain wind and snow. Blacks were not allowed to ride in cars until years later.
He moonlighted as an assistant coach on the staff of Spingarn High School. The Head Coach Dave Brown had no problem allowing parents and others outside of the system to volunteer. Mr. Payne was also a scratch golfer (shot under par) and taught golf at the Langston Golf Course. He taught me how to run a down and out pass pattern. The pattern made me unstoppable and a First Team All-High player. He also kept me out of Coach Brown’s doghouse when I would bark too loud for the ball. There were several coaches who wanted to banish me from the team, but ‘Cookie’ saved me.
My hero Everett ‘Cookie’ Payne, Sr. and his crew: son, Charles, grandson Mookie, son, Skeezie and grands.
Johnny Dawkins made me proud when I discovered that Charles, Jr. better known as ‘Mookie’ was on his staff. Johnny was not only a great athlete and great coach, but he was also and is a better human being. As a young man, you could see he had his priorities in order. He had no problem in pulling other homeboys along with him as he moved up life’s ladder of success. This is seldom done with other DC success stories. Too many let success handle them and they seldom handle success.
DC basketball legend Johnny Dawkins and Charles Payne, Jr., brothers in the struggle leading by example.
As a native Washingtonian and basketball legend to me, Johnny was a “Quiet Assassin”. He was unlike the great trash talking in your face jump shooter extraordinary Willie Jones, but the end results were the same. They both were winners.
DC Playground Legends (1950-1975): There was Elgin Baylor and then there was Willie Jones
Johnny Dawkins “Basketball Assassin”
Aubrey Dawkins “The next Johnny Dawkins?”
I think Johnny had known since high school that the most important game being played in the world was not football, basketball or baseball—it was the Game Called life-it was here he became a Super-Star. He played by the rules and played with the hand that Duke and Stanford Universities had dealt him–the hand, academics and not jump shots were the rule.
Johnny played basketball at Mackin Catholic High School several blocks from Ben’s Chili Bowl, before enrolling at Duke University. He would become the team’s all-time leading scorer with 2,556 points, which stood until 2006 when J. J. Redick surpassed it. In Dawkins’ senior year at Duke, the 1985–86 season, the Duke Blue Devils attained a won-lost record of 37–3, which was an NCAA record for both games played and games won in a single season. They reached the 1986 NCAA championship game, where they lost to Louisville, 72–69. In his senior season, Dawkins averaged 20.2 points per gameand won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, presented to the nation’s top Collegiate Basketball Player. He also served as an alternate on the 1984 United States Olympic basketball team. He graduated with a degree in political science.
His jersey number 24 was later retired. Johnny was also given a number of honors, including being named to the ACC 50th Anniversary men’s basketball team honoring the 50 greatest players in Atlantic Coast Conference history and being named the 78th greatest player in college basketball history by The Sporting News’s book, Legends of College Basketball, in 2002.
In the 1986 NBA Draft, Johnny was the No. 1 pick of the San Antonio Spurs the 10th pick overall. He appeared in the 1987 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, where he finished sixth out of eight. He ended up playing in the NBA for nine seasons, also playing for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Detroit Pistons. In his NBA career, he averaged 11.1 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.5 rebounds.
Stanford Athletic Director, Bernard Muir was quoted saying after he fired Johnny, “This decision was not easy, and it was a very difficult discussion for both Johnny and me, but like everything else during his tenure at Stanford, he handled it with class, respect and the utmost concern for his student-athletes…There are so many great things that Johnny was able to accomplish including, he improved the graduation rate, achieving an Academic Progress Rate of 1000, an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and two NIT championships. The student-athletes Johnny coached during his tenure at Stanford represented the University with class and humility.” You would have thought with such a glowing resume the university would have extended his contract for at least another eight years, but instead, they fired him with two-years left on his contract!
Stanford women’s coach Tara VanDerveer was quoted saying, “I don’t believe they can hire a better man. He’s a fabulous person. He is a class act in everything he does. … Quite honestly, he handled it better than I did. I was really upset. … I love him, and we’ll miss him terribly.”
Johnny woke up the next morning unemployed and I know that didn’t feel very good. But honestly, when was the last time you heard that level of admiration and accolades for a guy who had just been fired? He had a lot to be proud of.
The early names associated with the opening was his Duke backcourt teammate Tommy Amaker. Tommy was the logical choice and the only guy on the list who was prepared to handle the academics at Stanford. He made the right decision, he is still the head coach at Harvard University another academic challenged institution. After witnessing the charade of firing Johnny his decision to remain at Harvard was a no-brainer. Jerod Haase was finally hired to replace Johnny.
Coincidentally, Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker were born and raised in the DMV (District, Maryland and Virginia). Johnny is a native Washingtonian and Tommy was born and raised in Falls Church, Virginia. It was hard to believe they both played in the same backcourt for legendary Duke University coach, Mike Krzyzewski! Johnny arrived before Tommy and was the designated ball handler, shooter and leader of the Duke Blue Devils. Tommy arrived later and was made the point guard and in your face defensive stopper. Johnny was made the designated shooter and success followed.
After his nine-year NBA career Johnny returned to Tobacco Road to work as an assistant coach for eight years at Duke before he was hired by Stanford.
He and his staff were surprised by how difficult admissions were at Stanford, but the transition was smooth and his eight years as head coach, there was never any hint of short-cuts to academic success for his athletes. He was in many ways a great fit, as indicated above by the comments from his colleagues and friends. Johnny Dawkins was solid, but it was not an easy job–Far from it.
“We are Family” Coaches Johnny D and Coach Mike K
After the lost Johnny could be heard in the locker room consoling his players. You could hear them crying and sobbing in the background. He told them “We are in tears because we have invested so much in each other. I love you guys. It has been amazing in coaching this group. I am proud of you. You left it all on the floor.” He reminded them, ‘I had been in the same exact situation when Duke lost to Louisville 72-69 in the NCAA finals in 1986.’
Lost in the loss to Duke was how a father and son teamed up to give us one the most exciting finishes in the NCAA run to the Final 4 so far in 2019. The son Aubrey scored a game-high 32 points and the father coached the best game in the showdown between the pupil and his mentor.
I counted 5 straight missed free throws in the closing minutes that cost UFC the game. UFC had a dismal free throw percentage entering the game, 64%. It’s hard to coach free throws. You can bet free throw practice will be at the top of Johhny’s list of “Things to do” heading into the NCAA basketball regular season in 2020. The UFC battle cry after the game, “Family on three–Family on three.”
Thank you, Johnny Dawkins, for keeping it real and being a Super Star in the most important game being played in our community in 2019, ‘The Game Called Life!’