Johnny Green, an All-Star forward for the New York Knicks in the 1960s who gained acclaim for his leaping ability and rebounding prowess through 14 NBA seasons, died Thursday in Huntington, New York. He was 89.
His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his son Johnny Jr., who said his father had had heart and kidney problems for about a year.
Jumpin’ Johnny, as he came to be known, was 6-foot-5 and about 200 pounds, but he often bested taller and huskier front-line opponents, snaring rebounds, blocking shots and hitting short-range baskets.
He was durable as well; he avoided serious injuries and had some of his best seasons late in his career. He played in the NBA until he was 39, retiring after the 1972-73 season.
Green was an All-American at Michigan State in his junior and senior seasons. When he was a sophomore, he led the Spartans to a share of the 1957 Big Ten championship with Indiana and a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.
In a national semifinal game played in Kansas City, Missouri, Green had 11 points and 19 rebounds as the Spartans lost to unbeaten North Carolina, 74-70, in triple overtime. (The Tar Heels went on to beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain, 54-53, also in triple overtime, for the national title, North Carolina’s first.)
“He jumps like he’s 6-10,” said Lennie Rosenbluth, a North Carolina All-American who scored 31 points against Michigan State but who saw many of his shots blocked by Green. “He has the quickest hands I’ve ever seen.”
The Knicks selected Green in the first round of the NBA’s regular draft in 1959, No. 6 overall. (Chamberlain was chosen by the Philadelphia Warriors and Bob Ferry by the St. Louis Hawks in the now-defunct territorial draft, in which teams could acquire popular players from local colleges who would presumably draw fans.)
Green appeared in three All-Star Games while playing for New York teams that failed to make the playoffs. His best season with them was 1962-63, when he averaged 18.1 points and 12.1 rebounds.
The Knicks of Green’s time had other talented players, most notably Richie Guerin and Carl Braun at guard and Willie Naulls and Kenny Sears at forward. But they lacked a dominant center.
They traded Green, along with forward Jim “Bad News” Barnes and guard Johnny Egan, to Baltimore in early November 1965 for the Bullets’ star center, Walt Bellamy, hoping that Bellamy could be the answer to their longtime quest for someone to match up against Chamberlain and the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell. Bellamy was a productive scorer, but the Knicks didn’t capture their first NBA championship until 1970, with Willis Reed at center.
After leaving the Bullets, Green played for the San Diego Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers, and he seemed near the end of his career when Philadelphia released him after the 1968-69 season.
But Bob Cousy, who had become the coach of the Cincinnati Royals after a brilliant career as a guard for Celtic championship teams, thought Green was far from done. He viewed him as fitting in with the fast-break offense and pressing defense that Cousy was installing.
Green signed with the Royals in September 1969 and, after a brief workout for Cousy, went on to lead the NBA in shooting percentage in his first two seasons with Cincinnati. He appeared in his fourth All-Star Game in 1971, at 37.
He closed out his career with the Kansas City-Omaha Royals, Cincinnati’s successor franchise.
Green averaged 11.6 points and 8.6 rebounds for his NBA career while playing an average of only 23.3 minutes per game. But he played on only three teams that made the playoffs.
John Michael Green was born Dec. 8, 1933, in Dayton, Ohio. He was raised mainly by his mother, Catherine Perry, who made a living selling souvenirs.
He was a bit under 6 feet tall as a teenager and didn’t play basketball at Dunbar High School in Dayton. After a stint as a construction worker, he joined the Marines and experienced a growth spurt. While stationed in Japan, he played for his outfit’s basketball team and was spotted by a Michigan State alumnus, Dick Evans, who was coaching the base’s football team.
Evans “saw that I could leap pretty well and asked me to dunk,” Green recalled in a 2009 interview for Michigan State. “I did it on the second try.”
Evans recommended Green to the Spartans’ basketball coach, Forddy Anderson, and Green visited the East Lansing campus while on leave. Anderson told him to come back after he was discharged from the military.
Green did that, although he didn’t receive an athletic scholarship, relying instead on financial aid under the GI Bill. After he impressed Anderson while playing for the Spartans’ freshman basketball team, he was promoted to the varsity in January 1957 and became an instant star.
Green led Michigan State to an outright Big Ten title and a second berth in the NCAA Tournament in 1959. In his final game, he scored 29 points and had 23 rebounds in a loss to Louisville in the Mideast Regional final.
He averaged 16.9 points and 16.4 rebounds with the Spartans. His uniform number, 24, was later retired.
After leaving pro basketball, Green owned a McDonald’s franchise near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Green’s first wife was Ester (Dorsey) Green. They had twins, Jeffrey and Johnny Jr., and a daughter, Karen, and divorced in the late 1970s. He had a daughter, Yvette Fogg, from a second marriage, to Alzonia Green (her birth name was coincidentally also Green); that marriage ended with her death in the mid-2000s.
In addition to Johnny Jr., Green’s survivors include his other children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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When Green was entering his final NBA season, he reflected on his growth spurt after leaving high school and on the assist he received from an unlikely source.
“I wasn’t big enough or good enough when I was a youngster,” he told United Press International in November 1972, early in his last season. “I developed late, and it took the U.S. Marines to come through for me.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.