Citizen Staff Writer
By SHELLY LEWELLEN
Albert Johnson has nothing but fond memories from his days playing basketball at the University of Arizona in the early 1960s.
“We were young; we enjoyed every minute,” Johnson said. “We were like a family, more than just individuals.”
Johnson, 61, is still involved with basketball. He runs the afterschool basketball program at Tucson’s Udall Recreation Center.
He played from 1962-1965 under coach Bruce Larson.
“He is a great gentleman. He’s so knowledgeable. He studies the other teams. He’s a strategist,” Johnson said of Larson.
Johnson went on to coach the freshman team under Larson from 1968-1971. He was the first full-time black assistant coach for the Wildcat basketball team.
Johnson played for UA before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took its full effect.
“There were some places we would go to eat or play pool and they wouldn’t allow me in,” he recalled. “Then the other guys wouldn’t go in either. That bonded us. They stood up for me, and I stood up for them.”
Johnson played center and forward for the Cats.
“My game was defense,” he said. “They didn’t take blocked shot stats then, and I had a lot of them. I scored, but it was all on rebounds.”
Players were allowed only three years on the varsity team. The teams played only 26 games per year, compared to 30 or more now.
Though the stats have changed, Johnson still stands fifth all-time on UA’s career rebound average list at 9.9 per game. He led the team in scoring in the 1962 and 1963 season. He was voted most valuable player during his sophomore season.
“I fared pretty well in my era,” Johnson said. “Winning or losing was what mattered to us. Whether we scored 10 points or 40, did we win?”
UA played in the Western Athletic Conference in those days with its home games at Bear Down Gym.
“In the WAC, everyone won at home,” Johnson said. “You didn’t lose at home. If you won one on the road, that’s how you won the WAC. Nobody wanted to come to Bear Down to play us. It was small in Bear Down, but it was fun. The fans were right on top of us.”
After he left UA, Johnson played two seasons for the Harlem Globetrotters before an eye injury ended his playing career.
Back in the early 1960s, on a flight heading from Laramie, Wyo, there was blowing snow and ice, conditions that make flying scary in any era.
“We were heading to Denver,” former UA player Warren Rustand recalled. “Albert Johnson hadn’t flown a great deal. We were about halfway to Denver when there was a crack in the emergency door, or it had opened a bit.”
“Albert Johnson (who is African-American) was white for about an hour,” Rustand said. “Everyone else was going to the bathroom and throwing up. Everyone thought the plane was going down.
“Johnson was gripping the armrests so hard he dislodged them from their seat he was so scared.”
Johnson said Rustand had quite an imagination. Johnson said everyone was scared, including Rustand, who at one point locked himself in the restroom.
“It was quite an experience, particularly when the pilot said he needed to depressurize and fly low over the Grand Canyon,” Johnson said. “We were bouncing over like a dove in the wind. There weren’t enough airsickness bags in the plane to take care of everybody.”
As for turning white, Johnson said it was more like Rustand “turning green.”
An excerpt from “Tales of the Arizona Wildcat Hardwood,” a book about UA basketball history by Tucson Citizen sportswriter Steve Rivera