There was a time when all that anyone wanted to know about Frank Johnson could be seen, over and over, on the replay screen high above the playing floor in Capital Centre.
It was during the 1981-82 playoffs that the 6-foot-3 guard made the highlight films by slam dunking over 6-10 James Bailey, then of the New Jersey Nets. Even after Johnson's three-point shot beat the Boston Celtics at the Garden in the team's next series, the highlight replay remained the same, over and over.
Last night against the Detroit Pistons, he returned to those hallowed days, before the Bullets' largest crowd of the season, 14,431. Averaging only five points in 17 minutes of action over the last eight games, he entered the game against the Pistons as a substitute and played 21 minutes, scored 15 points and led Washington to a 112-106 victory, the team's eighth in the last nine games.
"It seemed like one of those nights that nothing was going to go right, it just didn't look good," Coach Gene Shue said. "But Frank did a great job of sparking us. More than anything else he played great defense against Isiah Thomas."
Johnson's effort on the defensive end came just in time for the Bullets. Scoring from inside and out, Thomas had just about single-handedly run the home team into the ground on the way to a game-high 35 points. Cliff Robinson, in the starting lineup for the injured Rick Mahorn, led the Bullets (10-6) with 24 points and 16 rebounds.
Just as in their game the night before against the Celtics, Washington had to make a furious rally in the fourth quarter, on this night overcoming a deficit by game's end. With 10:52 to play in the game, a basket by rookie forward Tony Campbell gave the Pistons an 86-78 lead, setting the stage for Johnson's heroics.
After two baskets by Greg Ballard (16 points, 12 rebounds) and another by Darren Daye, Johnson tied the game with a 15-foot jumper. Following a basket by the Pistons' Kent Benson, Johnson then made a three-point shot from the right side, giving Washington its first lead since the 10-minute mark of the third period.
Forty-six seconds after the three-pointer, the fourth-year player from Wake Forest stole Vinnie Johnson's pass and passed to a streaking Gus Williams for a layup, then got another assist on a basket by Jeff Ruland that put the Bullets ahead again, 93-92.
Detroit (7-8) battled back at that point, Thomas scoring on a drive and Terry Tyler getting a layup that gave the Pistons a 96-95 lead with 5:04 to play in the game. Twenty-seven seconds later, Detroit had a chance to extend its lead but couldn't when center Bill Laimbeer missed two foul shots.
Robinson was fouled while rebounding the second miss. Making the first of two, Washington drew to a 96-all tie, then went in front for good 28 seconds later on Cliff Robinson's hanging layup off Gus Williams' assist.
After Ballard made a jumper on the team's next possession, the Pistons could draw no closer than three points, held off in part by seven more points by Johnson in the final 2:41 of the game.
But even after effectively winning the game as well as his coach's praises, Johnson still found himself in a sort of no man's land at game's end. Often times paired up with Williams at guard in the early part of the season, Johnson's playing time decreased with the emergence of Jeff Malone and his deadly outside shot.
Shue was hesitant to change things during the team's seven-game winning streak, adding that he preferred a three-guard rotation.
Where that puts Johnson is unknown at this point. "It's rough coming in cold sometimes," he said. "You'd like to be in a routine, going in at the start of the second quarter or whatever. I guess now I don't have a role, or maybe it's just coming in and playing, just going out and doing whatever I can to help the team."
Perhaps next Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers will find Johnson back in an uncertain state. If that's the case, he'll take with him the memories of those playoff games -- and of last night's game.