Frank Johnson can be set for life if he gets on "Jeopardy" and the category is "Metatarsals." No pro athlete alive knows more about metatarsals. Dr. Scholl has Johnson on retainer for consults about metatarsals.
While at Wake Forest, Johnson broke the fifth one on his left foot and lost an entire year. Already with the Washington Bullets he's broken the fourth one on his left foot four times, missing 2 1/2 seasons between 1985 and 1987. (For you nonorthopedists in the pool, that still leaves three virgin metatarsals on the left, and a whole other fresh foot to work on.)
So it's with some surprise -- and a sense of hurry -- that we congratulate Frank Johnson on coming back to the court and the starting lineup. And with genuine delight we dedicate a little Steve Winwood his way: "Back in the high life again. All the doors that closed one time will open once again. . .Won't it be a sight to see? Back in the high life again."
And how does it feel after all this time?
"Great," Johnson said, his eyes sparkling like the rhinestones on a country singer's vest. "Everything about it is great. Just being a part of the whole package again, belonging to it, being with the guys in the locker room and on the road. There're times before a game when I'll be in the locker room, looking around at the guys getting taped, and I'll think to myself how happy I feel being here right now, this minute. Every time I'm warming up, I may have a serious look on my face, but inside I'm beaming."
He's not the kind to gloat, but you could hardly blame him if he did. There were lots of people, myself included, who thought Johnson was through as an NBA player. I wrote, advising him to look for a day job. After all, you break a bone once or twice, that's bad luck, but you break it four times, that's a pattern. "I didn't think I was done," Johnson said. But his comebacks were characterized by their frequency and their futility. Johnson spent so much time on the shelf, instead of designer labels he wore an expiration date.
The repetitive quality of the injury extracted a price. After the first and second breaks Johnson still attended home games and sat on the end of the bench in street clothes. But after the third and fourth breaks he stayed away, viewing the games on television. "I had to remove myself from being there. It was too difficult to sit and watch. I wanted to play," he explained, adding reflectively, "You never say your career's over. But others do, and doubt creeps in." Smiling wanly, Johnson said, "You know you shouldn't pay attention. But you do."
Days stretched into weeks and months. Everywhere he went, he was asked the same question: How's the foot? "Foot's fine," Johnson would say, believing it finally was. He worked out on his own, away from his teammates -- many of whom he hardly knew, given the way the Bullets regularly recycle their roster. In 1984, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Ray Richardson, Mo Cheeks, Norm Nixon, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams ranked ahead of him, but Frank Johnson's 12 points and seven assists per game made him one of the better young point guards in the league and a bright future seemed assured. However, by 1987, he was, of necessity, an afterthought in the Bullets' plans.
"I felt like an outsider," Johnson admitted. "I still saw myself as a ballplayer, but maybe not a Bullet." He understood the Bullets' reluctance to write his name in ink on a depth chart. "I sensed it a little, that they weren't sure I could play. I'd feel the same way. Would you put a guy in position to let you down again? They couldn't share my faith. That's fair."
Even now, now that he's moved ahead of Muggsy Bogues and into the starting lineup, and he's averaging 29.7 minutes and 10 points as a starter, even now it wouldn't surprise Johnson if Bob Ferry still wonders when the next metatarsal will snap. "I guess he's just like everyone else. There's some doubt," Johnson conceded good-naturedly. "You think I'll break it. Why shouldn't Bob?" But there's no concession in his style of play. It's still the daring, diving game of his preinjury days. "If I was afraid, I'd tiptoe around this season so you could say, 'Frank Johnson finally made it through a full year.' But when I play, I play."
He's 29 now. And though he says, "I'm still 26 in basketball years because there was no physical wear and tear on me," the calendar says his fruitful time is diminishing. He never felt self-pity. He bears the game no ill will for the years it stole. "Injuries are all part of it," Johnson said. "It happens to lots of guys -- Bill Walton, Sam Bowie. I was one of them. But I've had five years in, and a lot of time left. I feel lucky."
Now, every game he plays is additional proof that he's back, but there was one special moment that Frank Johnson feels authenticated his return: "I'd just signed that morning, the day we were playing Cleveland in an exhibition at the Patriot Center. I walked into the locker room, and the guys saw me and said, 'Look who's back!" Moses got up -- he was laughing -- and he pointed at me and asked, 'Who's that?' Right then I knew I was back."
Well, we tease him a lot, 'cause we've got him on the spot.