JOHNSON, WILLIAM C. 'SKINNY'
Hometown: Oklahoma City, OK
Link to his Basketball Hall of Fame site
1931: Lettered, Starter.
1932: Lettered, Starter, All Big 6
1933: Lettered, Starter, Captain, All Big 6, All-American.
WILLIAM CLAUDE “SKINNY” JOHNSON (Player: 1931-33)
Johnson graduated from Central High School in Oklahoma City, OK, in 1929, where he was coached by George Rody, former star at KU in the 1920-22 seasons.
The dominant collegiate center of his time, Bill “Skinny”
Johnson led KU to three straight Big Six basketball titles during his varsity
career. He earned all-conference honors in 1932 and 1933 and achieved
All-American status in 1933. At 6’4, Johnson was considered a giant and with his
great leaping ability was particularly effective because of his ability to
control center jumps in an era when the center jump after each basket was part
of the game.
One of Phog’s favorite stories, told over and over again each season until it became a legend, had to do with Skinny Johnson’s heroic flight from his family’s grave in the cemetery in Oklahoma City to the basketball court in Lawrence for a key game at the end of the 1932 season.
On this particular Saturday night, the Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas were facing their final games in the Big 6 conference championship race, with possibilities of a triple tie for honors. Kansas was scheduled to meet Oklahoma in Lawrence and on the same night Missouri was to meet Kansas State at Manhattan. If Oklahoma were to defeat Kansas and should Missouri win at Kansas State, the Big 6 would be deadlocked.
On Wednesday, Phog told the press “If Bill Johnson doesn’t break a leg, Oklahoma will be in for a busy Saturday night.” That evening, at dinner, Phog received a call from a friend, informing him that Johnson’s father had died suddenly. Bill left on the night train and with him, so it seemed, went Kansas’s chances for its third consecutive Big 6 championship.
Athletic authorities at OU were besieged by the press to postpone the game until the following week, so that the two teams would meet at full strength, but the Sooners wanted to play the game on schedule. The funeral for Johnson’s father was set for 2:30 on Saturday, in order to accommodate relatives from a distance. The KU-OU game was scheduled for 8:00 that evening, so there was no way for Johnson to drive the 400 miles after the funeral to get to the game.
On the day of his death, Bill’s father was quoted in the local paper, “I hope Bill plays the game of his life Saturday night.” This statement proved to be the real challenge in Bill’s decision to try and get back to Lawrence for the game. Several offers from businessmen to sponsor a flight, were turned down because strong headwinds made the trip seem too perilous to consider.
All day on Saturday, the press had announced that Johnson was definitely out of the game. During the pregame meal, not one player mentioned the possibility of Bill’s coming. However, with just one hour left, Phog received a telephone call that Johnson had landed at a lighted airport 30 miles away and was taxiing to the gym. Radio reports of the game in Manhattan, which started at 7:30, were saying that State was leading Missouri by eight points.
About ten minutes before game time, walking into Hoch Auditorium, who would show up but Bill Johnson. All at once, bedlam broke loose, and the crowd of 3,500 Kansas rooters went wild when Johnson appeared on the floor. Was it Bill Johnson’s ghost? No, it was him in the flesh. Kansas players, stunned at first, showered their teammate with adulation.
At the end of the half, radio reports announced that Missouri had won at Manhattan, so the next 30 minutes will tell if KU or OU would win the undisputed conference crown, and KU was enjoying a 14 point lead, 20-6. OU stormed out in the second half scoring the first 10 points, but they met Kansas on a night when Kansas’s fighting morale was heightened and KU won in a driving finish, 31-27.
In later years, Phog made this game a part of his story telling repertoire, dramatically putting his hand to his ear as if listening for the droning plane. He not only had a good story with which to motivate future Jayhawks, he had his 10th conference title in 15 seasons coaching at Kansas.
During his three year tenure at KU, the Jayhawks had a 41-12 record, 22-8 in the Big Six, and three conference championships.
After leaving KU, Johnson went on to a great AAU career, playing for the Southern Kansas Stage Lines, which won the AAU national championships in 1934-36. He was one of the few men to ever receive All-American honors in high school, college and AAU basketball. He briefly coached basketball at Cleveland Chiropractic College in 1937, to a 16-2 record, and to championships of both the Naismith Industrial League and the Kansas City Independent Tournament.
Johnson received the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to an all-time sports great from Oklahoma, and was inducted in 1977 into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player.
Sources (Books and Articles):
Sources (Internet Biographies):