We may never see another player like Vinnie Johnson, a 6-foot-1 brick house who was willing to sacrifice the chance to start for the privilege of coming off the bench for a championship contender. He was an All-American at Baylor and came into the NBA as the seventh overall pick in 1979, so he certainly knew that he was talented enough to start for a lot of teams. But once he found his home with the Pistons, he spent the next 10 years playing in the shadow of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, sacrificing minutes for the chance to contribute to a winning team.
In the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics, Vinnie scored a then-career-high 34 points in Game 4, helping the Pistons even the series at 2-2. Most of his damage came against Boston's Dennie Johnson, whose defensive prowess eventually earned him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. From the NY Times' recap:
The Brooklyn-born Johnson, who Coach Chuck Daly said ''destroys'' the all-star Isiah Thomas in practice, began his destruction of the Celtics in the fourth quarter. He made 10 of 11 shots in the quarter, finishing with 16 of 21. He scored on drives and jumpers from 10 to 18 feet while matched against Dennis Johnson, a selection on the league's all-defensive team.
[...] ''What Vinnie did today,'' said Daly, ''he does to Isiah every day in practice. I told Dick Harter, my assistant, 'Maybe if we put a red practice shirt on Vinnie, he'll do in a game what he does in practice.' That's what we need to beat a team like Boston - a Tyler or a Vinnie Johnson.''
Tyler had 18 points and seven rebounds. Thomas, who had 10 assists and 21 points, said: ''Vinnie came over to me in the third quarter and told me he felt he had his shooting touch. He asked me if he should pass or be selfish and shoot. I told him we needed points, to shoot and be selfish.''
The following November, Vinnie set a new career-high -- once again at Boston's expense. Spoiler alert: Larry Bird scored 47 and the Celtics eventually won, but not before Johnson scored 35 points to go with eight assists, six rebounds and four steals (box score):
And, of course, it's impossible to talk about The Microwave's heroics without mentioning his championship-clinching 14-footer with 0:07 left on the clock in 1990. Skip to the 7:30-minute mark below, or just embrace the nostalgia and watch the whole thing:
Since leaving the game, Johnson has remained in metro Detroit, founding an automative supply company in 1995 -- appropriately named The Piston Group -- which employs hundreds of people in Redford, Mich. It's now worth $570 million, and he remains the CEO and chairman.