Throughout his NBA coaching career, Phil Johnson epitomized everything that a world-class assistant coach bring to the game. – Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle
LAS VEGAS — Though Phil Johnson was the recipient of an NBA coach of the year award — a distinction that somehow eluded Jerry Sloan in his Hall of Fame career — the longtime Utah Jazz assistant spent most of his time in the league as somebody else’s right-hand man.
On Tuesday, Johnson was honored for his behind-the-scenes contributions over the decades.
Johnson, who retired when Sloan unexpectedly resigned in the middle of the 2010-11 season, received the inaugural Tex Winter Assistant Coach Lifetime Impact Award at halftime of the Jazz’s summer league game.
Fittingly, this comes a few months after Sloan received a different honor as the 2016 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Johnson jokingly said if you stay in the league long enough, you’re bound to get an award.
“It is truly an honor,” Johnson said of the award via a press release. “Three men chose me to be their first assistant: Dick Motta, Frank Layden and Jerry Sloan. We were more than co-workers. We were teammates, teachers and ultimately friends for life. We were loyal to one another, and I was always free to express my opinions.”
Johnson thanked his fellow coaches for listening to him and expressed gratitude toward owners, general managers, assistants he worked with during his long career and to his families, including relatives and those he considered family around the basketball world.
“I want my family to know I appreciate the many sacrifices they made over the years,” Johnson said. “To the NBA (my second family) to the teams we competed against, to the fans who came to cheer us on, for the many memories that last a lifetime, I say thank you all. It’s been a great ride.”
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, presented the award to Johnson.
“Throughout his NBA coaching career, Phil Johnson epitomized everything that a world-class assistant coach brings to the game,” Carlisle said. “Teacher, motivator, competitor, confidant are all skills that come to mind when thinking of coach Phil Johnson and his impressive legacy.”
Johnson was selected from an impressive group that included Ron Adams, Jim Boylan, Hank Egan, Jim Eyen, Tim Grgurich, Frank Hamblen, Dick Helm, Brian Hill, Jim Lynam, Bob McAdoo, Ron Rothstein, Brendan Suhr and Bob Weiss.
Johnson began his coaching career in the Beehive State, starting as a graduate assistant at Utah State, where he also played ball. He was also an assistant coach under legendary Dick Motta at Weber State before taking over the reins in Ogden.
Weber State inducted Johnson into its Hall of Fame in 1992, and Utah State will follow suit this September.
Motta recalled coaching Johnson as a seventh-grader in Grace, Idaho, back in 1954. The two coached together years later at Weber State and then again when Motta hired Johnson, who took the Wildcats to three straight NCAA tournaments, to be his lead assistant for the Chicago Bulls.
“Throughout the years, Phil nurtured me and I nurtured him in a relationship that extended far beyond the game of basketball,” Motta said. “I have had the pleasure of coaching many players and alongside many coaches during my tenure, but none have made me prouder than Phil Johnson.”
The most successful part of Johnson’s career came when he coached with Sloan in Utah from 1988-2011. During that time, the dynamic duo helped coach the Jazz to six Midwest Division titles, make 16 playoff appearances and earn a pair of Western Conference championships and NBA Finals trips.
Frank Layden, the former Jazz president, GM and coach, called Johnson “the ultimate coach.” Layden credited him for knowing the game, employing a great work ethic, having “a great eye for talent” and being able to get the most out of players with “special motivational skills.”
Added Layden: “Phil had the greatest asset an assistant coach can have, which is loyalty. He is a man of great character, and this award is well deserved.”
Sloan also spoke highly of his cherished friend and cohort. He lauded him for his integrity, loyalty, basketball passion, coaching excellence, dedication, longevity and coaching path through Motta and Layden.
“The success of the Utah Jazz organization during that time could not have been achieved without the hard work, dedication and ingenuity of Phil,” Sloan said via the press release. “Phil bailed me out of a lot of tough basketball situations, and he has remained a special friend throughout the years.”
The voting committee for the award that carries the name of Winter, an iconic Hall of Fame assistant coach, includes Rick Adelman, Hubie Brown, Doug Collins, Wayne Embry, Danny Ferry, Mike Fratello, George Karl, Doc Rivers, Rod Thorn and Lenny Wilkens.