ST. LOUIS — The plan started on the floor at the old Wirt High School, a 4-year-old dribbling a basketball with high school boys. Marcus Johnson was a basketball coach, and he always wanted his son to be at practice with his freshman team. Marcus thought his boy could learn something — and not just about basketball.
When those practices were done, Marcus says, he would take his son aside and begin to chisel out a roadmap to a better life, ideas and dreams casted in the hot fire of Gary, Ind.
On Thursday afternoon, Elijah Johnson took the floor at the Edward Jones Dome, a starting guard on a team two victories from the Final Four. After two years of mostly watching and waiting, Johnson is now taking his turn under the lights.
“This is what you live for,” Elijah says.
Family members and teammates say there’s something different about Elijah, something that allowed him to see the big picture while he spent two seasons in the background.
Maybe it’s because he grew up the son of teachers. Maybe it’s his godfather, LaTroy Hawkins, another gifted athlete who emerged from the same blue-collar neighborhoods on his way to a career as a major-league pitcher. Or maybe it’s the city itself, a gritty steel-mill community on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“Every guy I’ve known from Gary,” Hawkins says, “we all have this little quiet toughness about us. It’s just the way we were brought up.”
If you look up Johnson’s Kansas basketball bio, you’ll read that his hometown is Las Vegas — that he became a top-30 recruit at Cheyenne High School 12 miles from the famed strip. But Marcus Johnson will tell you that’s only partially true. Those early years in Gary made Elijah Johnson who he is today — while also illuminating something else along the way. If the plan was going to work, Elijah Johnson would need to leave Gary behind.
“We just talked a lot,” Marcus says, “And we just had to come up with a plan of what we wanted to do. I told him, ‘You’re a Johnson, you’re not going to be a bum on the streets.’ ”
• • •
In the fifth grade, Elijah Johnson led a team from Gary to the Indiana AAU championship. This is one of Marcus’ favorites stories; all these kids from Gary beating the best the state has to offer.
His son was always so advanced on the court — physically and mentally. One summer, Elijah went to a basketball camp put on by former Purdue star Glenn Robinson. Elijah was just a fifth grader. But by the end of the week, none of the middle schoolers could stay in front of him.
Of course, Hawkins remembers Elijah’s other side, the patient kid who would wait for his slower teammates to keep up, or show another how to fix his layup form.
“He had this thing about him,” Hawkins says. “He always took his time. He showed them how to do things right. As a 6-year-old.”
In those early days, it was mostly just Elijah and Marcus. Elijah had four older siblings, but when the family split up, he was the one that stayed with his father. Soon, Marcus would remarry, and two more siblings would be on the way. But that didn’t change their relationship. Elijah and Marcus still spent hours in the gym; they still talked about the future.
Marcus still was looking for a way out of Gary. Too much violence, he says. Too many snowstorms. But it wasn’t until a few years later that the plan finally came into focus. As a reward for winning the state title, Elijah’s fifth-grade team advanced to a national tournament in Chandler, Ariz. Marcus had never been out west before, and the trip left an impression.
“The clean air, the clean streets,” Marcus says. “I just fell in love.”
Marcus’ wife, Cledra, was a schoolteacher. Las Vegas was booming, schools popping up everywhere. And Cledra just so happened to have family in the area.
“He gave us one vacation that opened my eyes to the West Coast,” Marcus says, “and here we are.”
Marcus still thinks about that fifth-grade team, all those young lives. One of those boys was named Christian Hodge, a kid with a face that looked just like Elijah’s.
“They were about the same size, same height, everything,” Marcus says.
A few years later, when the Johnsons were out in Las Vegas, Marcus and Elijah heard the news: Christian had been shot and killed in Glen Park.
Elijah now wears a tattoo with Christian’s name.
• • •
LaTroy Hawkins sat on the couch and watched, the minutes ticking down. He had invited a group of friends over Sunday night to watch KU’s NCAA Tournament game against Purdue. Now Hawkins was looking at the television, his godson’s team down by four points in the final minutes.
“C’mon, Elijah,” Hawkins whispered to himself. “It’s your time. It’s your time. Put the team on your back and carry them.”
Moments later, Hawkins leapt off the couch as Johnson made a long three-pointer that gave Kansas its first lead.
“I was just like, “Yes!” Hawkins says. “OK, we’re in the game now.”
Hawkins is 39 now, a right-handed relief pitcher entering his 18th major-league season with the Los Angeles Angels. But his godson has turned him into a KU diehard. For the last three years, Hawkins has made trips to Lawrence and followed nearly every Jayhawk game on Twitter.
“Everybody talked about his great game,” Hawkins says. “But I was more impressed by his interview.”
• • •
They were watching back in Gary, too. Despite the distance, Elijah has maintained healthy relationships with his mother and four older siblings. And when folks from the old neighborhoods turn on the television, there’s still a feeling that they’re watching one of their own.
Larry McKissack is the boys coach at Roosevelt High, the school Johnson would have attended if he’d have stayed in Gary. McKissack coached Johnson at Pulaski Middle School, and it hurt a little when he found out that Johnson wouldn’t be coming to Roosevelt. Still, Johnson comes back every summer.
“The kids are in awe of him,” McKissack says.
Last Sunday, McKissack watched as Johnson heaved a long lob pass to Tyshawn Taylor in the final seconds against Purdue. It was shocking and risky — and it was beautiful.
“That’s Gary basketball right there,” McKissack says.
Johnson returned home to Las Vegas during Christmas break. And before he had to fly back to Lawrence, Elijah and Marcus sat down for another talk — just like old times. Marcus lost his job at a casino in late 2010, but he’s currently working for Opportunity Village, a non-profit organization that helps adults with intellectual disabilities.
So they talked about life. But they also talked about basketball. Kansas had been on the cusp of the Final Four last season, before collapsing against VCU in the Elite Eight. And now Elijah wanted to impart his own piece of wisdom to his father.
“He just don’t want to lose. He don’t want to lose,” Marcus says. “He told me that before he lost a game in that NCAA Tournament, they’re going to have to carry him off that court.”
So perhaps some of that resolve showed up in the final minutes of the Purdue game. With the Jayhawks’ season in peril, the quiet kid from Gary saved the day.
“Everybody has been on him all year long to be more aggressive,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “And certainly, he’s been terrific the last three weeks or so.”
Back in St. Louis on Thursday, Elijah sat in front of his locker and looked into a wall of cameras. After nearly three seasons, he is no longer waiting his turn or deferring to teammates. Instead, he’s smiling into the camera and telling a story about his journey from Gary to Las Vegas to Lawrence.
Some players want everything so fast, he says. But there’s nothing wrong with waiting. There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead.
“I wasn’t naïve,” Johnson says. “I know a lot of people come in as a freshman and they feel like: ‘I can do this as a freshman.’ … What people don’t realize, is Coach knows you can do that. That’s why you’re here. He’s trying to teach you first.”