Shocker summer: Smile when you say Cheese

06/24/2014 9:00 AM

06/24/2014 12:54 PM

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on March 18, 1979, prior to Cheese Johnson being selected in the NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors.

“Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!”

That familiar battle cry was born on Dec. 1, 12975, and has echoed through Levitt Arena for four exiting years – every time No. 31 was introduced or “did his thing” in a Wichita State basketball game.

But nevermore.

Lynbert (Cheese) Johnson has played his last collegiate game in a Shocker uniform. And what a career it’s been for the high-flying New Yorker who stepped right into the starting lineup as a skinny freshman four years ago.

On a team that had returned its top six scorers, Cheese wasted no time in creating his own image and following. In his first college game – a 107-65 rout of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – he spun and soared for game-high 15 points, pulled down eight rebounds and handed out three assists.

Five days later, the Levitt Arena cheers were even louder and Johnson was even more spectacular – 19 points, 16 rebounds, four assists – as the Shockers crushed Morningside 109-66.

After three games in 1975, the Shockers were 3-0, ranked No. 20 in the nation and their freshman sensation was leading the Missouri Valley Conference in field-goal percentage at .688.

That was the season, of course, that WSU went on to win the Valley and lose that 74-73 heartbreaker to eventual national runner-up Michigan in the NCAA regional at Denton, Texas. Johnson was named MVC Newcomer of the Year.

“That was the best team I played on here, but this season was the most enjoyable,” says Johnson, who contributed 1,027 rebounds and 1,907 points to the Shocker cause in his four years. That ranks him No. 1in rebounding and No. 3 in scoring on WSU’s all-time charts.

This year our offense was more freelance, and I liked it better,” explained Cheese, who became more of a complete payer under first-year WSU coach Gene Smithson. Despite extending his shooting range, Johnson shot better than .500 (.513) for the fourth straight season and raise his season averages to 22.2 points and 10.6 rebounds, his bests ever.

Scoring, rebounding, passing, dribbling, defense, leadership – Cheese Johnson did it all for the Shockers this past season. His favorite phase of the game?

“I guess I like scoring and passing best,” he replied. Ironic for the school’s all-time rebound leader.

Cheese Johnson is a modest young man. he’d just as soon not talk about himself. You know, actions speak louder than words. That sort of thing.

“Just luck,” he said with a smile when he school rebound record was mentioned.

But Johnson is confident of his basketball abilities, and when pressed, he’ll tell you so.

“I’m glad I came here and started playing right off, but I think I could have played anywhere my freshman year,” he said. “I didn’t have any goals when I came here, but I knew I could do well.”

Basketball, Cheese will tell you, has helped him grow of the court as well. One of eight children (five sisters, two brothers), Johnson came to the Kansas plains as a product of overcrowded schools.

“There were a lot of people in the schools I went to, and the teacher didn’t get the spend time with just one person,” he recalled of his days at New York City’s Haaren High School.

“Therefore you didn’t learn as much as you wanted to, and that made it harder for me when I came here to college. I think people out here know more than the average high school graduate from New York,” he continued. “It was a big change for me, and I had to work at it. Playing ball and traveling made it that much harder. I was always trying to catch up.”

But he did it. As his academic advisor, Dave McFarland, proclaims, “Cheese is one of our academic miracles because he was willing to work hard.”

Johnson had help from people like McFarland and his instructors, but he’s also one who helps himself. On the Shockers’ road trips, eh was always looking for reading material.

“I’ve always liked to read,” he says. “A lot of times on a trip I’ll get bored, so I find an interesting magazine or newspaper and pit it up and read it.”

Cheese won’t graduate this semester, but he’s a lot closer than anyone would have thought four years ago.

“I’ll be like two hours sort of getting my degree in liberal arts,” he says. “I’m going to take them in summer school and get school finished up before pro camps start.”

Pro basketball. That’s hopefully the next step in the life of the two-time All-America honorable mention and three-time all-District 5 selection.

“The pro teams haven’t really been contacting me, but have been going through Coach Smithson,” Johnson said. “The only teams I know that have contacted him about me are the Knicks, Golden State and Detroit.”

If it comes down to a recommendation from Smithson, he’s got it. The WSU coach’s only regret is that he had Johnson for only one season.

“If I had a pro team, I’d want Cheese on it,” Smithson said. “He’s a winner. If he’s drafted by a team that knows and needs his style of play, he’ll make it. I’d like to have him as a big guard who crashes the boards on every shot. He can play that role in the NBA.”

Dick McGuire, scouting coordinator for the New York Knicks, thinks Johnson will be picked in the first two rounds of the NBA’s June draft, but thinks the Shocker standout will have to make the grade as a small forward.

“Cheese has excellent quickness inside, but his outside shooting reamsins a question,” the brother of former Marquette coach and NBC-TV basketball analyst Al McGuire said. “I’m not saying he can’t shoot from outside. He just hasn’t taken enough shots from out there to tell.”

As far as Johnson’s chances as a big guard, McGuire says, “It’s a matter of whether he can handle the ball well enough. He handles it well as a forward, but a guard is a different matter. We’ll be able to tell more in the all-star games like the Pizza Hut game, where they play man-to-man.

“If you go in the first round, you’re almost guaranteed a good shot,” McGuire continued. “The second-rounders don’t get the no-cut contracts, though. They have to make the grade at the camps.”

If he doesn’t make it in the pros, Cheese plans to have his degree to fall back on.

“I think I’d like to get into social work – you know, help the kids,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind going back to New York and working because my family is there, but I’d work anywhere.”

Smithson is just as emphatic about that. “Cheese Johnson will be a success in whatever he undertakes,” the coach says. “He’s just that type of person.

But for now, it’s time for a little well-deserved R&R – rest and relaxation.

“Just resting, and trying to catch up on my schoolwork,” he replied when asked how he’s spending his free afternoons now that basketball season is over.

Hobbies? “I listen to music a lot.”

Sports? “I like all sports. I can play them all – baseball, football, softball.

Girls? “I don’t have any particular girlfriend. I like a lot of people,” he said with his brig grin and a little chuckle.

Has Johnson ever regretted his decision to leave his family in New York to come halfway across the United States to play basketball?

“No, I can’t regret it after four years here,” he answered. “I’ve met a lot of nice people in Wichita, and I made a lo t of friends on the teams we played. Those friendships will last. It just boils down to when we’ll see each other again.

Wichita has given Cheese Johnson an education, good friends and trips to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. And he’s given Wichita four years of outstanding, exciting basketball.

It’s been a fair trade.

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