LAWRENCE — A few weeks ago, Elijah Johnson had a problem. He had done something that was so unfitting of his role as a Kansas basketball player that he was suspended for the first two games of the season. Elijah's father, Marcus, called him from Las Vegas and tried to find out what was going on, but Elijah assured him that everything was going to be OK.
A few weeks ago, Marcus Johnson had a problem. He had been laid off from his job as a bell man at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel because of seniority. Elijah was concerned about his father, but Marcus let him know that everything was going to be OK.
"Hey son, Daddy's gonna have time to come and see you play now," Marcus told him. "I'm just not gonna have any money."
With the Jayhawks spending Thanksgiving weekend playing Ohio and Arizona in the iBN Sports Las Vegas Invitational, father and son can put away their cell phones and function the way they always have. When Elijah left for Lawrence, they never could have imagined Kansas would feel so far from home.
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"Days away," Elijah says. "Everything feels days away."
"I want to be able to go out there and look my son in the eyes and talk to him and see what's going on," Marcus says. "He could say anything to me on the phone. He doesn't want his father to worry."
Elijah is able to see the big picture. He wants to grow up at Kansas, and he's not going to be able to properly accomplish that with Marcus in the middle of things. Plus, his father has enough on his plate. On Monday morning, Marcus had just gotten off the phone with unemployment when he began to tell the story of how Elijah would come to describe his life as "just me and my pops."
It was Elijah's second grade year, and he and his older brother, Marcus Jr., were splitting time between their mother and father in Gary, Ind. Eventually, their mother wanted them to live with her full-time. Marcus Jr. decided that's what he wanted, so then it was up to Elijah. He knew that if he followed his four siblings and moved in with his mom, his dad would be all alone. He didn't want that.
"I remember that specific day," Elijah says. "That was the day that he became my best friend. Before that, he was just Daddy. It was ... my first real decision ever in life. I chose to stay with my dad."
Marcus left Marcus Jr. with a friend at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Gary, where his mother would pick him up.
"After that, it was just Elijah and me," Marcus said.
Marcus had remarried, and he would have two more children with his new family. But Elijah was the centerpiece of his world. During those early years, Marcus was a teacher and high-school basketball coach. He did not have a car, so he had no choice but to wake Elijah up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and take the boy with him on the bus. Elijah's day would end after basketball practice, when they would hop on the bus to go home around 8 p.m.
"We spent 16, 17 hours in one day together," Elijah says. "I would follow him all day long. Even at night time when I was younger I'd just go get in the bed with my dad. I just loved being around him."
When Elijah was in middle school, Marcus would move the family to Las Vegas. Of course, Elijah got the sense that his dad was doing it for him.
"He got me away from the area I didn't need to be around," Elijah says. "He gave me a chance to be looked at, a chance to go to college. It would have been different trying to do that out of Gary. Not too many people come out of there. That was probably the most important decision I made, to stay with my dad, to get out of that city and go to the west coast and see the other side of the hill."
Elijah blossomed into a top recruit at Cheyenne High School, where he would narrow his college choices to KU, Texas and Oklahoma. One of the reasons that he picked Kansas was that he didn't want to be pampered by his coaches. He wanted a staff that would only continue the work that his father had put into him.
"Anywhere else, they would have laid down the red carpet," Elijah said, "made me think everything's OK, kind of like they do in high school when you're a star athlete. They pretty much tell everybody not to touch you. Just win us some games. But it's different out here. They mold you into a better person. It's bigger than basketball."
The basketball is pretty big here, too, and Elijah is still finding his way as a sophomore guard. He has more than enough athletic ability but hasn't been able to translate it consistently into making the Jayhawks better on the floor.
His suspension — he would not reveal the details of it — certainly didn't help. Elijah needs all the playing time he can get before freshman guard Josh Selby plays his first game on Dec. 18. Still, Elijah tried to take his time on the bench as a life lesson.
"Just being irresponsible, trying to be a kid, too much of a kid, trying to have a little too much fun," Elijah says. "I gotta man up."
That's exactly what he told Marcus. It was an opportunity for him to go through something on his own. But this weekend, Marcus will get to stare into his son's eyes and get to the heart of it.
"My problems are his problems, and his problems are mine," Elijah says. "That's always how we've been. I'm still there with him. It's definitely gonna boost him and help him feel better about everything he's going through right now when I get to come home."