A few weeks ago, Marcus Johnson could see his son hurting.
It was a Saturday night in late January, and Elijah Johnson had just returned to his off-campus apartment after finishing with eight points and four turnovers in Kansas’ 67-54 victory over Oklahoma. Marcus was in town for the game, but when Elijah returned home, he could tell something was eating at his son.
“He was quiet,” Marcus Johnson said. “And he didn’t do a lot of talking. And he doesn’t do that when his daddy is around.”
Marcus, of course, knew just what to do. He headed for the kitchen and made a few heaping bowls of spaghetti and some fried pork chops. Pretty soon, father and son were trading jokes, and the apartment was full of life again.
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“We’re gonna get through this like we got through everything else,” Marcus said.
On Wednesday night, as Marcus Johnson tracked his son’s latest game from the family’s home in Las Vegas, he wished he could have been there, ready with another hot meal.
In one of the most unexpected results of the college basketball season, Kansas went down at Big 12 bottom-feeder TCU. And Marcus watched as his son continued his recent trend of shooting woes, finishing with eight points on 3 of 12 from the field.
“It’s hard to explain what happened last night,” Marcus said. “Maybe the entire team should cancel practice and go to church.”
After Wednesday night’s performance, perhaps that’s not the worst idea. Maybe there weren’t unknown forces at work inside Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, where the Jayhawks managed just two field goals in the opening 15 minutes, but it certainly felt like it.
It was an offensive performance that required teamwide participation. Senior guard Travis Releford attempted just one shot. Ben McLemore and Naadir Tharpe combined to shoot 8 of 31 from the field. And after two straight losses, the Jayhawks were left reeling.
But because Marcus Johnson is a father, his thoughts immediately went toward his son.
It’s been a trying season for Elijah Johnson. The adjustment to the point-guard position has been slow. The turnovers have piled up. And to make matters worse, the ball just won’t go in the basket.
Even before Wednesday’s loss, Elijah said he was trying to forget his shooting percentages.
“If I start to focus on that more,” Elijah Johnson said earlier this week, “I might bring more stress on myself, and that’s not what I need right now. I’m just trying to relax. It’ll fall. I know it will.”
By Thursday afternoon, Marcus Johnson had been inundated with calls. Family members. Friends. Old coaches. All concerned about his son’s state of mind.
“My phone has been ringing all day today,” Marcus said. “I had to shut it off to take a nap.”
It all reminded Marcus of an old story from back when Elijah was in high school. He was a junior at Cheyenne High, and he couldn’t make a shot all winter. The ball kept rimming out, and Elijah had to find other ways to help his team win.
“By season’s end,” Marcus said, “they were in the state tournament.”
There are more stories like this. Years ago, Marcus and Elijah left the family’s home base in Gary, Ind., to start a new life in Las Vegas. They did it by caring for each other, and working through the tough times. And that’s made the last few weeks difficult.
Elijah has drawn his fair share of pointed criticism — from KU coach Bill Self to the daily echo-chamber of social media — and for now, he hasn’t been able to emerge from the rut.
Marcus says his son may be putting too much pressure on himself. Elijah has always been a thinker. And the extra voices can just create more noise.
After the last week, of course, the same might be said about the rest of the Jayhawks. These are uncharted waters for this fifth-ranked Kansas team, which followed a rare home loss against Oklahoma State with a debacle at TCU. Now a trip to Oklahoma awaits on Saturday.
The Jayhawks, though, have plenty of time to make things right. And on Thursday, Marcus thought back to that dinner with Elijah in Lawrence. His son was down. But only for a minute.
“He got to smelling that food, cracking jokes, and then it was just like old times,” Marcus said. “Let him work it out. Because he will. He always does.”