KU's Elijah Johnson is on course in lifeBy RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
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 in St. Louis, a starting guard on a team just 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 theres something different about Elijah, something that allowed him to see the big picture while he spent two seasons in the background.
Maybe its because he grew up the son of teachers. Maybe its 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 its the city itself, a gritty steel-mill community on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Every guy Ive known from Gary, Hawkins says, we all have this little quiet toughness about us. Its just the way we were brought up.
If you look up Elijahs Kansas basketball bio, youll read that his hometown is Las Vegas that he became a top-30 recruit at Cheyenne High School just 12 miles from the famed strip. But Marcus Johnson will tell you thats 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, Youre a Johnson, youre not going to be a bum on the streets.
In the fifth grade, Elijah Johnson led a team from Gary to the Indiana state AAU basketball 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 Elijahs 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 didnt 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 wasnt until a few years later that the plan finally came into focus. As a reward for winning the state title, Elijahs 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 Elijahs.
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 Christians 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 KUs NCAA Tournament game against Purdue. Now Hawkins was looking at the television, his godsons team down by four points in the final minutes.
Cmon, Elijah, Hawkins whispered to himself. Its your time. Its your time. Put the team on your back and carry them.
Moments later, Hawkins leapt off the couch as Elijah knocked down a long three-pointer that gave Kansas its first lead.
I was just like, Yes! Hawkins says. OK, were 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 Jayhawks 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, theres still a feeling that theyre watching one of their own.
Larry McKissack is the head boys coach at Roosevelt High, the school Elijah would have attended if hed have stayed in Gary. McKissack coached Elijah at Pulaski Middle School, and it hurt a little when he found out that Elijah wouldnt be coming to Roosevelt. Still, Elijah comes back to Roosevelt every summer.
The kids are in awe of him, McKissack says.
Last Sunday, McKissack watched as Elijah heaved a long lob pass to Tyshawn Taylor in the final seconds against Purdue. It was shocking and risky and it was beautiful.
Thats Gary basketball right there, McKissack says.
Elijah 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 hes 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 dont want to lose. He dont want to lose, Marcus says. He told me that before he lost a game in that NCAA Tournament, theyre 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, hes been terrific the last three weeks or so.
Back in St. Louis on Thursday, Elijah sat in front of his locker and looked out into a wall of cameras. After nearly three seasons, he is no longer waiting his turn or deferring to teammates. Instead, hes 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 theres nothing wrong with waiting. Theres nothing wrong with planning ahead.
I wasnt 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 dont realize, is Coach knows you can do that. Thats why youre here. Hes trying to teach you first.