B.J. Johnson stood firmly in place with his hands behind his back on the outskirts of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center gym during media day on Oct. 18.
From his standard, squeaky-clean white, size 14 Jordans up to his No. 2 jersey and orange headband, everything was traditional. No Ron Patterson wacky hair. No DaJuan Coleman outlandish tattoos. No Jerami Grant irreversible grin.
His mother Sharon Dash watched intently from two feet to his right. Johnson’s aunt, uncle and cousin surrounded her. Dash listened as her son mentioned that he can’t swim, his favorite villain is the Joker and he loves any kind of rice.
She knew all of that. But a more challenging question stumped her.
“What’s the most fascinating thing about B.J.?” a reporter asked.
She seemed puzzled by the question. She said she misses her “sweetheart” dearly while he’s at school. When she first opened the door to the Melo Center, she said, “Where’s my son? Where’s my son?” And she loved going to every one of his games at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania.
But she couldn’t pinpoint anything that stood out about him.
“He’s just such a plain kid,” Dash said. “Baby, you’ve got to get interesting.”
Then Johnson flashed a golden smile, revealing a slight gap between his two front teeth. He swayed back and forth, clearly uncomfortable by the entire situation. Johnson, who’s only 17, is as quiet as they come, according to his relatives. But his reserved nature and tendency to fly under the radar made him lethal in high school and may help him earn a spot in the Syracuse rotation.
The banter continued. Dash and her sister Michelle Scott quipped about just how quiet Johnson is.
“I think he talks too much,” Scott said.
“Noooo,” Dash responded, incredulously looking at her sister, taking a step back and jerking her head downward in disbelief.
“I was being facetious,” Scott responded wryly.
But Johnson’s father Bobby Johnson, who played professional basketball in Portugal and Germany, is the antithesis of quiet. When Bobby grew up in South Philadelphia, the culture was completely different. Jawing and trash talk was incessant. It was the expectation. You had to go out there and play and shut those people up, Bobby Johnson said. If you didn’t, you’d never come back on the floor again.
Johnson and his father used to wake up at 6 a.m. and head to Lower Merion to work out for an hour. Johnson was dedicated throughout, Bobby said, but he didn’t always show enthusiasm on the court.
“At one point in time I thought you had to stick a pin in him to get him to wake up,” Bobby Johnson said. “He was always laid back, and I would always tell him, ‘When you come out on the floor, we don’t need that cool sh*t.’”
He didn’t hear his son swear until he was 15 or 16.
“I think the first time I actually heard him yell out the four-letter word he was playing at one of the practices and he was like ‘F*ck!’” Bobby Johnson said. “I was like, ‘OK, you do care.’”
Before Lower Merion’s state championship game against Chester (Pa.) High School, Johnson and his father drove to the rehabilitation center because Johnson had sprained his ankle and needed treatment. Bobby tried to elicit some sort of enthusiasm out of his son — to make sure he was ready for the biggest game of his high school career.
After losing to Chester three years in a row, Johnson and the Aces were out for revenge. But Johnson was calm, unfazed by the pressure of the situation.
“I got ‘em, dad,” he said coolly.
“He got ‘em!” Bobby said. Lower Merion beat Chester 63-47, ending the Clippers’ 78-game in-state winning streak. Johnson finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. But the fire was never fully there.
When Bobby Johnson first watched his son play at Lower Merion, he sat there wondering if the other fans would get riled up like he did.
“When I first went to the games, the Lower Merion people are sitting there like it’s a cricket match,” Bobby said. “I remember being like, ‘What the — ain’t anybody going to get the guys going?’”
Months later, removed from one of the most dominant stints at Lower Merion since Kobe Bryant’s hey-day, Johnson comes to SU as the No. 17 small forward in the class of 2013. Yet on media day, few reporters come his way. He stands far from the center of attention as reporters crowd around stars C.J. Fair and Grant.
Most people don’t expect Johnson to play much this season. He may not. But his quiet confidence will help prepare him if he does. He’s not a blue-chipper, 5-star guy, Bobby said, but he works every day.
“Sometimes it’s better to be that guy that comes in under the radar and just does what he needs to do,” Bobby said. “Then all of a sudden everybody’s saying, ‘I knew he would be that guy.’”
Bobby Johnson recalls asking his son a question back in high school.
“It was funny because I asked B.J., ‘Suppose this summer you really blew up and had Roy Williams knocking on your door. Would you want to go to North Carolina?
“And he was like, ‘No.’
“I said ‘If Coach K was knocking on your door, would you want to go to Duke?’
“And he was like, ‘No.’
“He had a plan, and it’s what he wanted to do.”
Now Johnson’s ready to live out the dream he has had since seventh grade: star at Syracuse. Jim Boeheim said Johnson has surprised the coaching staff up to this point. He’s young, but he can ball.
“I’m just really excited to be here and for the season to start,” Johnson said. “That’s pretty much all I’ve been waiting for and now it’s here.”
Published on November 6, 2013 at 3:28 am
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