Somebody's In Trouble

Mar 14 2017
Photo by
Chuck Burton/AP Images
Keon Johnson
Winthrop Eagles
Mar 14 2017

When you’re 5′ 7″, the only thing you can do is face reality.

You’re not gonna get any taller, man.

Growing up, I always had game. Being shorter than the other kids in your class matters less when you’re young. But that changed before my freshman year of high school.

My team was playing in the AAU nationals in Florida. All the top players in the country were there. I remember walking into the gym and the energy was palpable. Players were sitting on bench chairs lining the court, and all the college coaches and scouts were sitting right behind them.

The other players were … huge. I’m talking, 6′ 8″, 6′ 9″ — and some of them were barely even high schoolers.  They were all taller than me sitting down.

That hit me like a ton of bricks. But I also realized: I gotta go to work. (That’s Young Jeezy.)

That’s been my mindset my whole life — because it’s had to be. I played on the same AAU team as Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, and Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate and Marc Loving — guys who went on to be big-time players.

I didn’t start on that team, but it didn’t matter much — scouts didn’t come to our games to see me anyway. None of them cared that I was climbing up the all-time scoring list at my high school in Mansfield, Ohio. I was too small. That was the word on me — if there even was a word on me. Eventually, scouts from some small schools saw that I could shoot, make plays in the lane and get to the foul line against the best competition in Ohio. I showed enough to get a scholarship offer from Albany when I was a sophomore in high school.

It wasn’t Kentucky. But it was something.

Nigel and Marc were out there balling, and the scouts were eating it up. They were also both 6′ 8″. I love those guys, but dominating the game came a lot easier to them. I had to work twice as hard to make half the impact they did. Look at Isaiah Thomas on the Celtics — he has to work harder than everyone else to get separation and get shots up.

But it’s not only that you have to work harder than everyone else when you’re smaller. You also take way more of a beating than those big guys. I hit the floor so much that it’s ridiculous.

The night I scored 38 in our upset of Illinois in November, I wasn’t in the starting lineup because of a sore ankle. When I did get into the game, I got even more banged up. I was hobbling around out there. By the time the game went into overtime, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t put any pressure at all on my ankle. I didn’t play the final few minutes.

But by then I had already shown everyone what I was made of.

It doesn’t come easy when you’re 5′ 7″.

And in case you were still wondering: it’s absolutely 5′ 7″ — no taller, no shorter. (I’m definitely not 5′ 4″, like some outlets have said.)

Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire

I’m not from the best neighborhood. Recently, I read a study that said Mansfield is one of the most dangerous cities in Ohio. That didn’t surprise me at all — it’s been that way since I was a kid. There’s a lot of negative stuff going on where I’m from. I had close friends caught up in the streets. That’s just part of the environment and something you have to take into consideration every day of your life.

I came up on King Street, where the half-court in a patch of park across the street was my salvation. It wasn’t anything special — in fact, it didn’t even have a 10-foot goal. It was a square of concrete with no three-point line, and a single orange rim on a plaster backboard that was mounted on a thick aluminum pole. There weren’t a ton of hoops in my hood, so the fact that there was anything close to me was a blessing.

You can ask my parents — I was out there every day playing basketball or football. When I started kindergarten I’d play on the toy hoop at school, and then come home and go straight to that half-court to play more basketball, no matter the weather. To play pickup, me and my friends might move down the road to Johns Park, which had a full court. All the adults would be hooping there.

Almost everybody in my community, even my friends who were caught up in the wrong stuff, saw that sports were my passion from an early age. My friends and family shielded me from the negative things in our area and encouraged me to do something positive with my life through basketball. I knew I wanted to be that guy that, years down the line, people from the neighborhood would read about as a success story. So I did my best to stay focused on school and hoops.

The summer after my junior year, I was in an AAU tournament in South Carolina. A lot of the best AAU teams in the country were there. I vividly remember seeing Frank Mason and a few others from the region showing out. I knew I was going to have to score and create for my bigger teammates — it wasn’t like anyone was looking for a 5′ 7″ guy to be their two guard.

With all that talent at the tournament, every coach within a 8–10 hour drive of Myrtle Beach was at the gym.

Winthrop’s coach, Pat Kelsey, was one of them. Coach Kelsey is an Ohio guy just like me, so he knows the deal. There’s so much talent in Ohio that it can be hard for a guy who isn’t 6′ 9″ to stand out.

Coach Kelsey liked my game, so we set up an official in-home visit so he could meet my family and tell me more about his program. I didn’t know much about Winthrop — I didn’t know anything, honestly. (Well, actually, I knew the weather would be better than it was in Ohio.)

But more than anything in particular that he said during his visit, what meant the most to me was just the fact that he wanted to know more about me on a personal level. Not long after Coach Kelsey showed interest, I began to hear from a few other programs. But he was the only person who ever visited me at home. He was the only coach who cared enough to come meet my parents and see where I had been raised. Of all the schools that sent me letters or offered me scholarships no one invested more in me than he did.

It wasn’t long after that that I committed to Winthrop.

Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports

Pretty much as soon as I set foot on campus, reality set in.

What am I doing here?

I’d always dreamed of earning a college scholarship, and Coach Kelsey had earned my trust … but there’s a huge difference between being recruited by a school and actually attending it. I didn’t know anyone in South Carolina. I was at Winthrop by myself — by myself at this little school with an arena, Winthrop Coliseum, that was smaller than a lot of high school gyms that I used to play in. (The Coliseum holds 6,100, which is about 1,000 more seats than there are students at the university.)

I’m from up north, so coming down south is just different. It’s the people, mostly — up north, if you walk by somebody you don’t know, nobody says anything. But down here, if you walk by somebody you don’t know, they greet you like they’ve known you your whole life. For a while I was like, Why are you talking to me? It took me forever to get used to, but eventually, I developed a Southern drawl. (All my friends back home give me hell for it.)

As a freshman, I was behind two other guys on the depth chart. The first couple of practices were terrible. The pace and speed of the game were so much faster than I was used to, but I was lucky to realize early on that playing college basketball was going to be a big adjustment — a big challenge that I was going to have to meet head-on.

Like I said — that’s reality, bro.

My whole life, I’ve always had to be confident about my game, to know that I could not only compete with bigger and longer guys, but that I could also get the best of them — and surprise them a little bit, too. Once I refocused that confidence, my troubles were over.

Every practice after that moment, it was like, Oh man, somebody’s in trouble! I never let go of that mindset.

I became the full-time starter at point guard late in my freshman year.

I pride myself on my ability to create separation — on being faster than the bigger guys guarding me — but I have also learned to take what the game gives me. If they’re sagging off, I’m going to step back on ’em and hit them with the ?. If they’re hemming me tight, then I can blow by them, fill the lane and get some contact, and go to the foul line. (Against Gardner-Webb in the Big South tournament semifinals on March 3, I went 14 for 15 from the foul line. Getting to the line is kind of my thing.) I have to choose my spots, but when I’m going and feeling good, I’m giving myself a lot of opportunities to score and play way bigger than I am. We came from behind to win that Big South semi in overtime, and I scored 31 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Chuck Burton/AP Images

Coming into this season, my big goal was to help lead Winthrop to the Big South championship. We’ve made it to three championship games in my career, and we’ve lost them all. Winthrop hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2010, before Coach Kelsey was here.

Having been denied three years in a row, our whole team’s approach this year has been, We’re going to win. That’s it. In the tournament championship game against Campbell, I started slow. But our team eventually built a seven-point lead going into the half. In the locker room at halftime, everyone was buzzing — we were hungry for that title. In the second half, we came out blazing. For most of the rest of the game, our lead was in the 15–19 point range.

In the final minutes of the game, I was really focused on the moment. I felt so much pride that we had finally gotten it done. We celebrated when the buzzer sounded, but it didn’t hit me until we walked off the court. A sense of relief flooded over me.

I’m a senior — there might not be more basketball for me after this. So to get the chance to keep my career going and play for a few more days is everything.

What’s scary about Winthrop is that our whole team feels like I do. We’re a talented group, with a lot of athletes who are invested into their roles on this team. We have the talent, and we’ll do anything to keep our dream alive for a few more days.

As we approach the NCAA tournament, what else can the 5′ 7″ guy that everyone counted out say?

Somebody’s in trouble.

Keon Johnson
Winthrop Eagles