Basketball As Leverage For Life

John Johnson has been around.

He was born in Manchester, England, the son of a Jamaican father and a German mother. For the better part of two decades he has lived in Europe and Toronto, Canada. He has helped cut some real estate deals on Harbour Island. He has worn a Boston Celtics’ uniform.

He’s also given to saying things such as: “My mission in life is to find the balance needed to obtain true happiness.”

Not exactly your off-the-rack, Wachovia banker.

Most weekends Johnson can be found at the Harbour Island Athletic Club. Sometimes he’ll use the workout equipment. Occasionally he’ll play some tennis.

But he can always be found on the basketball court.

He’s a regular in the pick-up games that feature an eclectic mix of attorneys, stockbrokers, realtors, execs, salesmen and the occasional 20-something hot shot. As a 44 year old with a good floor game and a feathery jump shot, Johnson fits in well. Fluid but not flashy. Likeable and never loud.

The 6′-4″ financial specialist, however, is likely playing down to the competition, although he’d never admit it. Time was when he played the game for a living: 10 years in the European pro leagues of Germany and England.

He was an All-Big Ten selection at the University of Michigan and once hit 11 straight shots against Illinois. He was a third-round selection of the Boston Celtics in the 1981 NBA draft. He’s played with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Nate Archibald — and a bunch of never-ready-for-prime-time white guys at HIAC.

He’s been a head coach at the high school level — Berkeley Prep and the Academy of Holy Names — and an assistant at Florida Southern.

Johnson, who learned the game growing up in Buffalo, loves his hoops. Even more, however, he loves its leverage with young people.

That’s why he started a foundation called Project Uplift in 1995. Its purpose, he explains, is to use the concept of team as well as individual workouts and counseling sessions (that stress coping mechanisms) to help guide “at risk” — and talented — youth through their impressionable years. Project Uplift also makes mandatory community service a condition for participation.

Call it a full-court press on how to channel talented kids into something other than “spoiled athletes.”

“You see, sports serves a very legitimate function,” explains Johnson. “It’s a way to get rid of our aggression. It’s a healthy way to let off steam.

“But we can also put too much emphasis on sports, per se,” adds Johnson. “It’s a means to an end. We need to emphasize how to use sports to make an individual better. It’s about self worth, and it’s about learning how to learn, if you will. One of the objectives of team sports is to subjugate the ego.”

It also about making a kid aware that he shouldn’t define himself solely in terms of his athletic skills, stresses Johnson.

“That’s a very big priority with us,” he underscores. “For too many kids today, their whole identity is basketball. They become single-minded and spoiled. We preach being humble and finding something bigger than yourself. We certainly don’t want to diminish someone’s strengths, but we are saying ‘You need some other gifts.’

“We try to use sports as a carrot to motivate them to achieve in school and in their community and see themselves as something other than athletes,” says Johnson.

So, how do today’s players compare to their predecessors?

“The skill level is certainly as high,” assesses Johnson, “and as athletes, they’re a couple of levels higher. But probably not mentally. Not as disciplined. The ability to make the extra pass is not seen as important as some of the flashy stuff.”

And what sort of advice would he proffer to those highly-skilled players coming out of high school and looking to take their game — and the rest of their identity — to the collegiate level?

Johnson distills it down to three simple rules:

*”Don’t believe your own press clippings.

*”Listen to those who have put limits (imposed discipline) on you.

*”Look at the schools that offer you everything — and don’t go there.”

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