JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall
None of us is perfect. We all have flaws and defects. We all make mistakes. We all carry baggage. Fairly or unfairly, those who enter the public eye risk having their imperfections revealed to the wider world. That is what happened to one of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, John C. Johnson, who along with Clayton Bullard, led Omaha Central to back to back state basketball titles in the early 1970s. Both players got Division I scholarships to play ball: Johnson at Creighton and Bullard at Colorado. John C. had a memorable career for the Creighton Bluejays as a small forward who could play inside and outside equally well. He was a hybrid player who could slide and glide in creating his own shot and maneuver to the basket, where he was very adept at finishing, even against bigger opponents, but he could also mix it up when the going got tough or the situation demanded it. He was good both offensively and defensively and he was a fiine team player who never tried to do more than he was capable of and never played outside the system. He was very popular with fans.His biggest following probably came from the North Omaha African-American community he came out of and essentially never left. He was one of their own. That’s not insignificant either because CU has had a paucity of black players from Omaha over its long history. John C. didn’t make it in the NBA but he got right on with his post-collegiate life and did well away from the game and the fame. Years after John C. graduated CU his younger brother Michael followed him from Central to the Hilltop to play for the Jays and he enjoyed a nice run of his own. But when Michael died it broke something deep inside John C. that triggered a drug addction that he supported by committing a series of petty crimes that landed him in trouble with the law. These were the acts of a desperate man in need of help. He had trouble kicking the drug habit and the criminal activity but that doesn’t make him a bad person, only human. None of this should diminish what John C. did on and off the court as a much beloved student-athlete. He is a good man. He is also human and therefore prone to not always getting things right. The same can be said for all of us. It’s just that most of us don’t have our failings written or broadcast for others to see. John was reluctant to be profiled when I interviewed him and his then-life partner for this story about seven or eight years ago. But he did it. He was forthright and remorseful and resolved. After this story appeared there were more setbacks. It happens. Wherever you are, John, I hope you are well. Your story then and now has something to teach all of us. And thanks for the memories of all that gave and have as one of the best ballers in Nebraska history. No one can take that away.
NOTE: This story is one of dozens I have written for a collection I call: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. You can find it on my blog, leoadambiga.com. Link to it directly at–
JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“I got tired of being tired.”
Omaha hoops legend and former Creighton University star John C. Johnson explained why he ended the pattern of drug abuse, theft and fraud that saw him serve jail and prison time before his release last May.
From a sofa in the living room of the north Omaha home he shares with his wife, Angela , who clung to him during a recent interview, he made no excuses for his actions. He tried, however, to explain his fall from grace and the struggle to reclaim his good name.
“Pancho” or “C,” as he’s called, was reluctant to speak out after what he saw as the media dogging his every arrest, sentencing and parole board hearing. The last thing he wanted was to rehash it all. But as one of the best players Omaha’s ever produced, he’s newsworthy.
“I had a lot of great players,” said his coach at Omaha Central High School, Jim Martin, “but I think ‘C’ surpassed them all. You would have to rate him as one of the top five players I’ve seen locally. He’d be right up there with Fred Hare, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Andre Woolridge, Kerry Trotter… He was a man among boys.”
The boys state basketball championship Central won this past weekend was the school’s first in 31 years. The last ones before that were the 1974 and 1975 titles that Johnson led the Eagles to. Those clubs are considered two of the best in Omaha prep history. In the proceeding 30 years Central sent many fine teams down to Lincoln to compete for the state crown, but always came up short — until this year. It’s that kind of legacy that makes Johnson such an icon.
He’s come to terms with the fact he’s fair game.
“Obscurity is real important to me right now,” Johnson said. “I used to get mad about the stuff written about me, but, hey, it was OK when I was getting the good pub, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad. Yeah, when I was scoring 25 points and grabbing all those rebounds, it’s beautiful. But when I’m in trouble, it’s not so beautiful.”
As a hometown black hero Johnson was a rarity at Creighton. Despite much hoops talent in the inner city, the small Jesuit school’s had few black players from Omaha in its long history.
There was a rough beauty to his fluid game. It was 40 minutes of hell for opponents, who’d wilt under the pressure of his constant movement, quick feet, long reach and scrappy play. He’d disrupt them. Get inside their heads. At 6-foot-3 he’d impose his will on guys with more height and bulk — but not heart.
“John C.’ s heart and desire were tremendous, and as a result he was a real defensive stopper,” said Randy Eccker, a sports marketing executive who played point guard alongside him at Creighton. “He had a long body and very quick athletic ability and was able to do things normally only much taller players do. He played more like he was [6-foot-6]. On offense he was one of the most skilled finishers I ever played with. When he got a little bit of an edge he was tremendous in finishing and making baskets. But the thing I remember most about John C. is his heart. He’d always step up to make the big plays and he always had a gift for bringing everybody together.”
Creighton’s then-head coach, Tom Apke, calls Johnson “a winner” whose “versatility and intangibles” made him “a terrific player and one of the most unique athletes I ever coached. John could break defenses down off the dribble and that complemented our bigger men,” Apke said. “He had an innate ability on defense. He also anticipated well and worked hard. But most of all he was a very determined defender. He had the attitude that he was not going to let his man take him.”
Johnson took pride in taking on the big dudes. “Here I was playing small forward at [6-foot-three] on the major college level and guarding guys [6-foot-8], and holding my own,” he said in his deep, resonant voice.
When team physician and super fan Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua and assistant coach Tom “Broz” Brosnihan challenged him to clean the boards or to shut down opponents’ big guns, he responded.
He could also score, averaging 14.5 points a game in his four-year career (1975-76, 1978-79) at CU. Always maneuvering for position under the bucket, he snatched offensive rebounds for second-chance points. When not getting put-backs, he slashed inside to draw a foul or get a layup and posted-up smaller men like he did back at Central, when he and Clayton Bullard led the Eagles to consecutive Class A state titles.
He modeled his game after Adrian Dantley, a dominant small forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “Yeah, A.D., I liked him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest or flashiest player in the world, but he was one of the hardest working players in the league.” The same way A.D. got after it on offense, Johnson ratcheted it up on defense. “I was real feisty,” he said. “When I guarded somebody, hell if he went to the bathroom I was going to follow him and pick him up again at half-court. Even as a freshman at Creighton I was getting all the defensive assignments.”
Unafraid to mix it up, he’d tear into somebody if provoked. Iowa State’s Anthony Parker, a 6-foot-7, high-scoring forward, made the mistake of saying something disparaging about Johnson’s mother in a game.
“When he said something about my mama, that was it,” Johnson said. “I just saw fire and went off on him. Fight’s done, and by halftime I have two or three offensive rebounds and I’m in charge of him. By the end, he’s on the bench with seven points. Afterward, he came in our locker room and I stood up thinking he wanted to settle things. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry. I lost my head. I’m not ever going to say anything about nobody’s mama again. Man, you took me right out of my game.’”
Doing whatever it took — fighting, hustling, hitting a key shot — was Johnson’s way. “That’s just how I approached the game,” he said. He faced some big-time competition, too. He shadowed future NBA all-stars Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, a dynamo with West Texas State College; Mark Aguirre, an All-American with DePaul; and Andrew Toney, a scoring machine with Southwest Louisiana State. A longtime mentor of Johnson’s, Sam Crawford said, “And he was right there with them, too.”
He even had a hand in slowing down Larry Bird. Johnson and company held Larry Legend to seven points below his collegiate career scoring average in five games against Indiana State. The Jays won all three of the schools’ ’77-78 contests, the last (54-52) giving them the Missouri Valley Conference title. But ISU took both meetings in ’78-79, the season Bird led his team to the NCAA finals versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.
When “C” didn’t get the playing time he felt he deserved in a late season game his freshman year, Apke got an earful from Johnson’s father and from Don Benning, Central’s then-athletic director and a black sports legend himself. If the community felt one of their own got the shaft, they let the school know about it.
Expectations were high for Johnson — one of two players off those Central title teams, along with Clayton Bullard, to go Division I. His play at Creighton largely met people’s high standards. Even after his NBA stint with the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him in the 7th round, fizzled, he was soon a fixture again here as a Boys and Girls Club staffer and juvenile probation officer. That’s what made his fall shocking.
Friends and family had vouched for him. The late Dan Offenberger, former CU athletic director, said then: “He’s a quality guy who overcame lots of obstacles and got his degree. He’s one of the shining examples of what a young man can accomplish by using athletics to get an education and go on in his work.”
What sent Johnson off the deep end, he said, was the 1988 death of his baby brother and best friend, Michael, who followed him to Creighton to play ball. After being stricken with aplastic anemia, Michael received a bone marrow transplant from “C.” There was high hope for a full recovery, but when Michael’s liver was punctured during a biopsy, he bled to death.
“When he didn’t make it, I kind of took it personally,” Johnson said. “It was a really hard period for our family. It really hurt me. I still have problems with it to this day. That’s when things started happening and spinning out of control.”
He used weed and alcohol and, as with so many addicts, these gateway drugs got him hooked on more serious stuff. He doesn’t care to elaborate. Arrested after his first stealing binge, Johnson waived his right to a trial and admitted his offenses. He pleaded no contest and offered restitution to his victims.
His first arrests came in 1992 for a string of car break-ins and forgeries to support his drug habit. He was originally arrested for theft, violation of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft by receiving stolen propperty and two counts of criminal mischief. His crimes typically involved a woman accomplice with a fake I.D. Using stolen checks and credit cards, they would write a check to the fake name and cash it soon thereafter. He faced misdemanor and felony charges in Harrison County Court in Iowa and misdemeanor charges in Douglas County. He was convicted and by March 2003 he’d served about eight years behind bars.
He was released and arrested again. In March 2003 he was denied parole for failing to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Johnson argued, unsuccessfully, that his not completing the program was the result of an official oversight that failed to place his name on a waiting list, resulting in him never being notified that he could start the program.
Ironically, a member of the Nebraska Board of Parole who heard Johnson’s appeal is another former Omaha basketball legend — Bob Boozer, a star at Technical High School, an All-American at Kansas State and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal winning Dream Team and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA title team. Where Johnson’s life got derailed and reputation sullied, Boozer’s never had scandal tarnish his name.
After getting out on in the fall of 2003, Johnson was arrested again for similar crimes as before. The arrest came soon after he and other CU basketball greats were honored at the Bluejays’ dedication of the Qwest Center Omaha. He only completed his last stretch in May 2005. His total time served was about 10 years.
He ended up back inside more than once, he said, because “I wasn’t ready to quit.” Now he just wants to put his public mistakes behind him.
What Johnson calls “the Creighton family” has stood by him. When he joined other program greats at the Jays’ Nov. 22, 2003 dedication of the Qwest Center, the warm ovation he received moved him. He’s a regular again at the school’s old hilltop gym, where he and his buds play pickup games versus 25-year-old son Keenan and crew. He feels welcome there. For the record, he said, the old guys regularly “whup” the kids.
“It feels good to be part of the Creighton family again. They’re so happy for me. It’s kind of made me feel wanted again,” he said.
Sam Crawford, a former Creighton administrator and an active member of the CU family, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever give up on John C., because he gave so much of himself while he was there. If there’s any regret, it’s that we didn’t see it [drug abuse] coming.” Crawford was part of a contingent that helped recruit Johnson to CU, which wanted “C” so bad they sent one of the school’s all-time greats, Paul Silas, to his family’s house to help persuade him to come.
Angela, whom “C” married in 2004, convinced him to share his story. “I told him, ‘You really need to preserve the Johnson legacy — through the great times, your brief moment of insanity and then your regaining who you are and your whole person,’” she said. Like anyone who’s been down a hard road, Johnson’s been changed by the journey. Gone is what’s he calls the “attitude of indifference” that kept him hooked on junk and enabled the crime sprees that supported his habit. “I’ve got a new perspective,” he said. “My decision-making is different. It’s been almost six years since I’ve used. I’m in a different relationship.
Having a good time used to mean getting high. Not anymore. Life behind “the razor wire” finally scared him straight. ”They made me a believer. The penal system made me a believer that every time I break the law the chances of my getting incarcerated get greater and greater. All this time I’ve done, I can’t recoup. It’s lost time. Sitting in there, you miss events. Like my sister had a retirement party I couldn’t go to. My mother’s getting up in age, and I was scared there would be a death in the family and I’d have to come to the funeral in handcuffs and shackles. My son’s just become a father and I wouldn’t wanted to have missed that. Missing stuff like that scared the hell out of me.”
Johnson’s rep is everything. He wants it known what he did was out of character. That part of his past does not define him. “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m still a good person. You’ll find very few people that have anything bad to say about me personally,” he said. “You’ll mostly find sympathy, which I hate.” But he knows some perceive him negatively. “I don’t know if I’m getting that licked yet. If I don’t, it’s OK. I can’t do anything about that.”
He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is visibly upset when he talks about doing time with the likes of rapists and child molesters. “I own up to what I did,” he said. “I deserved to go to prison. I was out of control. But as much trouble as I’ve been in, I’ve never been violent. I never touched violence. The only fights I’ve had have been on the basketball court, in the heat of battle.”
He filled jobs in recent years via the correction system’s work release program. Shortly before regaining his freedom in May, he faced the hard reality any ex-con does of finding long-term work with a felony conviction haunting him. When he’d get to the part of an application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” — he’d check, yes. Where it said, “Please explain,” he’d write in the box, “Will explain in the interview.” Only he rarely got the chance to tell his story.
Then his luck changed. Drake Williams Steel Company of Omaha saw the man and not the record and hired him to work the night shift on its production line. “I really appreciate them giving me an opportunity, because they didn’t have to. A lot of places wouldn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I understand that. This company is employee-oriented, and they like me. They’re letting me learn things.”
He isn’t used to the blue-collar grind. “All my jobs have been sitting behind a desk, pretty much. Now I’m doing manual labor, and it’s hard work. I’m scratched up. I work on a hydro saw. I weld. I operate an overhead crane that moves 3,000-pound steel beams. I’m a machine operator, a drill operator…”
The hard work has brought Johnson full circle with the legacy of his late father, Jesse Johnson, an Okie and ex-Golden Gloves boxer who migrated north to work the packing houses. “My father was a hard working man,” he said. “He worked two full-time jobs to support us. We didn’t have everything but we had what we needed. I’ve been around elite athletes, but my father, he was the strongest man I’ve ever known, physically, emotionally and mentally. He didn’t get past the 8th grade, but he was very well read, very smart.”
His pops was stern but loving. Johnson also has a knack with young people — he’s on good terms with his children from his first marriage, Keenan and Jessica — and aspires one day to work again with “kids on the edge.”
“I shine around kids,” he said. “I can talk to them at their level. I listen. There’s very few things a kid can talk about that I wouldn’t be able to relate to. I just hope I didn’t burn too many bridges. I would hate to think my life would end without ever being able to work with kids again. That’s one of my biggest fears. I really liked the Boys Club and the probation work I did, and I really miss that.”
He still has a way with kids. Johnson and a teammate from those ’74 and ’75 Central High state title teams spoke to the ‘05-’06 Central squad before the title game tipped off last Saturday. “C” told the kids that the press clippings from those championship years were getting awfully yellow in the school trophy case and that it was about time Central won itself a new title and a fresh set of clippings. He let them know that school and inner city pride were on the line.
He’s put out feelers with youth service agencies, hoping someone gives him a chance to . For now though he’s a steel worker who keeps a low profile. He loves talking sports with the guys at the barbershop and cafe. He works out. He plays hoops. Away from prying eyes, he visits Michael’s grave, telling him he’s sorry for what happened and swearing he won’t go back to the life that led to the pen. Meanwhile, those dearest to Johnson watch and wait. They pray he can resist the old temptations.
Crawford, whom Johnson calls “godfather,” has known him 35 years. He’s one of the lifelines “C” uses when things get hairy. “I know pretty much where he is at all times. I’m always reaching out for him … because I know it is not easy what he’s trying to do. He dug that hole himself and he knows he’s got to do what’s necessary. He’s got to show that he’s capable of changing and putting his life back together. He’s got to find the confidence and the courage and the faith to make the right choices. It’s going to take his friends and family to encourage him and provide whatever support they possibly can. But he’s a good man and he has a big heart.”
Johnson is adamant his using days are over and secure that his close family and tight friends have his back. “Today, my friends and I can just sit around and have a good time, talking and laughing, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There used to be a time for me you wouldn’t think that would be possible. I still see people in that lifestyle and I just pray for them.”
Besides, he said, “I’m tired of being tired.”