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 Vega-Johnson, 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.”
From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene
The pursuit of my Holy Grail of interviews began with this story, an installment in a lengthy series I write in the mid-2000s for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, and in it I tried to lay out just what it was that made possible the Golden Age of athletic excellence that saw so many outstanding athletes come out of Omaha’s small African-American community. You’ll find virtually every installment from the series on this blog. Eventually I’ll have it all up here. Well, back to my frustrated pursuit of an interview for this story. His name is Mike McGee and the legend around him began when he played for Omaha North High in the mid-1970s. He put up really big numbers as a junior. But no one could have predicted the crazy numbers he achieved his senior season as a do-everything wing man, when he averaged about 38 points and 15 rebounds a game in the state’s largest class competition. He was simply unstoppable. Heavily recruited, he went to Michigan and became not only that storied basketball program’s all-time leading scorer but the elite Big Ten’s career scoring leader as well. He played with the Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, winning two titlse, and had a decent NBA journeyman career. By the time I wanted to talk with him for this story he had cut most ties with friends and family in Omaha and was coaching overseas. I managed to get his number and even exchanged messages with him but we never did hook up for an interview. He’s been in China of late. Oh, well, maybe someday. He’s just one of many top players from Omaha’s inner city I profile here. The talent ran rather dry in recent years but there’s a hoops revival underway led by top recruit Akoy Agau (I profile him on the blog). You’ll also find on this site full-blown profiles I did of two old-school hoops legends from Omaha – the late Bob Boozer and Ron Boone. Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was a helluva basketball player in his day as well and I have a few profiles of Gibby on the site.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In what is a rite of passage in the inner city, driveways, playgrounds and gyms serve as avenues and repositories for hoop dreams that get realized just often enough to energize each new generation’s hard court aspirations.
The hold basketball’s taken over urban America in recent decades is a function both of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack.
Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Every level of organized basketball today is influenced by the urban roots of its most gifted and creative participants — African-Americans. Blacks have given the game its flavor and flash.
Omaha is no different. Whether getting schooled on cement, asphalt, gravel, dirt or wood, black players emerging from the urban core have defined Omaha’s hoops legacy. Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer set the standard. John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare, Joe Williams and Ron Boone followed in their footsteps. From the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a new crop of players made noise, including Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee, Lee Johnson, Daryl Stovall, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Cedric Hunter, Michael Johnson, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes. Then, in the early to mid-90s, Andre Woolridge, Erick Strickland, Terrance Badgett, Curtis Marshall, Alvin Mitchell, Will Perkins and company made their mark. Now, it’s Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler’s turn. The floor leader for Bellevue West’s back-to-back Nebraska Class A state championship teams, Dotzler will, barring injury, do something most of his predecesors did — play Division I ball. Coming up, he heard comparisons to them. It’s always been that way. Older players carry reps. Young bloods pattern their game after them and a lucky few are labeled heir apparents.
A handful of local inner city players have made it all the way to the NBA. The most successful was Boozer, one of two natives, along with McGee, to win a ring. Only one hometowner– nine-year veteran Erick Strickland — is still active in the league (as a reserve with the Bucks). Although he didn’t grow up in the inner city, the former Bellevue West and University of Nebraska standout ventured there for pick-up games. Other Omaha inner city products have played overseas. Andre Woolridge, the ex-Benson great who left NU to star at Iowa, still does, in Israel. It’s one of many stops he’s made in a far-flung, star-crossed career.
Kellogg and Trotter did the overseas thing before him. Lee Johnson followed a big time career abroad by assuming the general manager’s job for a team in France.
Being a superstar in The Hood doesn’t always translate to organized ball. Stories abound of playground phenoms who, for one reason another, didn’t make it at the high school or college level. Some still got pro tryouts, like Taugi Glass, but their potential and dreams never quite meshed with reality.
In this sampling of the Omaha inner city hoops landscape over the last 50 years, you’ll meet some of the players who’ve helped elevate the game here and discover the roots of what made each a legend in his own time.
Until Dotzler, Andre Woolridge was among the last Omaha prepsters coveted by elite roundball programs. Closely tied to Omaha’s inner city athletic heritage and pedigree, Woolridge hooped it up at favorite North O haunts. Two of his youth coaches, Lonnie McIntosh and Ernie Boone, were good players in their day.
Perhaps the greatest shaper of Woolridge the athlete was his father, Frank Sanders, a former athlete himself who designed a busy regimen for his son. “He always had me into something,” Woolridge said. “In the summer, there was no sleeping till noon. It was get up and go take tennis lessons or go play ball.”
Woolridge dabbled in many sports, but basketball soon became his game. “I started young. In the second or third grade I wasn’t that good, and then all of a sudden it just started coming. I picked things up fast. Playing at the boys club you always had to play against older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, and I just took off from there.” It was in the 7th or 8th grade, he said, the talk around the neighborhood began — ‘This kid is going to be good.’” He listened and dreamed.
Faced with more mature competition, he had to push himself if he wanted to hang. Some of those pushing him became his models.
“I looked up to a lot of streetball players. Guys like Taugi Glass, Melvin Chinn, Willie Brand and James ‘Snook’ Hadden. I took different things from street guys’ games and put them into mine. I wanted to jump like Taugi Glass. I wanted to handle the ball like Melvin Chinn. I wanted to have the offensive ability of Willie Brand…Streetball, you know, that’s where I come from.”
Then there were top-notch players from a generation before him whose games he tried emulating. Dennis Forrest, a former Central High and UNO great drafted by the Denver Nuggets, worked at the boys club and would go one-on-one with Woolridge. “He would torture me every day, for years, until I got bigger and more athletic. He could shoot the ball,” Woolridge said. After John C. Johnson led Central to consecutive state titles in ‘74 and ‘75, he stamped himself an all-time Creighton great. After failing to make the NBA he became a legend in area recreational leagues, where Woolridge watched and learned.
“There were great games at the boys club on Sundays. I wasn’t old enough or good enough to play yet, but I would watch Kerry Trotter, John C. Johnson, Lee Johnson, Mike McGee…all in the same gym…and knowing these guys were making money off the game was an inspiration for me to get out of the ghetto and out of the hood and do something.”
As he got older, he played against some of his idols. He even beat one, John C. Johnson, while only a 7th grader. Johnson knew “he had the gift.” He was special.
Of all the players to come out of the inner city, McGee, is the most magical for a certain era of fans. As a North High senior, he shattered the single season Class A scoring record with an average of 38.1 points a game in 1976-1977. No one’s come close since. He went on to break scoring records at Michigan, where he totalled 2,439 points in 114 games, and played five years as a reserve on the prodigious Laker teams of the ‘80s starring Magic and Kareem, winning two championships. Before MJ, everybody in Omaha “wanted to be like Mike,” Woolridge said. “He was such a superstar. I wanted a piece of his game — that sweet jump shot.” Ron Kellogg, who enjoyed fame at Northwest High and Kansas, said. “Growing up, he’s who I used to go watch play all the time. He was a set shooter and I couldn’t believe how he could get his shot off, but he had such a quick release and he moved so well without the ball. He was just a thrill to watch. Incredible.” Kerry Trotter, who made a name for himself at Creighton Prep and Marquette, said, “Mike McGee was the guy. So, I know, for me he was kind of the standard. That’s who I wanted to be like in regards to being the next guy.” These days, McGee coaches internationally, most recently in South Korea.
Like McGee before him, Woolridge worked and worked on his skills. “I would go to the basketball court and be there all day long. I mean, literally, all day. Ten hours. Some of us would hop in a car and travel from court to court,” he said. “I was a student of the game.” By the time he got to Benson High, he was a player.
“I could just score. I could put it in the basket any way. I could shoot the 3. I was quick enough to get to the hole. I had great anticipation.” He started as a freshman, scoring 17 his first game, and the rest is history. He went on to break the career Class A scoring record in Nebraska (1911 points) and led his Bunnies to the state title, capping his brilliant prep run with a dominating 50-point performance in the 1992 finals. “It’s storybook. It’s sweet. We got the win. I got the record. The first championship for Benson in I don’t know how many years.”
The wooing of Woolridge by colleges began his freshman year and intensified after his sophmore year. The McDonalds and Converse All-American considered Iowa but settled on Nebraska. Things didn’t go as planned in Lincoln. Some say he was under-used. Others that he was mis-used. On a team of scorers, nobody wanted to distribute the ball. Whether it was the coach or the system, he wasn’t happy. He began looking at other options during the season, waiting until the end to leave NU for Iowa. “I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “I think it was something I had to go through to become the person I am now.”
He got hate mail. He used the criticism as motivation. “I knew I had a whole redshirt year to work on whatever they said I couldn’t do or whatever type of player they said I wouldn’t be, and I took that with me every day.” Going to Iowa, he said, was for the best. “It was good to get away on my own and to find myself. It was like another storybook.” As a Hawkeye, the consumate court general dished 575 assists and scored 1,525 points in 97 games.
Despite fine numbers and decent showings at pro camps, he went undrafted by the NBA. “It was a shocking blow. Devastating. It’s still a mystery to me and to a lot of people,” he said. He did get tryouts, initially with Golden State, and with 10 to 15 clubs since, but it’s always “you’re too short” or “we have too many players at your position.” So, he took the foreign route and has enjoyed a vagabound career playing for teams in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There was a stint in the National Basketball Development League. When he’s actually paid, the money’s good, but he’s been burned enough to now demand a big chunk of his salary upfront. He still harbors NBA hopes, but at 31 he’s resigned to his fate.
“I’ve had the best of the game and I’ve had the worst of the game,” he said.
Ron Kellogg got his start playing ball in an area of North O called “Vietnam” for all the gang violence and desolation there. He competed at the boys club and in the tough Kellom league. But he didn’t really begin honing his game until his family moved from the ghetto to northwest Omaha, where the white next door neighbors erected a hoop in the dirt backyard. Only the basket was set 12-feet high. Taking aim at that higher-than-regulation cup is how the left-handed Kellogg developed his trademark rainbow shot launched to deadly accurate effect from the corner and top of the key. If he wasn’t going one-on-one with friend Mike Cimino, Kellogg was hooping it alone. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “I mean, every day I was outside for hours back there shooting.”
He credits three mentors with his early development: his father Ron Kellogg, Sr.; longtime youth coach Tom Ivy — the father of Maurtice Ivy; and his late grandfather Leonard Hawkins. Early on, he was identified with a talented group of players emerging in the state that included Kerry Trotter, Dave Hoppen, James Moore and Vic Lazzaretti. “We were competing from the 6th grade on, so it started early for us,” Kellogg said. They were joined by outstaters Bill Jackman and Mike Martz to make up what arguably became the best senior class (1982) in Nebraska prep history. They anchored the first Valentinos select team to crash Las Vegas. All played Division I ball.
But if one stood out from the rest, Trotter said, it was Kellogg. “He was definitely the best athlete of the bunch.” Kellogg was a fine sprinter and had what his coach at Northwest, Dick Koch, described as “great leg strength and balance.”
Even though forbidden, high schools hotly recruited the players. “That’s when I knew I probably had a chance to do something,” Kellogg said.
Kellogg got the reins his first year with the varsity at Northwest, where he said coach Dick Koch told him, “‘The ball is yours. This is your team.’ I was surprised. I was like, Wow! Really?’ His prep debut — a 28-point effort versus Ryan — was a sign of things to come. The thing he’s best remembered for — his marksmanship — set him apart. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He could pull up on a dime and take that 16 to 20-foot shot. That’s where he did a lot of his damage,” said Koch. He got his initial national exposure at national invitational camps and with the Valentinos team. After the recruiting pitches began, the Parade All-American visited cadillac programs, strutting his stuff in pick up games versus top returning players.
“This is where they see what type of player you are,” he said. “When I performed well, that gave me the confidence I could play with anybody.”
Kansas proved a good fit. He ended up playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He helped lead KU back to glory. He hooped two seasons with Danny Manning. More importantly, he met his wife, Latrice, a Kansas native, and the mother of their three kids. Under Brown, Kellogg learned “not only the game, but the game of life.” After two years on the bench, his turning point as a Jayhawk came in the 1984 Big Eight tournament finals against Oklahoma. The little-used soph was inserted in the lineup with about a minute left and KU trailing. “I came in and I took a shot right away and missed. Coach Brown called a time out and I got the hardest slap on my leg. It stung. I can still feel it. That woke me up. He told me what was at stake: ‘You can take this chance or you can blow it, but you can win this game.’ And in that time out I got my focus on and I ended up hitting the winning shot. That jump-started my career and put us back on the map.”
In Lawrence, Kellogg was joined by South High product Cedric Hunter, who ran the KU offense to perfection. Danny Manning is remembered as the big wheel for KU, but Kellogg was a key spoke. He twice made first team All-Big 8 and the league all-defensive team. He drained a remarkable 56 percent of his field goal tries his junior and senior years and an impressve 82.8 percent of his free throws for his career. He finished with 1,508 points, 416 rebounds and 272 assists in 130 games, averaging 17.6 and 15.9 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.
The highlight of his collegiate days came in the 1986 Final Four at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. He scored 22 points in KU’s semifinal loss to Duke. “Playing in the Final Four was a special moment that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. It’s a big event. It’s seen around the world. You better be prepared, too, because it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides Cedric and myself, I don’t know of any other Nebraskans who’ve played in the Final Four.”
Kellogg was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2nd round of the NBA draft, only to be traded to the L.A. Lakers in a package deal for his childhood idol, Mike McGee. An injury in pre-season camp prevented him from performing near his best. He was the last man cut from the roster. “From there,” he said, “I went on a rollercoaster. I played in the CBA (with the Topeka Sizzlers and Omaha Racers) and then I went overseas and played in Belgium,” where he hooked up and kicked it with his old mate, Kerry Trotter. “After a stint in Finland, I decided to settle down.”
Kerry Trotter managed what few Americans do — he played 11 years with the same European club — Briane — located just outside Brussels, Belgium. “Absolutely, it’s very unique. I had opportunities to play other places, but I liked Brussels very much. I learned to speak French and to appreciate French wines. I have dual citizenship,” he said. Cultivating a cosmopolitan life on the continent is quite a feat given Trotter and his siblings were raised in the projects by their single mother. Her insistence that they get good grades as a prerequisite for playing ball paid off when Kerry and his twin brother Kirk got scholarships to Creighton Prep. The school’s Jesuit connections led to Trotter attending Marquette.
Like Kellogg, Trotter came up on the northside’s proving grounds. “Back in the day, the Bryant Center had a league. It was legendary. Ron and I played on a summer league team there and we went like 20-0 for two summers. Man, we were just crushing people. It was great,” he said. He said he and Kellogg were well aware of the greats who came before them and were honored to be mentioned in the same breath. “We were fortunate to keep the bar raised high.”
Coming out parties for rising stars usually begin in high school, but Trotter said a grade school select team enabled he and Kellogg to showcase their talents against other hot shots in Phoenix. “We saw we could compete with them,” Trotter said. By the time they played on the Valentinos team, they were turning coaches’ and players’ heads. “They were looking at us like, ‘Nebraska? Who are these kids?’
In high school, the pair were friends and rivals. “We took it personal,” Kellogg said. “Those two really went at it,” Koch recalled. “Boy, they competed against each other. Neither one liked to lose.” Their contests were events. “Our games had to be played at the Civic so damn many people wanted to see us hoop,” Trotter said.
A combination of power and finesse, Trotter worked for what he got. “I was either in the gym all the time or at the park. I just really wanted to be that good. I had a great basketball work ethic and IQ. Growing up in the projects playing streetball and then going to a program like Creighton Prep, where it was a system, I was able to blend that together and, man, I was just knocking ‘em out. I was a player who could fill up the stat sheet — rebound, score, assist, steal.” A rare four-year starter, he was above all else a gamer. “I wanted to win a state title at Creighton Prep, because that’s what they do. I wanted to be part of that history.” He got his wish in ‘81 when his clutch free throws sealed the deal versus Benson in the finals.
The McDonalds and Parade All-American followed his heart, to Marquette, where he was a solid all-around player, posting 1,221 points, 569 boards, 369 assists and 158 steals in 116 career games. Undrafted by the NBA, Trotter found a comfortable fit for his game and his life in Belgium. He brought family members overseas to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Having his mom there, he said, was “my pay back.”
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