ANAHEIM, Calif. – Friday was pretty much Stanley Johnson Day in Orange County, and Karen Taylor had a front-row seat.
The mother of the five-star wing from Mater Dei High School watched her son announce on national television, via an Irvine studio, that he would play college basketball for the Arizona Wildcats.
Then she skipped across Orange County to watch him conduct more interviews at a sports training facility in Anaheim, taking a seat nearby and staring intently at what her son, proudly outfitted in UA-colored Jordan Cement 3 shoes, was saying and doing.
A former college and pro player herself, Taylor was not surprised. Not gushing. Not overwhelmed.
Just proud. And, maybe, relieved that it had finally come to this.
“I’ve trained him for this,” Taylor said. “I trained him since he was 5 years old. I trained and prayed that he would become a better basketball player than myself and that one day he would be able to choose (a college) and one day make it in the NBA.”
Better than herself. She can probably say that now. Johnson is now a five-star wing in the class of 2014, a 6-foot-6-inch bully of a wing forward who, with some perimeter polish, appears destined for a long NBA career.
By the time Stanley was 3, she had a pretty good idea he could reach this point. Johnson dabbled in baseball and football but showed a natural affinity for basketball not long after he started walking.
“He loved it,” Taylor said. “I just put the ball in his hands.”
Figuratively, too. Instead of shuffling Johnson off to a basketball club for his early development, she instead created her own club, the So Cal Tigers, and put him squarely in the middle.
At age 5.
“I built my program around him,” Taylor said. “Basketball just kept us focused. If we weren’t playing basketball, we were at church. Church, the Lord and basketball. We loved playing basketball. That’s all we ever did.”
Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that Johnson has an unusual poise both on and off the court for a 17-year-old. He has shown comfort with fans and media since his early recruiting days, and he stole ESPN analysts’ attention when he broke out those Jordans and bubbled about UA during Friday’s show.
He is used to being the center of attention.
For better, and worse.
“Playing for her, I definitely learned how to play through adversity,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot carrying the team. It was a great thing for me. She’s a pro herself.”
She was. Karen Taylor just happened to play in the 1980s, before the WNBA began, just before women’s basketball really took off.
After finishing a career at Jackson State that earned her a spot in the school’s Hall of Fame, Taylor spent 1985-89 playing in Denmark, Sweden and Italy, places where women could earn a decent living if they were good enough.
“I loved it. It was a good opportunity,” she said. “It wasn’t like the WNBA today, but it was the WNBA for then. … But they couldn’t take more than one American on a team. So if you played anywhere in the pros, you were doing alright.”
That’s only one half of the genetic story behind Johnson, of course. Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson Sr., was also a high school track and field competitor, from a family full of athletes.
Johnson Sr. declined to speak in detail for this story in a telephone interview, “saying I really just want to be a parent,” but said he also bathed in athletics as a kid.
“Everybody in my family did some sort of sports,” he said.
The natural inheritance from both sides gave Johnson a powerful, quick body that allows him to speed past and overpower defenders on the way to the basket. He has a lean, muscular frame with about 220 pounds on it, yet hardly lives in the weight room.
“I look a little bit like I do but I don’t lift that much,” Johnson said. “It’s natural. I do work on resistance training but I’ve always had a big body. Everybody’s always thought I’m older than I am.”
Certainly, he played older than he was. Johnson progressed so well through Taylor’s program that early in high school, she signed him up for other travel ball programs.
He spent time with well-regarded Southern California clubs Belmont Shore and California Supreme clubs, then joined the powerhouse Oakland Soldiers, where Johnson teamed with UA freshman Aaron Gordon.
“I released him because he needed to get to the next level,” Taylor said. “The players (he would team with) would help him get him there.”
His Soldiers career now finished, Johnson now works out regularly at Anaheim’s American Sports Center with a pair of trainers, saying shooting and ballhandling are a big focus.
He’ll also get to work on those perimeter skills out of necessity during his senior season at Mater Dei High School, where he is now something of a makeshift point guard.
“I’m trying to be a better decision-maker now because I’m the point guard,” Johnson said. “I’m a 2-3 (wing player) and I’m going to take that to the grave with me. But this is something I can do. Every day I’m learning. That’s been really encouraging for me.”
Johnson won’t need to play the point at Arizona but his workload will get tougher anyway.
Most UA freshmen arrive in June and have coach Sean Miller in their ear before long, something Johnson can’t wait for.
“The way he coaches is the way I like to play,” Johnson said. “Even when he starts yelling and screaming, that gets me juiced. He’s energetic and all that. I really like him as a coach and a person.”
That focus and intensity is what Taylor is used to seeing.
Well, that and the shoes.
When Johnson pulled out his custom-made “Arizona Cement 3” Jordan shoes during his ESPNU announcement Friday, it was almost a perfect metaphor of their efforts together.
All these years, Taylor had been prodding her son to stay focused on the game, as a way to not only maximize his development but also keep him out of trouble.
“He loves sneaks. He’s always loved sneaks,” she said. “Because what happens is, some kids get distracted by girls and everything else, so I kept him focused on the shoes. I’d say ‘Stanley, if you play well, I’m going to get you some sneaks. Sneaks, sneaks, sneaks, sneaks.’ It’s affected him so bad that he still loves sneaks. I’m excited about that. Stay with the sneakers.”