Arizona basketball

Hansen: Johnson has worked his way into UA fans’ hearts

2014-03-27T00:00:00Z 2014-03-28T01:36:46Z Hansen: Johnson has worked his way into UA fans’ heartsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

ANAHEIM, Calif.

Someone with a good sense of timing this week posted a YouTube video of Joey Johnson dunking at a 1988 Arizona State basketball practice.

“He’s a legitimate sky-walker,” Sun Devil coach Steve Patterson said. “A real crowd-pleaser.”

Sound familiar? Joey Johnson is Nick Johnson’s dad.

Joey arrived at ASU in the fall of ’87 as the nation’s top junior college recruit, or something like that. He led 37-1 College of Southern Idaho to the NJCAA national championship, and if you didn’t hear about him, it was because Lute Olson went 35-3 at Arizona, all the way to the Final Four.

There was a lot of noise about that.

Joey Johnson started 11 games at ASU, averaged 8.5 points, and his most memorable play wasn’t a dunk at all.

“Arizona was beating us up pretty good one night in Tempe, and Joey was guarding Steve Kerr,” remembers Tucson attorney and Canyon del Oro High School grad Mike Redhair, then ASU’s point guard. “Steve gave him a pump-fake, ducked a little, and Joey bit on the fake and jumped over Kerr — completely hurdled him. Everybody looked around like, ‘Do you believe anyone can jump that high?’ ”

Arizona won that night 101-73. ASU was so bad that Patterson was fired and Johnson left school before his senior season, ultimately playing for the Illinois Express in the World Basketball League and later, in Sweden.

Joey Johnson enjoyed 15 minutes of fame two years later when he won $50,000 for dunking on an 11-foot-7-inch rim in Atlantic City, N.J. Two years later, baby Nick was born three days before Christmas.

Saint Nick, perhaps?

Now Nick Johnson is a first-team All-American, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and who saw that coming?

“Neither set of my grandparents were athletic, weren’t too involved with sports,” said Nick’s big brother, UA senior Chris Johnson, a former standout at Phoenix Highland and Desert Vista high schools. “I don’t know where the athletic genes come from. We just got lucky.”

A week ago, in a luxury hotel on the San Diego beach, Nick Johnson stood in the lobby signing covers of the March 24 Sports Illustrated, upon which he is featured. The magazine’s cover headline says: “Nick Johnson and Top Cat Arizona are Final Four Bound.”

Luck? No. It’s a good story, but it is not a piece of luck.

Nick’s father is the youngest of 16 children — yes, 16! — to Charles and Margaret Johnson of San Pedro, Calif. Charles worked in construction; Margaret raised the kids and worked outside the house whenever possible. Most of Charles and Margaret’s 13 boys, including future Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson, played ball.

Joey became a standout at nearby Banning High School, but the best player for the Pilots was guard Eric Cooper, who was so good that Olson made one of his first Arizona recruiting missions to Banning. Ultimately, Olson offered a scholarship to Cooper (who played two seasons at Arizona) but passed on Johnson; Olson thought Joey needed more work on his offensive skills.

It was in Twin Falls, Idaho, that Johnson met Nick’s mother, Michelle Mayland.

You could say Arizona is in tonight’s Sweet 16 showdown against San Diego State because the Wildcats passed on Nick’s dad 30 years ago.

That’s luck.

On Christmas 2012, Saint Nick introduced himself to San Diego State, blocking a would-be, game-winning layup by Chase Tapley in the final second of the Diamond Head Classic.

Arizona won 68-67 and that play put Nick Johnson on the map.

“I’ve watched that play too many times,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said Wednesday, forcing a half-smile. “I said, ‘Where did he come from; how did he do what he did?’

“I was getting ready to give my acceptance speech for the championship trophy.”

Three months ago, in a stressful 69-60 victory at San Diego State, Johnson scored 23 points, then a career high. It launched him from good-player-on-very-good-team to top-player-on-No. 1 team.

You might say he has saved his best for the Aztecs.

“Nick knows how to play; I love how he plays,” said Fisher. “But I hope he doesn’t play well on Thursday.”

The son of Joey and Michelle is now likely to become just the fourth consensus All-American in school history, joining Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby and Damon Stoudamire. How’s that for sky-walking?

As Johnson goes, so go the Wildcats.

In Arizona’s four losses, Johnson is shooting 28 percent afield; in its victories, he shoots 46 percent. Stop Nick. Stop Arizona.

Joey Johnson is 47 now, a supervisor for the California department of transportation. Nick wears his old jersey number, 13, and although he hasn’t jumped over anybody, he has jumped into the hearts of Arizona fans the way Steve Kerr did 30 years ago.

A real crowd-pleaser, indeed.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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