Johnson and Cooper Head and Shoulders Above Opposition : Banning's 2 Jumping Cagers Put On Air Shows

Times Staff Writer

Joe Johnson and Eric Cooper of Banning High rarely pick on people their own size. They often pick on people a lot bigger. When they get to pick on people somewhat smaller, you might as well mail in the results. Air mail, of course.

It's not that Johnson and Cooper are all that big themselves, at about 6-4 each. It's that Johnson supposedly has the highest vertical leap of any high schooler in the country, somewhere in the 45-inch range. And Cooper isn't far behind. And Johnson has a gift for dunking and blocking shots. Then the crowd gets into it and the rest of the team starts slammin' and jammin' until you can hardly tell the hot dogs from the mustard.

When the Pilots take the floor it's show time.

Both Sides Cheered

In last Friday's playoff opener against Taft--a comfortable 74-56 victory--the crowd got so frantic that Coach Don Nichols reinserted Johnson with a few minutes left to try for a dunk. Even the Taft fans were cheering for one. The result? Cooper sneaked in on a baseline drive, reached back and did a slingshot jam from the side.

"I'm in there every now and then," Cooper said with a grin, "But Joey, he's up there all the time." Johnson admitted before the game, "If I could (dunk) every time I got the ball I would."

Whether Banning makes its way through City playoffs or falls early, it's clear that the show will go on for Johnson and Cooper. Cooper, a smooth guard with the sweetest shot around, signed before the season with Arizona. Johnson, who plays a combination of all three positions at Banning, is being recruited as a guard but could play a swing position a la David Thompson, to whom he is often compared.

Strong Potential

Nichols feels both have big-time potential. He says of Cooper: "There's no weakness in his game. He's one of the most knowledgeable players I've ever had here. I see him as a definite pro prospect. He's just lived, eaten and slept basketball since he was a little kid."

On Johnson: "Joey can intimidate a 6-10 guy defensively, and stick a point guard. He has the great defensive skills. He can play either (guard or forward). Joey is showing a lot of things people didn't think he had."

One thing Johnson didn't have at the start of the year was good grades, which eventually caused a flap. The result may have turned the season around for Johnson and Banning.

Nichols told a reporter midway through the season that he didn't think Johnson would have the grades to qualify for a four-year school. Johnson, angered when the quote was published, briefly quit the team, then had a long discussion with Nichols.

After that, Banning played well, losing only in the closing seconds to Manual Arts.

Getting Stronger

"We've had some ups and downs," Nichols said before the Taft game. "Eric has been great. When we started playing harder, it was Joey. If he shows any letdown everybody lets down. The last six games he hasn't let down an inch."

Nichols said, "We had a long talk about what he's got to do to be a winner personally and with the team. I have a great deal of admiration for the way he's turned it around. Since he came back we've brought out the weak character in other teams. It's a great thing to see him come back like this."

Johnson, who usually plays well in big games--he dominated the second half against Carson recently and Nichols says that if he hadn't fouled out against Manual Arts "he'd have found a way to win it"--often cruised through lesser games last year and early this season. Nichols said that habit has disappeared.

"Joey had a great deal of success in 10th grade and he probably didn't work as hard last year as he should have," he said. "It's natural to think things are going to come automatically. This year he has worked really hard."

Like a New Season

Before the playoff opener Johnson said, "I have a tendency not to get up for some games, but this year I haven't had a problem. In league you have to get up for all the games. I'm just starting to realize that. I'm looking forward to the playoffs. It's like a new season."

Johnson, the youngest brother of Celtics star Dennis Johnson, relied largely on his great jumping ability to start on Banning's city championship team when he was a sophomore, and last year looked to dunk on nearly every shot. Some of his leaps defy the imagination--and gravity. But he has lately added a reliable jumper and in the Taft game unveiled a swooping finger roll. And he has become so expert at blocking shots that he has almost made it an art to block balls from behind without fouling.

Johnson said he hasn't consciously worked on his jumping skills. "It seems to me it's been there," he said. "I just always knew I could jump higher than most of the other guys."

The youngest in a long line of Johnson brothers (Craig, the next youngest was all-South Bay two years ago at Mary Star and older brother Charles coaches there), Joe (he prefers that to Joey) remembers watching Dennis at Harbor College and talks with him regularly. He said the brothers who live in the area critique his game, while Dennis advises him on "what I have to do if I want to get (to the pros)."

Sometimes Overshadowed

Johnson is so compelling on the court he often overshadows the quiet Cooper.

The Taft game may have been typical: While the crowd hooted for a Johnson dunk Cooper routinely scored 29 points on a variety of jumpers, drives and his own impressive dunk.

"Eric's playing great," Nichols said. "He never misses practice. He sees the floor so well. Coming up (the floor) he's always talking. The big improvement in his game has been on the boards. I told him we needed him to get rebounds. I think he got about 15 against Manual Arts."

Cooper said his even disposition on the court is by design. "I have to keep it up the whole game or the team will fall," he said. "If Joey's a little down I have to be extra high to keep everybody else level."

Cooper's shot looks so natural, it's a shock to learn he has mastered his classic jumper only in the last two years, and did so despite missing a joint on his right (shooting) index finger, the result of a childhood accident.

"I used to have a two-hand shot," he said. "In 10th grade they put me on junior varsity because of my shot. The coach there taught me to shoot. It was a little hard at first (because of the finger). It doesn't affect me, probably because I practice so much."

Homework First

Cooper lives with his father, Edmund, whom Nichols credits for much of Cooper's success. "My father's pretty strict," Cooper agreed. "The first thing I do when I come home is homework. The next thing I do is sleep."

Cooper says he feels he avoided recruiting pressures by signing before the season, but it's one rule Nichols dislikes. He feels Cooper disrupted his game early in the season trying to justify his scholarship.

Now the race is heating up for Johnson, who says he'll have the necessary grades by graduation. One area coach says it's "common knowledge" that Johnson is headed to New Mexico, whose coach, Gary Colson, had success with Dennis at Pepperdine.

Johnson denies that and will say only, "The schools are coming out now. I won't say who."

The Johnson-Cooper partnership goes back to ninth grade, when Johnson made the decision to attend Banning over San Pedro or Mary Star. "It wasn't a bad decision," Johnson said with a smile.

Cooper said, "It's been Dunk City ever since."

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