THE NBA PLAYOFFS : He’s the Spurs’ Man Friday : As Youth, Steve Johnson Left Home, Religion
At one period early in the life of Steve Johnson, power forward for the San Antonio Spurs, he was forced to choose between religion and basketball, between family harmony and personal satisfaction.
To Johnson, playing basketball seemed as natural as going to church every weekend.
The problem was that his family’s beliefs prevented Johnson from attending a public high school and, as a result, from playing competitive basketball outside his hometown of Loma Linda, a community near Riverside.
Johnson’s parents are Seventh-day Adventists who observe Sabbath from dusk Friday to dusk Saturday. No matter how much Steve urged, his parents would not allow him to play basketball on weekends.
As Johnson and his reputation in playground games around Riverside grew, so did his frustrations. By the time he was 17 and getting ready for his senior year at Loma Linda Academy, a church-affiliated school, Johnson considered himself 6 feet 9 inches of unused basketball talent.
One day, Johnson resolved the conflict by leaving home without a word and embarking on a journey of basketball discovery that began at San Gorgonio High in San Bernardino, continued for four standout years at Oregon State and has endured five seasons in the National Basketball Assn.
Johnson, who will try to help the Spurs avoid first-round playoff elimination tonight at 5:30, PST, against the Lakers in Game 3 at San Antonio, has had 12 years to sort out all that happened during that confusing time in his life.
Compared with what Johnson dealt with growing up, the conflicts he had with Spur Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons four years ago in Kansas City seem minor. Fitzsimmons, coach of the Kings when Johnson was the club’s first-round draft pick in 1981, never stopped Johnson from playing, but his style of play caused problems.
Johnson, then a center, wanted to play inside. Fitzsimmons wanted him at the high post. Eventually, Fitzsimmons gave up and traded Johnson to Chicago, where he averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds each of his two seasons.
But in a strange twist before last June’s draft, Fitzsimmons, by then coaching the Spurs, traded for Johnson because he needed a power forward who could work well in the low post.
“It was a little bizarre,” Johnson said.
Not nearly as bizarre, though, as the summer of 1975, when Johnson bounced around San Bernardino, living in fear that the juvenile authorities would catch up with him and send him back to Loma Linda.
Even now, when asked to recount how he hid in an abandoned house for a summer simply so he could play basketball in his senior year in high school, Johnson, 28, wipes a hand across his face and shakes his head.
“It’s a long story,” he says.
But it has a happy ending.
Had Steve Johnson not had such an active pituitary gland, he probably would not have found it necessary to choose between the religion he grew up in and stuffing a ball through a hoop.
Johnson and basketball were not formally introduced until he was in ninth grade at Loma Linda Academy. At the time, Johnson stood 6-7 and could dunk with ease.
He could only display his talents, though, in pickup games at lunchtime with Phillip Pollee, the friend who had persuaded Steve to give the game a try. Within a few months, the two dominated the playgrounds of Loma Linda, which, according to Johnson, wasn’t that difficult.
“There was this rule around the city that me and Phillip couldn’t play on the same team,’ Johnson said. “Even though there was no organized games, I still learned a lot. At lunch every day, I’d pick a different player I’d want to be. One day, I’d be Connie Hawkins and fly through the air for one-hand stuffs. Next day, I’d be Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), shooting hooks. Or, I’d be Rick Barry, shooting jumpers.
“It’s strange, but I never went through an awkward stage. I always had good coordination and foot movement. (Basketball) came naturally.”
Not that it figured to get Johnson anywhere. For a brief time, there was an intramural team at Loma Linda, but that didn’t satisfy Johnson’s competitive desire.
“Real weak,” he said of the competition. “A couple of times, we’d go to Redlands to play another Seventh-day Adventist school. We only had five players on our team and, one time, I fouled out and another guy was thrown out for fighting. But we still beat them by something like 50 points with only three guys because Phillip went crazy.”
Before Johnson’s junior year, Pollee got his parents’ permission to transfer to San Gorgonio High so he could play basketball, even on Friday nights. Johnson, then 6-9, wanted to join his friend, but his parents again said no.
After hearing a year’s worth of Pollee’s proselytizing on life in public schools, however, Johnson determined that he would spend his senior year playing the low post for San Gorgonio High.
“I didn’t know back then what a love Stephen had for basketball,” said his mother, Carolyn Johnson. “But it wouldn’t have made me change my mind. Our beliefs are such that you don’t go against the doctrines of the church.”
Said Johnson: “I really wanted to play. I think my father (Joseph) really wanted me to play, but for him to side with me would have torn the family apart. It would have caused even more turmoil in the house.”
Carolyn Johnson remembers walking into her son’s room one morning in June. The bed had not been slept in. Some clothes were gone, and his basketball was nowhere to be found.
Her son had left home.
“The family was planning to go to watch a horse show that day and I gave each of my children a ticket the night before,” she said. “I go into Stephen’s room that morning and the ticket is on the bed.”
It may seem silly to say that someone nearly 7-feet tall and weighing 235 pounds had run away from home, but Johnson faced the same problems as any other teen-age runaway.
“I just figured that if I ever was going to have a chance of realizing my dream of playing in the NBA that I was going to have to do it on my own,” he said. “So, I packed up and left.
“I went various places. I stayed with my sister for a while, until we got in a fight and she kicked me out. I stayed with my cousin (in San Bernardino) for a while, but he couldn’t afford me. Finally, I stayed in this old, abandoned house this guy I met used to live in.”
Accommodations were far from plush, but it was a place for Johnson to sleep. It was also in San Gorgonio High’s district, so Johnson could enroll in school in the fall.
First, though, Johnson had to make it through the summer. His parents had the police and juvenile authorities searching for him, which meant that he surfaced only at night. He had no steady job and was even scared to play basketball for fear that his parents had staked out the local gyms and playgrounds.
“I had to lay low for a while,” Johnson said. “But at 6-9, that was tough. I was always worried they’d catch up with me. The main thing was, you gotta eat. And if you have no job and no money, it was tough. My goal was to make $2 a day. For two bucks, I could go to the smorgasbord to eat. A lot of times, I stole cookies and candy to live on.”
Just before the start of school, Johnson moved back in with his cousin, who also lived within San Gorgonio High district boundaries. But since his parents still were his legal guardians, Johnson could not enroll. He was forced to turn himself into juvenile authorities in San Bernardino.
“I was made a ward of the court,” Johnson said. “My mother had hired a social worker. We got together, but we couldn’t work anything out. She finally found out that I had been living on and off at that old house and she didn’t like that. So, it was decided I’d be placed in the custody of my cousin.
“But I ended up living back at the house for a while because my cousin couldn’t afford having me and that was the only house in the district.”
Said Carolyn Johnson: “I was concerned about how he was going to live. Stephen may have been a big boy, but he wasn’t grown up. He was only 17. I wanted him back. I fought for him. It was a decision he has made and lived with. He feels it was the right decision.”
Johnson said he knew it was the right decision when basketball season came around. John Powell, the coach at San Gorgonio High, held out Johnson for the first two games to bring him along slowly.
“After two games, he couldn’t keep me down any longer,” Johnson said, laughing. “I was ready to play.”
At about the same time, Johnson moved in with the family of teammate Mark Arnold and spent the rest of the school year there. “They asked me to stay the weekend, and I ended up staying for a lot longer than a weekend,” Johnson said.
Although Johnson starred in his one season of high school ball, he didn’t draw much attention from college coaches because so few knew of him. Neither UCLA nor USC recruited Johnson, who by then had grown to 6-10. But Ralph Miller at Oregon State did.
“Only six major colleges recruited me,” Johnson said. “USC and UCLA caught a lot of heat later for not knowing anything about me.”
Johnson made most All-American teams as a senior at Oregon State. In his four years at Corvallis, Johnson became the school’s scoring leader and the third-leading scorer in Pacific 10 history. In 1981, he was named the Pac-10 player of the year and was a cinch first-round NBA draft pick, just as he had predicted years earlier.
“My parents, I don’t think they realized how good I was,” Johnson said. “When I was first thinking about wanting to go to a public school, my father asked me why, out of a thousand people out there wanting to make it, why I thought I could do it. I said, ‘I don’t know, but I will.’
“I just had a clear-cut goal. Go to a public school and be a star. Go to college and be an All-American. Then, go to the pros. . . . At first, I thought I could do it with the family. But then it became clear I had to do it on my own.”
Family support was thin at first, but Johnson said that by the end of his sophomore year at Oregon State, he had mostly patched up his differences with his family.
Even now, though, his mother says she still hurts from the experience.
“It was a major problem,” she said. “I was hurt and angry. If I could do it again, I still couldn’t let him play. One side of me might want to keep peace in the family, but my religious beliefs are too strong.”
Nonetheless, Carolyn and Joseph, a disabled veteran, became interested in their son’s career. They attend games whenever Steve plays in Los Angeles, and they videotape Spurs games that are televised.
“It wasn’t like I went home one day and we had this great emotional breakthrough,” Johnson said. “But, eventually, we started talking again and we worked out our differences.” Johnson has left the Seventh-day Adventist church but says he is a Christian.
“I know it’s chic now to say you’re a born-again Christian,” Johnson said. “What I came to realize was that the only reason there are different religions is that everyone has different interpretations. I was indoctrinated into the Seventh-day Adventist church. That’s all I knew.
“It’s not like basketball, where you have to play for the team that drafts you and do whatever the coach wants. You should have the freedom of choice concerning your religion.”
Though Johnson and Fitzsimmons had their differences at Kansas City (“I broke him tough, just like you’d break a young colt,” Fitzsimmons said), Johnson admits being a better player and person today. Johnson said that upon leaving college as a high first-round draft choice, he expected to be accorded superstar status even though he had done nothing to deserve it.
In his two seasons in Kansas City, 1981-82 and ’82-83, Johnson averaged 12.8 and 11.7 points as a center playing the high post. In college, Johnson hardly ever ventured more than five feet from the basket. Anywhere else was foreign territory.
“Looking back, after being around the league longer and maturing more, what you find out in this business is that you do whatever they ask,” Johnson said. “I spent all my time fighting (Fitzsimmons) and it slowed my progress.”
Now, Johnson is playing power forward, playing close to the basket and probably playing his best basketball as a pro.
“When you get right down to it, all any player can ask for is to get paid and get playing time,” he said. “As long as I get both, I’ll be happy.”