They asked him to jump, and his response was, "How high?"
Joey Johnson, the former Banning High basketball star, then slam-dunked a basketball through a hoop set at 11 feet, 7 inches--more than a foot-and-a-half over regulation basket height.
The dunk, on June 25 in Atlantic City, was the most profitable one of his high-soaring life, netting the 6-foot-4 Johnson $50,000 in a contest sponsored by Victory Promotions in Atlantic City. In a more-publicized event at the same location, Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble was victorious in a one-on-one contest, winning $100,000.
But Johnson won the contest he wanted, and against much taller players.
Since his playing days at Banning High, the brother of veteran NBA guard Dennis Johnson and the youngest of 15 children has been known for his phenomenal jumping ability. He has a mind-boggling 50-inch vertical leap, and was a national community college high-jump champion for the College of Southern Idaho.
"I heard about the contest when I was in the Illinois Express (of the 6-4 and under World Basketball League) preseason camp around May 1," Johnson, 23, said. "My agent called me up and told me about the competition. And from then on it was a point of do I want to make $10,000 for playing in the little two- or three-month league or do I want to try and win the $50,000?
"There was really no question about it, because I had confidence I could win the contest. Heck, all I really did was jump."
He entered the regional competition at Loyola Marymount in early June, qualifying for the trip to Atlantic City, where other competitors for the $50,000 were five or more inches taller. As each player was successful at dunking from a certain height, the hoop was raised an additional inch.
"The competition was going along and we got down to the final three competitors," said Johnson. "We all missed at 11-6. So (the officials) dropped it down to 11-5 and we all made it. Then it was raised to 11-5 1/2, 11-5 3/4 and again to 11-6. By that time, one of the guys (6-9 Kenny Miller, formerly of Loyola University) had dropped out. So two of us were left, Antonio Davis (6-9) of Texas El Paso and me.
"We both made 11-6. Then they moved it up to 11-7 and we both missed on our first attempts. Then I made the second, and he just barely missed. He looked like he was a little tired. If he hadn't been that tired, I think he could have made it. There had been a lot of jumping going on by that time," Johnson said.
With the $50,000 in the bank, Johnson's next goal is to impress scouts at the Southern California Summer Pro Basketball League--not just with his leaping but with his overall play, desire and ability to shoot the basketball. He plans to play with a free-agent team in that league at Loyola.
He'd like to land a job in the NBA, but he realizes that playing overseas may be the more realistic possibility.
"(Playing in Europe) is better-suited for me in the sense that it's going to give me the chance to prove I can shoot the basketball," said Johnson.
"There's a standing stigma that I can't shoot the ball. In Europe I would get the chance to show that I can. In high school, I wasn't a good shooter because I didn't have to shoot the ball then. I basically dunked whenever I wanted to. You always play to your strong points. I won't call my jump shot weak, but I have stronger points of my game such as my defense and my ability to go to the basket."
Johnson's collegiate career at Arizona State started on a high note, but ended with a thud.
He came to ASU for the 1987-88 school year after two successful years at the College of Southern Idaho, a perennial basketball power. Southern Idaho made it to the semifinals of the national junior college tournament his freshman year of 1985-86, and won the national junior college title the following season. Johnson averaged 19.5 points, eight rebounds, and three blocked shots a game as Southern Idaho posted a 37-1 record during its championship season of 1986-87.
In track, Johnson won the National JC Athletic Assn. high-jump championship in both 1986 and 1987, the latter with his career best of 7-5 3/4.
His basketball success drew the attention of Arizona State, which had been experiencing a few sub-par years.
He was inserted into the starting lineup at guard by Coach Steve Patterson, a UCLA alumnus and former NBA player, who had become ASU head coach the year before.
With Johnson averaging about 10 points a game in the early going, the Sun Devils recorded 10 wins in their first 13 games and won their first four games in the Pac-10 Conference. Johnson led the way with 20 points in a victory over Washington in Seattle.
"We got to a point where everything was clicking," Johnson said. "We were 5-0 and that was a great start for ASU, being where it had come from the year before. I was getting 25 minutes a game, which is a good amount of playing time. I was starting. It was OK. Then he (Patterson) put me in the background, and I had to learn to handle that. My production dropped, I will admit."
When Johnson failed to show up for a January shoot-around--a session of light drills and shooting practice held the day of a game--he landed in Patterson's doghouse and played sparingly the rest of the season. Arizona State finished the campaign by losing 13 of its remaining 16 games and posting a record of 13-16. In 27 games, 11 as a starter, Johnson averaged 7.9 points and 3.0 rebounds, while shooting 45% from the floor and 74% from the free-throw line.
Patterson, now the director of community relations at ASU, said Johnson's progress at the university was inhibited by his performance in the classroom.
"He struggled in school," Patterson said. "He wasn't putting the effort and time into academics that he did into basketball."
Regarding the shoot-around, Patterson said: "He and another player missed it, and Joey didn't respond maturely to his punishment (a two-game suspension).
"Let's just say we had a disagreement as to who was coaching the team. Later in the season he did some things to indicate he could then be a responsible member of the team.
"Their missing the shoot-around was a turning point in our season, where the wheels fell off our team."
Johnson sat out the 1988-89 season: "We told him to take time to get his books together and bring up his grades. He just didn't have the self-discipline at that time to do that," Patterson said.
But before the 1989-90 season began, Patterson resigned, to be replaced by Bill Frieder, formerly of Michigan. Johnson then elected to leave school. That is a time on which he would just as soon not reflect in depth.
"Seeing that I only had one year left, it was kind of hard for me to fit in. I don't want to comment further," he said.
Patterson indicated that he is still impressed with Johnson's abilities. "Joey has enormous potential," Patterson said. "He didn't have the necessary self-discipline at the time. But he is very articulate and had gotten by to that point with his great charisma. All athletes eventually have to face responsibility. Sometimes they don't learn it earlier because some coaches might coddle them when they're younger.
"Sometimes it takes failure to make them realize this. With what he's been through, I feel Joey will be successful. I wish him well."
Johnson now says he intends to complete his academic work at another university--"I haven't decided yet where"--with a degree in sociology.
After his disappointment at ASU, he moved back home to San Pedro and as he described it, "was just playing (basketball) around town."
Johnson said the death of Loyola basketball star Hank Gathers made an impact on him, as it had for millions of fans around the country.
"When he went down, I think every basketball player I know felt it," Johnson said. "I didn't know Hank, but I had met him once at a summer league game last year.
"That took a little piece out of all of us. That made me step back and say, 'Hey, just because you're in great shape or just because you're an excellent athlete, nothing is guaranteed.' It was kind of rough on me.
"It shocked me to a point that I now realize what I want to do. (Before Gathers' death) I had slowed down on my workouts and was not really going after any goals. I don't think I could have won that (slam dunk) contest back around the first of the year, because I had slowed down on everything. I was out of shape," he added.
After the initial shock of Gathers' death, Johnson didn't know if basketball fit into his plans. High-jumping certainly did not. He declined to pursue a spot on the U.S. team for the 1988 Olympics despite qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the event.
"My mom for one has wanted me to get back into (high jumping)," Johnson said. "I feel that if my heart isn't in it, why do it? I know I can jump, but I just don't have the desire to go back out on the track at this time."
He blames the high jump for slowing his basketball progress.
"One thing high-jumping did was take away a lot of my practice time for basketball. It didn't allow me to improve on certain parts of my game. I haven't jumped, I'd say, in a year and a half or two years. I have been out of competition in basketball and track for two years, but during that time I've had a chance to work on my basketball and my game is coming around."
Since returning home last fall, Johnson has been working on his basketball skills at the Boys Club of San Pedro, a place where he probably learned most about the sport as a kid.
Basketball has always been important in his family. Besides Dennis, oldest brother Charles, 42, is a former basketball coach at Mary Star High and now coaches at Cantwell in Montebello, while Craig, 24, played in the Continental Basketball Assn. and will likely seek a playing career in Europe.
Meanwhile Joey, the youngest and the highest-jumping of the basketball Johnsons, is going to have to prove to the scouts he can do more than just levitate, and is anxious to display his new-found shooting and ball-handling skills.
"I've proven that I can not only take the ball up to the basket at 10 feet, I can do something that no one else has been able to do, put it in at 11-7," Johnson said.