Family Matters : Los Alamitos' Johnson Keeps Last Promise to Dying Grandmother

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Cory Johnson had seen his grandmother survive just about everything. But this time, he knew something would be different.

When Johnson went to see her in the hospital last week, he wanted to do something special. So Johnson, a senior on the Los Alamitos boys' basketball team, made a promise to his 72-year-old grandmother--the Griffins would return from Hawaii with a tournament championship.

"The important thing was that I got the message to her that I love her," Johnson said. "The promise I made? At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do."

Johnson's grandmother was admitted to Los Alamitos Medical Center on Dec. 11 with congestive heart and kidney failure. Her prognosis wasn't good. But that was old news to Ruth Calvin.

Over the past eight years, doctors had told her family countless times that she wouldn't make it through the night. But she always pulled through.

Cory Johnson always had hope when it came to his grandmother's health. But on that rainy evening last week, Cory sensed something else.

Sitting at her bed side, holding her hand, he knew it was time to say goodbye.

Johnson's coach, Steve Brooks, knew it was a painful time for his player. Brooks knew Johnson's grandmother had moved in with the family three years ago because of her declining health.

"At times, Cory thought he would make a deal with God and his grandmother would be spared," Brooks said. "But the Lord doesn't work in those terms. He does work in mysterious ways."

One mystery might have been how the Griffins would win the tournament in Hawaii.

The Griffins are a good if unproven team. They are not ranked in the Orange County preseason Top 10 but will probably contend for the Sunset League title.

"When we got to Hawaii, the team was anxious to see what we were up against," Johnson said. "But it wouldn't have mattered. Even if we were playing the best team in the nation, I knew I would find a way to help the team take the tournament." Johnson's never-quit attitude runs in the family.

Ruth Calvin had outlived three husbands. She raised five children near Chicago before moving to the West Coast. She watched 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren enter the world.

She battled diabetes, underwent triple-bypass heart surgery and suffered numerous heart attacks. And she baffled her physicians.

One doctor told her family that she had six months to live. That was eight years ago.

Another doctor was convinced her last Christmas was approaching. She allowed the entire family, Calvin's five children and their spouses, 12 grandchildren and more great-grandchildren, to gather in the small, hospital room for a final Christmas together.

That was five Christmases ago.

When Calvin's heart had become so badly damaged that approximately only a quarter of it was healthy, her heart enlarged and kept pumping.

"She just said, 'I have too many beautiful people to leave,' " said Calvin's daughter and Cory's mother, Mary Johnson. "She had a strong will."

Cory showed similar spirit in Hawaii. He scored 20 points in one game, then 26 in the next. The Griffins had advanced to last Saturday's tournament championship game.

"Cory was very intense and focused," Brooks said. "For him, the tournament was very personal. In Cory's words, he was on a mission."

Johnson was named the tournament most valuable player after helping the Griffins to a 58-57 victory over Honolulu St. Louis. Johnson scored only seven points in the final, but his impact was felt elsewhere.

"He did the little things," Brooks said.

Said Johnson: "I thought I was more aggressive in that game than the others. I was doing the nasty work--getting rebounds, blocking out, setting picks, whatever it takes. So as long as we won . . . "

But the game's outcome was unknown on the mainland.

Sunday came and went, but Mary had not heard from Cory. He couldn't get through on the phone to his mother despite numerous attempts.

"I was so stressed on Sunday that he didn't call, I figured they had lost," Mary Johnson said. "I was thinking about all the things he must have been feeling. I mean, he made a promise."

But when Mary Johnson got her Monday morning paper at 6:30, she was amazed to read the result.

"I called the hospital right away," Mary Johnson said. "I told them they have to tell Cory's grandma that they are champions.

"I went to work that morning, then I got a call later that morning. They notified me that my mother had passed at 10 a.m.

"But she got the news. The nurses said she understood."

Mary Johnson's next dilemma was whether to deliver the news of Calvin's death to her son. The Griffins were on a chartered flight that was not scheduled to return until Thursday.

Mary Johnson called her son on Monday.

"The team could tell I was out of it," Johnson said. "Coach Brooks asked me if I wanted go home. I knew I just had to be there for my family."

Brooks agreed. When he heard that the Los Alamitos booster club was sending flowers to the funeral, he suggested to use the money to help defray the cost of an airline ticket home for Johnson.

"I am so grateful for everything that Coach Brooks did for us," Mary Johnson said. "He and his wife [Kathleen] have always been there for Cory."

After checking with their travel agent, Brooks found a way to send Johnson home.

Johnson flew from Hawaii late Tuesday night and arrived at Los Angeles International Airport at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday. He served as one of his grandmother's pallbearers for the 9 a.m. service in Cypress.

"Before we left for Hawaii, when I saw her in the hospital I noticed her eyes," Johnson said. "It was like I was reading her mind. Her eyes were locked on me, then a tear began to well up. She understood."

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