Orlando Johnson is the best of the Big West


This was an impromptu family reunion for Orlando Johnson.

UC Santa Barbara had just outlasted Long Beach State to win the Big West Conference championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament and the celebration grew considerably as Johnson’s family joined in.

“It was just my brothers and sister and her mom and stepdad,” said Johnson, a sophomore forward. “And all my nieces and nephews, my uncle and his wife and her mom and her kids … oh, and my cousins.”

An entire family helping to raise the roof.

Santa Barbara (20-9) will play fifth-ranked Ohio State (27-7) on Friday in a first-round Midwest Regional game at Milwaukee. Johnson, the Big West player of the year, is a big reason the Gauchos are there.

And family is a big reason Johnson is there. He was mostly raised by his older brothers who, by all accounts, did a good job.

“I had no idea what kind of character kid we were getting,” Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams said of Johnson, who transferred in from Loyola Marymount. “That doesn’t come across when you talk to a kid on the telephone. When you sit down and look him in the eye, this great personality comes out of him.”

He can play too. Johnson is averaging 17.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, and rescued the Gauchos at times.

Santa Barbara was struggling, having lost six of seven in January, when the 6-foot-5 Johnson carried them to a 57-53 victory over UC Riverside. He sank a three-pointer with 22 seconds left, then had a steal followed by two free throws with 10 seconds left.

“It gets me depressed to think I have to face him two more years,” Cal State Fullerton Coach Bob Burton said. “Nothing he does wows you. He doesn’t dunk over people all the time. But everything he does is productive. Without him, Santa Barbara is in trouble this season.”

Santa Barbara’s coaching staff was only mildly interested in Johnson when he was a senior at Salinas Palma High. That, though, was the least of Johnson’s worries.

“He had voids in his life, but they were filled by quality people,” Williams said.

Johnson was a year old when his mother was killed in a crime that has not been solved. His father was never in the picture,, and when his grandmother died a few years later, his teenage brothers, Jamell Damon and Robbie Johnson, took over.

The neighborhood in Salinas didn’t offer much help.

“You’d see stuff every day coming home from school,” Johnson said. “There were fights and other things. You were either outside hustling or you were at home.”

Johnson was at home.

“My brothers kept me out of harm’s way,” Johnson said. “Every family has people who get into trouble. They were not going to let their little brother go down that path.”

Sometimes that meant cutting school themselves, to make sure Johnson got to doctor appointments. Even when Johnson was a senior in high school, his brothers drove him everywhere.

Both stressed college. Jamell played football one season at St. Mary’s College before returning home to get married and take in Orlando when Robbie left to play basketball at Weber State.

“I don’t think they ever grounded me, but they were in my ear,” Johnson said. “When their tone of voice would change, and they sounded like a father, I knew it was time to listen.”

Jamell said, “I tried to guide him in the academics and Robbie was more the basketball part. But we both stressed it was imperative he become a student-athlete, not just an athlete. A lot goes on him. He was an easy kid to raise.”

It was Robbie who first put a ball in his little brother’s hand.

“I was 4 and he thought I would be less likely to get in trouble playing football and basketball,” Johnson said.

He chose basketball, though it is hard to tell sometimes.

“He looks like a football player out there,” Burton said. “That’s what that makes him so hard to match up against. He’s too strong for most guards.”

Those in the West Coast Conference saw that first. Johnson set freshman school records for points (383) and scoring average (12.4) at Loyola Marymount. But the Lions won only five games, and a coaching change was in the wind.

That left Johnson uneasy.

“The losing is tough,” Johnson said. “You come home at night and start thinking, ‘Am I not that good? Why aren’t we winning?’ It was draining.”

Williams acknowledged his interest had increased since he had seen Johnson play in high school.

“Originally, when we watched him, we didn’t think that he was that quick,” Williams said. “But that might have been because of the football weight he was carrying. But when we saw the tapes of him at Loyola, we were intrigued.”

So was Johnson. “I could see the pieces and thought I could fit in,” he said.

Santa Barbara’s being a little closer to home also left Johnson hopeful that his brothers could see him more often.

“Guys always talk about their brothers being a role model,” Johnson said. “I overcame the odds and my brothers are the main reason.”