A boy asked for a basketball game of one on one and Stanley Johnson accepted the challenge.
One dunk, two dunks, three dunks …
“That’s not fair. Take it easy on me.” the boy said. But Johnson wasn’t going to let up.
After five dunks, the game was quickly over. Never mind that Johnson’s opponent was 11 and not half his size. The All-American from Santa Ana Mater Dei High was sharing a lesson he learned from his mother.
Johnson’s competitive spirit and drive to excel have propelled him to one of the greatest careers enjoyed by a Southland high school basketball player. To learn where that passion comes from, look no further than the imposing 6-foot-2 woman who taught him the game’s fundamentals while raising him on tough love.
“He loved the basketball from the time I put it in his hand,” said Johnson’s mother, Karen Taylor.
He didn’t always love her lessons, though.
“I never let him win,” Taylor said. “I’d kick, push, punch. He’d cry. I’d say, ‘I don’t want no girl. Stop crying. Go sit down. Go sit in the corner.’ ”
When Johnson was 7, he says he was overweight and had asthma, yet his mom made him run “suicides” — a demanding stop-and-start sprint drill.
“I would say, ‘I want to stop,’ ” Johnson said. His mom’s reply: “No, you can’t stop if you want to be good.”
“It was always important to do things the right way and work hard,” Johnson said. “When I got older, it was the only thing I knew. I was a creature of habit.”
And now he’s a three-time state champion, with Mater Dei 32-0 and marching toward what could be a fourth consecutive state title. The championship game is March 29 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
“This is what I signed up for,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been a person who played for player of the year. I’ve played for wins.”
Johnson, 17, has been a starter for the Monarchs all four seasons, and his responsibilities have been ever changing.
This season, he was asked to play point guard, a position he wasn’t familiar with and probably won’t play again. He responded by doing whatever it took to help his team win, directing the offense, distributing the ball to teammates and, when necessary, overwhelming opponents with his talent while averaging 25 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
Quick at 6-7 and powerfully explosive at 225 pounds, Johnson creates what coaches say is a “matchup nightmare.” Big enough to be a forward or center, he is agile enough to handle the ball against shorter, nimble guards.
Bellflower St. John Bosco thought it had neutralized Johnson on offense, opening a seven-point halftime lead during a January game against the Monarchs. Mater Dei rallied to win, 71-62, when Johnson found another way to contribute.
“He didn’t score on the offensive end, so he decided to play the passing game and he had five steals in the second half and it led to 13 points,” St. John Bosco Coach Derrick Taylor said. “He always seems to make the right decision at the right time and finds a way to win.
“I think he’s an all-time great. I’ve coached against Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson, John Wall, Nick Young, Arron Afflalo,” Taylor said, ticking off players from the NBA, “and there’s only two players that made me feel completely helpless regarding a game plan, and that was Kyrie Irving and Stanley Johnson.”
Taylor isn’t alone. Orange Lutheran defeated Mater Dei during Johnson’s freshman season when he missed some free throws. It was Mater Dei’s only loss in a Trinity League game during Johnson’s high school career. And over the next three seasons, Johnson made Orange Lutheran pay dearly for the accomplishment.
“I don’t think he ever forgot,” Orange Lutheran Coach Chris Nordstrom said. “Stanley has the ability to literally take over games. At some point, something starts to click and there’s nothing you can do. He started becoming this unbelievable passer. When he added that, it changed him. It changed the game for everyone.”
When Johnson arrived at Mater Dei, he wasn’t considered the best freshman in the program. The Monarchs also had — for one season, before he transferred — Shaqquan Aaron, who was more polished on offense. Johnson was a forward without an outside shot, a good rebounder who set tough screens.
A turning point came one day when Charlie Torres, a personal trainer, was working out an older Mater Dei player, guard Katin Reinhardt. A curtain separated the gym, but Johnson kept peeking through to see what was happening.
“I thought he was a senior,” Torres said. “I thought he was a football player. Katin went, ‘Dude, he’s 14. He’s a freshman.’ ”
Torres and Shea Frazee, another trainer, began to work with Johnson, who credits them with helping take his game to a level beyond the fundamentals his mother instilled.
Johnson took a major leap between his sophomore and junior seasons. He came back from workouts with the USA youth national team saying, “My practice didn’t match my goals.”
“He was really frustrated with his ability to shoot the ball,” Frazee said.
So Johnson spent hours honing his jump shot. And even in pickup games, he focused on winning each time.
He averaged 19.4 points and 8.9 rebounds as a junior, then worked to improve his ballhandling skills, practicing against NBA players Klay Thompson and Solomon Hill.
Frazee recalls that Johnson attended a showcase last summer to help out what was otherwise an outmanned club team made up of players mostly 6-3 and shorter.
“He played point guard, scored about 100 points in two games, and we beat both elite teams,” Frazee said. “It was crazy. That’s when I knew this guy is going to do whatever it takes.”
Gary McKnight, Mater Dei’s coach, says Johnson’s basketball IQ and attention to detail are on par with his athletic skills, and others agree. Toby Bailey, a former Loyola High and UCLA standout who does commentary on high school games, notices little things Johnson does that separate him.
“He’s such physical specimen and is so skilled,” Bailey said. “Usually when you get a guy that big and he can use his physical skills to bully guys, their basketball knowledge is stunted. With him, you can see his IQ is there. He’ll make the right pass, he’ll be seeing two or three plays ahead of his opponent. It’s pretty extraordinary.”
Johnson’s curiosity has helped him add to his repertoire.
“I talked to Steve Nash about pick-and-roll situations,” Johnson said. “As much as people say I’m good, I’ll take advice from anybody. He’s one of the better decision makers in the NBA. I asked him, ‘How do you read it? How do you attack it?’ ”
Everything he learns builds on a foundation established by his mother, who was raised in Moss Point, Miss., the youngest of four siblings.
Karen Taylor was so determined that basketball was her ticket out of rural Mississippi that she asked one of her brothers to strip the spokes off a bicycle rim and nail it to a tree to be her hoop. Her basketball was flat, but she shot and dribbled it anyway.
“It was dirty with green stuff on it and I didn’t care,” she said. “It was a ball and I needed to do something with it.”
She received a scholarship to Jackson State and set a school record with 25 rebounds in a game. She played professionally in Europe. But her life revolved around finding a future and preparing for the day she would have a child.
Taylor came to Southern California in 1991, married Stanley Johnson Sr., who was from Louisiana, and Stanley Jr. was born in Anaheim, their only child. The couple divorced and Johnson remarried. Taylor raised Stanley in Fullerton, sent him to public schools, then enrolled him at Mater Dei.
Johnson considers himself “from the city” because his best friends are the young men he played basketball against in Inglewood, Compton and South Los Angeles.
High school at Mater Dei, where many of the students come from affluence, was an entirely different atmosphere.
“I’m not from true suburbs. I always had a tough side,” Johnson said. “Going to school in Orange County gave me the business side and the politically correct side that I needed to keep going in life. A lot of kids don’t have the pleasure of being able to get in class with people who speak with proper English and talk with correct grammar and learn how to write and read and get along with people you might not get along with or even like. Mater Dei is a school that makes you politically correct in all fashions.”
He chose Mater Dei for high school in a way similar to the process he used to pick Arizona for college. He said he considered three high schools — Mater Dei, Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep and Fullerton Sunny Hills — just like he narrowed his college choices to Arizona, Kentucky and USC.
“I would put Findlay Prep on the Kentucky level,” he said. “They were all about basketball. Sunny Hills was close to home, like USC. I put Mater Dei somewhere in between. It’s not easy. You can start but you won’t be able to walk in and do anything you want.”
Even with a basketball scholarship to Arizona in hand, Johnson still listens to his mother. This month, after a playoff game, they spoke for nearly 30 minutes as the gym emptied.
She braced herself with a cane she has used since she slipped on a court and broke her leg last year, but she wanted to catch up on things since Johnson has been living with his father while she recovers.
“We were talking about life,” Taylor said. “‘How are you doing in school? What about your diet? Are you still eating your greens?’ I was talking about making sure he wasn’t driving and speeding, and ‘let’s just finish this journey with high school’ and make sure his grades are up.”
Johnson was listening too. The respect he has for his mother is obvious.
“She did things for me you can’t put a price tag on,” he said. “She did things I needed, keeping me around the game, keeping me doing the right things, keeping people away. There probably wouldn’t be a basketball-playing Stanley Johnson Jr. today if it wasn’t for my mom putting the ball in my hands at an early age.”