The player: Ashante Johnson is a 6-foot-9 senior forward playing for No. 8 Kansas in the Big 12 Conference.
The past: He averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds as a senior at Scripps Ranch High in 1995, when he was named all-state on a 25-4 team. Johnson began his college career at Utah, where he redshirted as a freshman and spent time (hampered by back problems) backing up All-American Keith Van Horn the following season. Johnson then transferred to Canada College in Redwood City, where he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds. He chose Kansas over Pepperdine, Xavier and Florida State. ... Johnson was limited to 15 games last season after fracturing his right patella at the team's Midnight Madness practice.
The present: Kansas is 13-2 overall. ... Johnson in a reserve role (he gets about nine minutes per game) averages 3.6 points and 1.9 rebounds.
The future: An African studies major, Johnson lists his goals as "investing in the stock market and living a good life."
-San Diego Union-Tribune,
"College Basketball Today:
Locals Watch," Jan. 15, 2000
NYMBURK, CZECH REPUBLIC, MARCH 25-It's slate-gray and snowing a fair clip. A blustery wind sways the bare firs across the Elbe River from Nymburk's Sportovní centrum, a sprawling communist-era campus of fields, courts and dorms. Springtime in central Bohemia, ostensibly.
Tomorrow, Kansas University will play on national television in the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Sweet 16. A couple of days later the Sacramento Kings will try to bolster their NBA Western Conference-best record. Today Ashante Johnson is practicing with BK ECM Nymburk of the Czech Republic's Národní basketballovy liga (National Basketball League).
The 90-odd minutes of stretching, shooting and full-court drills are over and most of the players have left for the lockers. The last-of-winter chill is palpable in the drafty hall. But point guard Maurice Whitfield lingers under one basket, kicking the ball out to Johnson at the three-point arc, over and over. Johnson takes each pass, squares his feet and fires. From the corners, from the key, from all points in between: kick, step, plant, shoot. Ten minutes, 20, 30: kick, step, plant, shoot.
Long, lanky and deceptively powerful, Johnson is by all accounts one of the NBL's best players and certainly its most athletic, a high-flyer who electrifies the crowds and won last season's scoring title and MVP award. Now the San Diego native is trying to do something no player of any nationality has done: jump directly from the Czech league to the NBA.
Last summer he tried out for Sacramento and nearly made the team. He aims to try again this year-not as a power forward, the position he has played since college, but as a small forward, the spot for which he is most physically suited, and at which his chances of making the big league are markedly better. And that is a whole new ballgame: less banging under the basket and driving the lane; more bringing the ball upcourt, more passing on the perimeter, more shooting the three.
So: kick, step, plant, shoot. Kick, step, plant, shoot.
Faron Hand, a friend of Whitfield who works out with the team, watches from the sidelines. For the NBL's MVP, these post-practice practices have become a ritual, Hand says. "To get where he wants to go, it's the least he can do."
"Oh yeah, I have a good life now," Johnson says, piloting his team-issued Ford Focus into Prague to pick up his visiting brother and cousin at the airport. "Probably I won't play the stock market," he adds, laughing, when reminded of that Union-Tribune quote. "The stock market's not really good right now. My life's been good."
Not an unlikely sentiment from a man seemingly closing in on every basketball player's dream. According to his agent, at least five NBA teams have scouted "A.J." this season. But if Johnson's buoyant outlook speaks to where he is going, it speaks equally to his coming to grips with where he's been.
Since graduating at the top of San Diego's hoop class of '95, he has repeatedly gotten within grabbing distance of the brass ring, only to be sidetracked by bad timing or bad luck. Enrolled at Utah, then in its top-10 prime, he was benched by academic problems, a bad back and the presence of future NBA forwards Van Horn and Michael Doleac. Told by Coach Rick Majerus that he wasn't likely to see many more minutes the next season, Johnson transferred to a junior college and played his way back onto recruiters' radars.
He signed with perennial power Kansas, promptly suffered a devastating injury and never really recovered. On another team loaded with frontcourt talent (Drew Gooden, Nick Collison), he served a spare-part role and graduated into obscurity.
A month shy of his 28th birthday, having watched a half-dozen of his college teammates make the show, Johnson has spent the last four years scrambling up from the middle rungs of the European basketball ladder.
"The journey's been a long, long one," he says, then, characteristically, lets the point lie. Private and soft-spoken by nature, Johnson doesn't dwell in conversation on the vagaries of his career. He acknowledges frustration about the circumstances that slowed his progress. But he also says his experiences have helped as much as hindered him.
"I think it made me a better person and a better player now, what I went through then," he says. "I appreciate more things now than I probably did back when I was younger. Coming out of high school I expected everything coming to me. But now I know I got to work to get what I want. And that's the difference.
"Players who want to be good, players who want to be great-they don't sit back and wait. They go out and work hard to make themselves better. And that's what I learned."
It might sound like locker-room cant if not for the unforced ease with which Johnson states it, or the corroboration of his colleagues. Nymburk center Ji
Whitfield, Johnson's closest friend on the team, says he has also adjusted his attitude, learning to open up with teammates who last season took his quiet reserve for anger or arrogance. "He's growing up as a player and as a person, and you can just tell in the way he plays and the way he carries himself," Whitfield says.
"He is 100 percent ready to be an NBA player," Je
He was always tall-"a long, skinny kid," Johnson says, and glued to the court from around the age of 8. It was a concrete court then, in Clairemont, where he was raised with a younger brother and sister by a Navy man and an educator. (His parents now live in El Cajon, Dad working for a Navy-owned computer company, Mom for the Grossmont School District.)
"Every day, every night we were down there just shooting, playing and playing and playing and playing," Johnson recalls. "It'd be midnight, it'd be raining-we'd all be out shooting and playing. It had a little light [that] was barely bright enough for us to see the basket." On Sundays he and his friends would play pickup, taking on players from San Diego State or USD.
After earning city Player of the Year honors (over UCLA star-to-be Jelani McCoy), Johnson left San Diego with great expectations. Five years and two transfers later, he left Lawrence, Kan., unable to interest anyone in drafting him other than the Dodge City Legend of the developmental U.S. Basketball League.
Johnson speaks of those years less with bitterness than with regret, saying, for example, that he wishes he'd stayed at Utah. At the time, being a Ute reserve seemed a less certain ticket to the next level than putting up showy stats at a junior college. He now believes Coach Majerus' knack for developing pro-caliber talent would have made him a more complete player earlier in his career-better on defense, more of a team player. (He also missed out on the Utes' run to the NCAA final the season after he left. Watching the game on TV, he says with a rueful smile, "I was sick to my stomach.")
Johnson went to a couple of NBA camps, but nobody was biting. "Who looks at a guy that no one really knows, has no stats, nothing like that?" he says. Domestic prospects dim, he turned his attention overseas, joining the growing tide of American players proliferating in leagues from Bolivia to Belgium to Israel.
His debut was inauspicious-a French squad cut him loose after a short stint in late 2000. Later he'd come to understand the brisk brush-off as just "part of playing overseas," where player turnover is high. At the time, he took it hard: "I'm a kid, fresh out of college, don't know what to expect in a foreign country, don't know how things work."
Returning home, he played briefly for the short-lived San Diego WildFire of the American Basketball Association, then met a Finnish coach at a workout camp in Los Angeles. The coach liked what he saw, and Johnson, his career at low tide, liked what he heard.
"He said, "We don't want to only stress basketball to our players, we just want you to have a good time off the court and enjoy life.' ... I could get my numbers up and I could take baby steps, gradually move up the ladder."
Johnson averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds a game for Pyrbasket Tampere. Just as important, he relaxed and acclimated himself to life abroad. He met his girlfriend, Eveliina Louhivuori, a half-Finnish, half-Palestinian college student who speaks five languages. And after an exhibition against a team from Prague, he was sought out by a coach who asked if he was interested in moving.
It was an easy decision. The money was better than in Finland, and so was the level of play. "My old agent at the time told me, "It's that next step. Finland's the first step, [the Czech Republic] will be the next step.' Taking baby steps."
In terms of national attention, basketball lags far behind soccer and ice hockey in the Czech Republic, but the NBL is wildly popular in a few small cities like Nymburk, a town of 14,300 about 30 miles east of Prague with little else in the way of cultural or athletic amenities. The team's raucous fan club fills its gym with drumbeats and chants, and Johnson gave them plenty to cheer about.
Teaming up with slick point guard Whitfield, he injected a dose of above-the-rim dash to the floor-bound Czech game. Nymburk, which only three years before was toiling in the Czech league's second division, fought its way to the brink of an NBL title.
Armed with another set of prime numbers and a bit more name recognition, Johnson returned to California and secured a spot at the Kings' veterans training camp. Gunning for a slot on one of the NBA's most loaded teams, he played well and hung on into the fall preseason. And once again, as he closed in on the sun his wings melted: He was released two weeks before the start of the season, the next-to-last cut before the team set its roster.
Unlike Icarus, though, Johnson landed softly and without breaking stride. "You can't get upset-I got cut by a great team," he says. A few weeks later he was back in Nymburk.
He could have gone somewhere else. The Czech Republic isn't a basketball backwater, but neither is it the bright lights. In quality of play and quantity of international attention it's in the middle of the European pack. Johnson had an offer to play in the former Yugoslavia, where competition is tougher and more closely watched. And Nymburk wasn't going to give him another year of showtime. It had reloaded with veteran Europeans able to pour in points (including 7-footer Zídek, who manned the pivot for UCLA's national championship team the same spring Johnson was dominating high school rivals).
But unlike the second-year freshman who left Utah in search of stats, the older A.J. had a different agenda, and different priorities. He wanted to show respect to the team for holding open his roster spot while he took his shot in Sacramento. He wanted to stay with the 31-year-old Whitfield, "the older brother I never had" and a virtual extra coach. And if the team wanted him to switch from the power forward to the small forward-from the four-spot to the three, in basketball parlance-all the better to round out his game.
"He's made a huge transition from position four to position three, and I think that's an incredible change," says Zídek, who played three seasons in the NBA and likens Johnson to the athletic, sharp-shooting veteran Glen Rice, now with the L.A. Clippers. "It's just very hard to go from underneath the basket where you push and use your body a lot and you don't dribble too much, to go to the three and handling the ball, playing the pick and roll. I admire him for making that change."
"My whole mindset coming in here wasn't for me to score. I'm just gonna do whatever else I need to do to help the team win," Johnson says.
"I didn't really say much to the guys last year. When I got back, people were worried about if I was going to shoot the ball a lot; people were concerned how my attitude was going to be. But we talked about it, settled our differences, and everybody's getting along."
So it would seem. Nymburk closed out the regular season April 1 with a 30-2 record and is primed for a playoff run to the title it just missed last year. Johnson is still scoring-a team-high 18.2 points a game-but now at the head of a balanced attack, with six players averaging 10 or more. He spends most of his game time on the wing, setting picks, guarding the perimeter, driving and dishing off.
The team's March 24 game against rival D
"Being in the Kings' summer league really showed him what he needed to do to get to the next level," says Rudolph Cline-Thomas, Johnson's Philadelphia-based agent, who represents several NBA players. "He was always a great athlete, but his basketball IQ has gone way up this year."
"I've seen his game grow so much," Whitfield says with big brotherly pride. "It's fun to watch. It's fun to watch."
"You get used to it," Johnson says of being a California kid waking up daily in Central Europe.
He's not quite as blasé as all that. In the next breath he can talk about the practical difficulties, how each change of team means a different language, different food, a different lifestyle, how some guys never get the hang of it. He can talk enthusiastically about exploring romantic Prague when Eveliina visits, how "every time you go down there it's something new, so you always fall in love with it again."
But the fact is Johnson's life is mundane, even if its setting is not. Nymburk and Podêbrady, the nearby town where the team puts him up, may be centuries old, with a Gothic church here and Renaissance square there, but they're still small towns, with little to do and little English spoken. (Czech is a notoriously difficult language, and Johnson says his hasn't gone much beyond basic pleasantries.) Between two-a-day practices and games twice a week the players don't get out much, save for trips to the movies or a nightclub in Prague after a Saturday game.
Johnson says he misses "my mom's home cooking and the warm weather," but it's a quiet, comfortable life, and that's fine by him.
"I've been here two years and I haven't been bothered by anyone," he says. "People respect me, they respect my privacy ... I can do as I please." He, Whitfield, Hand and Whitfield's brother Alvin Horne, a former NBL player, are probably the only black people in Podêbrady, but Johnson says there's been "no discomfort at all" beyond the occasional puzzled stare. (Indeed, the presence of four tall African-Americans in the local supermarket on a recent afternoon didn't so much as raise an eyebrow.)
The day-to-day reality of Czech basketball is on the creaky side. Travel is by bus. Arenas hold a couple thousand at most and are usually old and drab. With its folded-up grandstands and courtside practice hoops, Nymburk's hall could be the home floor for a big Midwestern high school if not for the Soviet-vintage brown paneling and the Czech ads on the walls.
But much of it is, well, kind of sweet. Kids get the run of the court for impromptu shoot-arounds at halftime and after games. The cheerleaders look to be just this side of junior high. When the players are out and about in Nymburk the boosters offer to stand them for beers. When Johnson won the MVP last season the team presented him with a bouquet of flowers.
Czech teams also pay their imports well, by world-basketball standards. And Cline-Thomas maintains that the hordes of NBA scouts who now scour Europe for the next Peja Stojakovic or Pau Gasol are paying a bit more attention to the country, thanks in part to Prague product and second-year Boston Celtic Ji
It also didn't hurt that, as a top Czech team, Nymburk was invited this season to the prestigious FIBA Europe League competition, in which Johnson acquitted himself well against sides from all over the continent and made the tournament all-star team. Cline-Thomas confidently predicts that Johnson will be in an NBA camp this summer. The Kings are "keeping very close tabs on him," he says, and the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards have all had a look.
Johnson makes no bones about wanting to leave the Czech Republic next season, if not for the NBA than to a higher-level European league. He notes how much he liked playing before 17,000 fans in a first-class hall at the FIBA All-Star Game in Kiev. But he also reminds himself not to take what he's got for granted.
"I'm having fun over here," he says. "Got a great team, in first place going into the playoffs. I'm having fun over here."
He pauses, and cracks a smile.
"My agent put it best. He says over here's not for fun. The next level is fun. You do the work over here to get there. Then you have some fun."
NYMBURK, CZECH REPUBLIC, MARCH 29-It's bright blue and pleasantly brisk. The sun plays off the Elbe as fans make their way down a riverside path to the Sportovní centrum. Springtime in central Bohemia, finally.
It's NBL All-Star day, with all the trimmings. The game is being televised by one of the Czech networks, albeit a bit outside prime time. (For some unfathomable reason, almost all NBL games start at 5 or 5:30 p.m.) The hall is packed, the cheerleaders will get to change costumes twice, and between quarters there are three-point-shooting and dunking contests. The host team has six players on the roster, evenly split between the Czech and "Rest of the World" sides.
Like its NBA counterpart, the game is a show. The teams play loose, run and gun, indulge in some hot-dog passing. There are a few gags tossed off for the crowd-Nymburk's Ji
The dunkers take center stage before the final period, for the final bow of the two-round contest. In his own house, Johnson gets the last slot. The drum-punctuated chant goes up as he rises from the bench: "A.J.! (boom boom boom) A.J.! (boom boom boom)."
Taking his preparatory dribbles he looks grimly determined. He clangs his first off the rim, but slams his second home after a skying 360 spin. He retrieves the ball and backs up dramatically, back, back, almost the length of the court as the chant gets louder. He charges up the floor, lifts off at the foul line and brings down a windmill jam. The crowd goes wild as he returns to the bench and bumps chests with Whitfield.
It must be cool, right? Even in a little arena in central Bohemia, getting to strut your stuff in front of a crowd chanting your name at fever pitch?
"Yeah," he says, pretty laconically.
Yeah. This is not the kind of basketball that will get Ashante Johnson to the NBA. It's not what he wants to do, not where he wants to be.
But then, there are far worse places to be, and far worse things to be doing. He makes a good living doing what he loves, and "I'm grateful for it," he says. For all he's experienced in the last 10 years, for all he may have missed, he has more reason to look forward than to look back. And he likes what he sees.
"Sometimes I wonder why things happened to me, because if things went the other way then maybe I'd be where I wanted to be. But I look at it as, things happen for reason....
"It makes you enjoy it better once you are there, because you look back and you reflect and see that, damn, all this shit I've been through, finally I'm here. I'm here."