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Orlando Johnson Defies the Odds (Part II)

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 3, 2013

This is Part Two of a two-part feature on Pacers guard Orlando Johnson. Read Part One »

Orlando attended a public high school as a freshman and sophomore, and showed his greatest athletic promise as the lanky starting quarterback on the football team. The school was gang-ridden, however, and there had been a shooting on the grounds. When Orlando got into a minor scuffle, his brothers decided to move him out.

They chose Palma, in nearby Salinas, an all-boys Catholic school complete with a dress code that required khakis and dress shirts. A priest stood at the doorway each morning to make sure everyone conformed, and sent the rebels home to change clothes. Orlando fought that decision, and it caused friction within the brotherhood for a while, but ultimately he had no choice. Who was going to take his side, anyway? His brothers made it clear this school would provide his best and only shot at a college scholarship. Jamell paid for it by selling stock he had received from his employer, Pepsico, for whom he has worked the past 18 years, most recently as a warehouse manager.

“If you saw that look on his face when I told him he going to that school the next year … none of my (three) kids have given me a look like that,” Jamell says. “But him making it there was important to me as well, to show my kids there's no excuse. I could say, 'Orlando's making it, so you can make it, too.' It helped my job as a father.”

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Jamell and Robbie, however, were expecting Orlando to make it in football. Jamell had played at St. Mary's before the program was shut down. Robbie had played basketball at Weber State, earning first-team all-conference honors in 1993-94, and went on to play professionally in Croatia. Orlando was playing both sports to please them both, but seemed a more natural fit for football. He was moved to receiver when he enrolled at Palma, which didn't please him, but he showed promise as a receiver who was approaching 6-foot-5. Jamell recalls him scoring a couple of touchdowns against a highly-recruited defensive back from powerhouse La Salle High School in Los Angeles his junior season. Scouts from major college programs such as Oregon were showing interest, and he took unofficial visits to USC. Jamell pictured him as the next Tony Gonzalez, a tall tight end or receiver who could rise above traffic in the end zone to haul in touchdowns.

Orlando, though, was having other ideas. He was a better at football, no question, and his future as a 6-foot-5 post player in basketball wasn't promising. His football coach rubbed him the wrong way, though, when he encouraged him to drop basketball. He could be a Division I receiver, the coach said, but would only be a Division III center in basketball. Orlando, taught by his brothers to be coachable, couldn't help chuckling when he heard that one. Orlando Middle School.jpg

He had been challenged, and had something to prove. He told his brothers he was dropping football. Jamell describes the moment as “jaw-dropping.” But they went to work. Orlando would need to transform himself from an undersized center to a perimeter player if he was to attract a college scholarship offer, and it would take time and dedication.

“I rebounded for him one time and decided I'd never do it again,” Jamell says. “I didn't realize how hard it was to rebound and pass out 500 shots.”

The brothers took Orlando to basketball camps throughout northern California the summer after his junior season, to improve his skills and attract the attention of college coaches. He wasn't on the radar of recruiting analysts, though, until Jamell paid $75 to enroll him in an invitational tournament. Orlando entered an unknown and left the third-ranked senior in northern California.

Later that summer he stopped by the football field to tell Palma's coach of his sudden bounty: 13 scholarship offers. For basketball. “What can you offer me?” he asked. The coach had nothing to say. Orlando turned and walked out on football forever, proud to have earned the last word.

“I never regretted it,” he says. “He gave me fuel for the fire. It drives me to this day. You hear it all the time: that you're not good enough, that you can't make it. It pushes me to keep working and never lose that edge, to show that I'm hungrier than the next man.”

Orlando had other influences, too. His basketball coach at Palma, Paul Alioto, also drove him – sometimes literally, by picking him up at 5 a.m. and taking him to school to work on his game before classes began. Alioto constantly challenged Orlando, asking him if he was working hard enough. That always made Orlando stop and wonder, and he responded by getting in the gym. As a senior, he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds to lead Palma to conference and sectional titles the school had never won before.

Perhaps that's been Johnson's greatest quality, the ability to accept coaching and challenges. Perhaps it's an innate quality. When he was about eight years old he met Sean Higgins, a native Californian who had been a member of the Michigan team that won the NCAA championship just a few weeks after Orlando was born in 1989. Higgins was dating Orlando's cousin at the time, and visited her at their grandmother's house. Orlando was playing a video game one day while chatting with Higgins and declared his intent to play in the NBA.

“How you going to play in the NBA if you're always on the video games?” Higgins asked.

That stuck with Johnson, and forever shifted the focus of his free time.

Orlando nearly took a scholarship to St. Mary's, where his brother had played football and Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw had begun his college basketball career. He decided instead in favor of Loyola-Marymount, where the coach, Rodney Tention, promised he would be the focus of the offense. He set the school's freshman scoring record by averaging 12.4 points, and tied the freshman rebounding record as well. The team finished 5-26, however, and Tention was fired. His replacement, Bill Bayno, wanted to build the team around him, but wasn't going to welcome back his teammate and roommate, Brandon Walker, another guard. The final straw came when Orlando was asked to host a visit from a transfer who would take Walker's place on the team. He decided then to transfer.

Purdue coach Matt Painter somehow became familiar with Johnson and met with him, but to his later regret decided to award his scholarship to another recruit. Purdue fans might want to pause for a moment to mull that one over. Orlando would have become eligible to play for the Boilermakers in the 2009-10 season, when JaJuan Johnson, E'twaun Moore and Rob Hummel led a team that was ranked second in the country before Hummel went down with a knee injury. One can only estimate how much better that team would have been with another future NBA draft pick on the roster, but the possibilities are intriguing. Orlando might have come off the bench that season, but would have been a starter the following year, when JaJuan Johnson and Moore led Purdue to a second-place finish in the Big Ten, and the year after that, when Hummel led a near-upset of Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“If that scholarship was there, I definitely would have gone to Purdue,” Johnson says.

He strongly considered San Diego State, but gave in to his brothers' wishes that he play within driving distance and enrolled at UC Santa Barbara – where Shaw had gone after transferring from St. Mary's. Sitting out a season as a transfer did him good. He took some of the responsibility for Tention getting fired, and vowed not to lose at Santa Barbara, too. He told Robbie he would become the MVP of his new league, and the best player ever to come out of it. Although a redshirt, he came early and stayed late for practice, and his coach, Bob Williams, had to tell him to tone down his intensity to avoid discouraging his eligible players.

Orlando's vows came true. He was named the conference's MVP as a sophomore, the conference tournament MVP as a sophomore and junior – when he led UCSB to tournament titles – and a first-team all-conference selection all three seasons. He averaged 19.6 points over his career, becoming the school's all-time leading scorer, and led it to its first two NCAA tournament appearances. He might indeed have become the best player to come out of his league, although Shaw could make a claim for that status.

Johnson had declared his eligibility for the NBA draft following his junior season, but pulled out in the final hours before the deadline at his brothers' urging. Returning for his senior season not only allowed him to get his degree, it made him eligible to play for the U.S. World University Games team for which Painter was the head coach and Butler's Brad Stevens was an assistant. By a vote of his teammates, he carried the flag in the opening ceremonies.

Robbie Johnson had grown up a devoted fan of the Boston Celtics, in particular Larry Bird. It was a courageous, free-spirited thing for a kid to do in California back in the late 1980s, when the Showtime Lakers were all the rage. Robbie, though, wore Bird's jersey, Bird's Converse shoes, and even declared Bird to be his favorite player in a television interview after a high school game. Bird's way of commanding respect without calling attention to himself had drawn him in. That, and all the winning.

“I loved me some Larry Bird, man,” he says now, laughing. “It was crazy. He wasn't the fastest, he wasn't flashy, but he got the job done. It was so cool the way he could shoot the ball. It was workmanlike the way he did things. I loved it.”

Orlando always liked what his brothers liked, so he declared himself a Bird fan as well, even though Bird had been retired for 15 years by the time he finished high school. Shaquille O'Neal and Paul Pierce were his other favorites, and the brothers' memory of young Orlando shooting at a bent rim in the backyard while wearing an oversized Shaq jersey remains vivid. Orlando, though, related to Bird's blue collar image. That's how he viewed his own game. Nothing flashy, just hard work.

It was ironic, then, that Bird drafted Johnson for the Pacers last summer. But even that joyful moment had its frustrations. He had worked out for the Pacers toward the end of the pre-draft sessions and was playing well, but sprained his ankle with about half an hour remaining. Bird walked over, shook his hand, and said, “That's a shame, you were having a helluva workout, kid.”

Johnson was categorized by many analysts as an undrafted player when he completed his college career, but lifted his profile dramatically during his workouts for NBA teams. By draft day, he was hopeful of going in the first round. Watching the proceedings with family and friends at a hotel in Seaside, he grew anxious as commissioner David Stern called out the first-round selections. Some of the players walking to the podium, he was convinced, were inferior to him. Later in the round, however, he grew optimistic about going to the Pacers or Chicago – preferably the Pacers, he thought. But the Pacers took Plumlee with the 26th pick and the Bulls took Marquis Teague with the 29th.

“Man, what is going on?!” Johnson said.

When the first round and all its guaranteed contracts passed without any mention of Orlando Johnson, he left the room, devastated. Walker – who had transferred to Alaska-Anchorage from Loyola when Johnson headed for UCSB but remained his closest friend – followed him to offer consolation. This is how it's always been for you, Walker told him. It's just another challenge to overcome.

Moments later, however, a call from Pacers coach Frank Vogel altered the mood. The Pacers, Vogel said, were going to trade up to take him in the second round, which they did by paying Sacramento $2.5 million for the round's sixth pick, 36th overall. The Pacers considered it a wise investment, because it doesn't count against their salary cap, and can be amortized over the length of the contract. Teams do not normally give second-round picks guaranteed contracts, but Bird made a further show of faith by giving one to Johnson over two years, at slightly more than the minimum salary.

That judgment looked like it might have been a mistake until January. Now, Johnson looks like a gem stolen from the bargain bin. One with long-term value. 163637048.jpg

The Pacers were one of several teams that had interest in Orlando's J.J. Redick before the February trade deadline, figuring he could fill a need for scoring off the bench. Ultimately, the price of a first-round draft pick for what was likely to be a rental for the rest of the season was considered to be too high. Besides, the case can be made that Johnson can fill the role at least as well, at much less expense. Consider that Johnson has hit 43 percent of his three-point shots this season, including 6-of-11 on the four-game sweep of the road trip just completed. Redick has hit 37 percent of his three-pointers, and just 32 percent with Milwaukee. Consider also that when the Bucks stopped at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 22, Redick hit just 1-of-11 field goal attempts. Johnson defended him for about half of his time on the court.

“Defensively, most rookies are a real liability,” Walsh says. “But this kid is good right now and will get better and better. He had to guard Redick when Redick was coming off those screens and was right with him.”

It seems early to predict a lengthy NBA career for a rookie averaging 4.2 points, but Johnson's maturity, work ethic and shooting touch have already convinced those who see him first-hand. “It's really all just starting to pay off,” says George. “Orlando's been one of the hardest-working guys here. He comes early, stays after, he comes in on off-days, late at night … he does the whole package.”

Already, back in the Monterey Peninsula area, Orlando is a star and an inspiration, the first native to make it to the NBA. Robbie, who is a civilian employee at a Naval post graduate school, has founded the Orlando Johnson Basketball Academy, which he directs. It includes 10 teams, five for middle school students and five for high school students, with two girls’ teams. Fourteen coaches work with the program, Robbie included.

Orlando finances it – a generous gesture given the fact he's still drawing from his rookie salary of $550,000, minus taxes and association fees – with help from some local businesses. The hope is that it will provide the mentoring Orlando received from his brothers for kids who don't happen to have brothers like Robbie and Jamell. The Johnson brothers started the academy for the same reason they don't flinch from telling their story, in all its tragic detail: they want to give hope to kids growing up in circumstances similar to theirs.

“It's about more than basketball,” Robbie says. “It's an outlet for teaching life lessons. We want these kids to work hard and to be on time. If you come to practice and work hard, that's the kind of thing that carries over. If you do it right, good things will happen for you.”

Johnson's meaning to his community and family was never on greater display than in Monday's game in Los Angeles against the Clippers. About 20 relatives and 30 friends – some of them ex-teammates – drove in from various parts of California. His closest family members carpooled in three vehicles, arriving on Sunday after driving 350 miles over 5 ½ hours.

Johnson rewarded them by hitting two of his three three-point attempts in 11 minutes off the bench. But he had honored them long before that by beating the odds.

Where from here? Johnson finds another role model in Gilbert Arenas, another former second-round draft pick from California who felt snubbed on draft day. Arenas, taken 30th by Golden State in 2001, went on to play 11 seasons and earned three All-Star appearances and about $150 million along the way. Arenas' “Impossible is Nothing” commercial resonated with Orlando while he was growing up, and is something he still searches out occasionally on YouTube for inspiration.

He could call his story “Illogical is Nothing.” He's already overcome the odds, but believes he has a long way to go to declare victory.

“One day people are going to be saying Orlando Johnson is for real,” he says. “I'm going to shoot for the stars. If I come up short, so be it, but I'm never going to settle for being second-best.”

This is Part Two of a two-part feature on Pacers guard Orlando Johnson. Read Part One »

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