(Part 3 in a 9-part series on the 2013 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductees)
(Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association)
Unless your basketball team was competing against his, you might have found yourself cheering for Ervin Johnson. And no one would have blamed you.
What was not to like? Ervin Johnson was as unassuming and mild-mannered as Gomer Pyle, but he had the drive of Gen. George S. Patton — minus the vulgarity, of course. Self-motivated, but never self-centered. From a-zillion-miles-off-the-radar in high school to an All-America player at the University of New Orleans to a 13-year career as an NBA center . . . and now a spot in the 2013 class of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Johnson will be enshrined Saturday night, June 29, at a sold-out induction ceremony in a basketball-heavy class. His journey to state legend status is one of the more unlikely in the Hall's history, but it had a solid base.
"You could sum it up in one word," Johnson said. "Faith. Belief in myself, belief in God. He had a plan for me. I was just following His lead."
In a nutshell: Johnson quit his team in the 10th grade at Block High School in Jonesville, grew eight inches after graduation (to 6-11) and worked in a Baton Rouge supermarket for 2½ years before enrolling at UNO in January 1989. He offered his services to Tim Floyd, then in his first season as UNO's head coach, on the final night of the early signing period in November '88 after hearing of UNO's need for depth and height. Floyd, whose first UNO team had no starter taller than 6-5, instantly awarded Johnson a scholarship and redshirted him.
Then Johnson climbed the heights, though it wasn't easy. He bristled at Floyd's suggestion in the spring of 1989 to transfer to a junior college — "At that point we just didn't think Ervin was ready to play at the D-I level," the coach said — then showed him. And wowed him.
Johnson wowed everybody. By the time he finished his UNO career in 1993, Johnson had started for three conference-championship teams, played in two NCAA Tournaments and set UNO records for career rebounds (1,287), field-goal percentage (.591), blocked shots (294), games started (116) and minutes played (3,694). His 1,608 points ranked second in UNO history. He was Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as a senior on a team which was 18-0 in conference and 26-4 overall.
Though his ranking on UNO's career scoring charts has changed, this fact hasn't: He's UNO's only first-round NBA draft choice.
"Ervin Johnson is an example of a lot of things," said Floyd, who also coached against Johnson for five seasons in the NBA. "He was a non-pampered athlete who was determined to change his life. He was a guy who was hungry, who was driven, who has high character. He's counter to the way the American player is developed today. Instead of being a workout guy — 1½ hours three times a week — he chose to spend many lonely hours in a gym by himself. He is a testament to the ability to listen and to personal responsibility.
"His story doesn't appeal to the pampered athlete. He's a kid who was hopeful and was willing to work and not give up on his dream."
In short, character. Floyd loves to point out that Johnson gave his employer two weeks' notice before heading to UNO. Johnson completed correspondence courses through the University of Washington to help him earn his UNO degree in December '96 — and then was the commencement speaker. Shortly after he turned pro, Johnson contributed a sizable amount of money to help UNO athletics upgrade its weight room.
"Ervin never forgot where he came from," Floyd said. "He was always humble, true to his convictions, to God and his religion. He's a real person who cared more about the team than himself."
Seattle drafted Johnson, and he played there for three seasons. He spent a year in Denver and averaged 7.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while starting all 82 regular-season games, but he was traded for three players the following year to Milwaukee, where he spent seven of his final nine seasons. Johnson started more than half of his 845 NBA games with career averages of 4.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 20.1 minutes per game.
"He was a tough defender," said New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, who played against Johnson while at Notre Dame and in the NBA. "He could finish around the basket. He played the game the right way. If you played in the league, you knew about him."
"Ervin Johnson came a long way and became a very good basketball player," said Ed Daniels, the longtime sports director of WGNO-TV in New Orleans. "He's a great guy. Can't think of anyone better."
More than seven years after the great guy with the great story retired from competition, Denver-area youngsters are cheering for Johnson. He's part of the Nuggets' team of alumni ambassadors, a community service group. (Johnson and his wife, Reneé, have lived in the Denver suburbs since '96. They have two daughters.) Johnson estimates he has spoken in 100 different schools and to 15,000 students, who hear of Johnson's inspirational journey.
"I love sharing that story," he said.
When Johnson shares his life's journey, he offers eight points. "One, education," he said. "Two, keep a positive attitude. Three, believe in yourself. Four, make good decisions. Five, set goals for yourself. Six, respect yourself and others. Seven, never quit or give up. Eight, build positive habits."
It is no surprise that Johnson accepted Floyd's invitation to speak to teams Floyd coached at Iowa State and Southern California. It hasn't happened yet at UTEP, where Floyd is preparing for his fourth season, but the coach says it will happen. Johnson also spoke at Floyd's USC summer elite camp.
"Ninety of the best players west of the Rocky Mountains," Floyd said. "Ervin picked out one young man who was less of a name than all the other players there. He talked to the kid because he said the kid reminded him of himself. That young man was Festus Ezeli, who wound up at Vanderbilt and is now in the NBA with Golden State."
What a pick by Johnson — Ezeli's first name is Ifeanyi, a Nigerian/Igbo name which means, "nothing is impossible with God."
By the close of the 20th century, two people stood out with the biggest collections in the biographical files of the UNO sports information office.
One collection belonged to Ron Maestri, the coach who laid the foundation of the Privateers' nationally prominent baseball program. The other belonged to Ervin Johnson, whose foundation of faith helped him create an amazing build-from-scratch basketball career.
Now Johnson joins Maestri, a 1995 inductee, in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.