Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a seven-part series from The Flash Today covering the 11 members of the 2017 men’s basketball recruiting class at Tarleton State. Today we share the gripping tale of Brandon Johnson losing his mother at age 11, and a decade later seeing Tarleton and the Texan basketball program as his big opportunity to overcome an upbringing full of adversity. The series resumes Monday and Tuesday with the focus shifting to the seven high school prospects joining the Texans.
By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (June 24, 2017) — Tens of thousands have walked through Wisdom Gymnasium on the campus of Tarleton State University. Thousands have even stopped at that same spot, looking east to west over the railing, down into a bowl where the university’s basketball teams have played for decades. These are possibly the same fans that have a blank college basketball bracket printed off, ready for basketball season this year.
They see an expanse of hardwood 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, 4,700 square feet in all, lined perfectly, topped with a shiny coat of finish to preserve its look for all to see. In short, they see a basketball court.
When Brandon Johnson stops at the same spot inside the gym named for Tarleton State legend W.J. Wisdom, he looks from east to west and sees so much more. He sees hope. He sees opportunity. He sees the chance of a lifetime. If you love basketball, see how you can improve your skills even further with training session based on specific skills such as vertical jump training.
Johnson sees all that as clearly as others see the hardwood, because Johnson has clearly seen life from the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s felt hopeless, he’s wondered if he would ever be given an opportunity. He’s seen death and felt the turmoil it leaves behind.
A decade ago, Johnson was in Honea Path, South Carolina feeling helpless and alone. His mother had passed away, leaving behind an 11-year old with nothing and no one.
From adversity often come the greatest stories of success. For Johnson, just keeping his head up and navigating the next 10 years of trials without his mother while his father provided only occasional financial support is a success story in itself.
Returning to Stephenville to join the Tarleton State basketball team is a dream come true for Johnson. Young boys grow up dreaming of hitting big shots for programs among basketball royalty – Duke, Kentucky Indiana, you know their names. Johnson dreamed for the last year of returning to a place he desperately wanted to call home – Stephenville, Tarleton, Wisdom Gym.
A 6-5 shooting guard with a strong knack for rebounding and the versatility to score in multiple ways, Johnson has been back in Stephenville about four weeks, he says, having returned to Tarleton as soon as possible following the spring semester at Bossier Parish Community College in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Why the rush?
Because for Johnson, a dream was becoming reality. The one place he wanted to call home was welcoming him back, and feeling at home is something he’s longed for since 2007, when his mother’s death rocked him to the core and sent him into a troubling pattern of moving “a lot,” he says, up and down the east coast.
Johnson lived in Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina, and while he was blessed to find a sort of “mother figure” in all three states, there was no one consistently involved in his daily life, loving him, teaching him right from wrong, guiding him toward the path to health and prosperity.
Johnson did not have parents. He did not have a family.
But he did have basketball, a game he played well enough to catch the eye of Billy Clyde Gillispie, the once vastly successful coach who worked through the ranks until becoming the head coach at Kentucky, one of the places those little boys grow up dreaming about.
At this point, Gillispie had fallen from the mantle of college hoops royalty, landing at a junior college in Ranger, Texas. Still, while Ranger College had nothing like the Cameron Crazies at Duke, it had Gillispie and his offer to take Johnson somewhere new, somewhere he could have a fresh start.
Two blessings at Ranger provided Johnson with the opportunity to seize control of his own destiny, to blaze his own path in spite of a childhood packed full of adversity.
The greatest of those blessings was a simple introduction. When Johnson arrived at Ranger College, he was assigned a sophomore roommate, Jonathan Perez, who took him along to meet his host parents, David and Kerri Brooks. They grew to have more positive influence on Johnson than anyone he had known, as close to real parents, you could say, as he had ever had.
Kerri Brooks is well connected at Tarleton, where her stepfather is a professor. Her connections put Johnson in touch with the Tarleton basketball coaches, who permitted him to come to the gym any day he wanted and hook up with the Texan basketball players.
That was Johnson’s initial welcoming to Stephenville, a sign of hospitality he later realized existed throughout the community. Johnson developed close friendships with several of the Tarleton players, all the while wishing he could be one of them, that he could play for Lonn Reisman, that he could run from locker room to center court as the home fans roared, electricity coursing through his veins, the air dense with anticipation as the clocks count down to tipoff.
More than that, he longed to outgrow being just the guy from Ranger coming to shoot hoops, play a pickup game and maybe hang out for a bit afterwards. He wanted to be part of the family. The Tarleton basketball family.
The second blessing Johnson received in Ranger appeared at first to be counterproductive as far as getting into Tarleton. Assistant coach Brandon Espinosa was leaving Ranger College for the same job at Bossier Parish Community College, and he picked Johnson as his first recruiting target, asking him to come along to Shreveport, Louisiana. He did some checking and soon accepted Espinosa’s offer, heading off for what he figured to be a better basketball situation.
Johnson planned to excel in junior college so that Lonn and Chris Reisman would want him to complete his career as a Texan at Tarleton, where he had friends, where he felt welcome, where for the first time, he truly experienced the joy of belonging.
Johnson worked hard on his studies, something he took from Gillispie despite never playing a game or extinguishing so much as a day of eligibility at Ranger College. Gillispie assured Johnson basketball couldn’t help him if he didn’t help himself in the classroom so that he could play, a lesson the student took to heart.
It wasn’t in the classroom where Johnson struggled early on at Bossier Parish, but on the court.
“It had been three years since I had played with a whistle, and I had a hard time getting back in the groove,” said Johnson. “I had to stop trying to force everything and let the game come to me. Once I relaxed and did that, I got into the rhythm of the game and started getting the ball in good places to score. I also started rebounding better, and that led to some easy buckets. I got my groove back while I was there, and I became a better basketball player.”
It’s hard not to get better in Region XIV of the JUCO ranks, where seemingly every team is stocked with talent ranging from surefire Division I stars to Division II role players.
“Everyone could play, every team had talent,” Johnson said. “You had to bring your ‘A’ game every night or you were about to be exposed, and no one wants that.”
It took Johnson “seven or eight games” to get into a rhythm where he started to expose opponents more than he was getting exposed himself. But once he got back into game shape physically and mentally, he took off, averaging 15.2 points and 5.4 rebounds as a freshman.
“If I hadn’t struggled so much early in the year, I might have averaged 20 and 8,” he said with a laugh before more seriously adding, “I grew up a lot there as a student and as a player. I learned a lot about the game and myself.”
Johnson was playing well enough by the end of the season to be listed as a mid-major guard prospect by Mullens Enterprises, a respected scouting service specializing in rating and ranking junior college prospects.
Mullens scouts weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on Johnson during his time in Louisiana. Chris Reisman was following closely, too, and believed Johnson may be ready for the next level sooner than anyone originally thought.
“I had some other Division II schools looking at me, but I really was only interested in Tarleton. I had stayed in touch with the guys I met last summer, so all those friendships I developed had grown even more. As soon as (Chris Reisman) asked if I wanted to come back, I was ready.”
Ready to come home. Where he knew he belonged.
“I got back here to Stephenville as fast as I could,” he said. “I mean right after the semester ended I was ready to come back.”
Chris Reisman wasn’t doing any favors. He isn’t in the business of sacrificing precious scholarship money every time a hard luck story finds its way to Wisdom Gym. Setting aside his fondness of Johnson, he evaluated his game objectively. Still, after 20 seasons in the Lone Star Conference – four playing and 16 coaching – the associate head coach believed in what he saw – a plus size guard with positive energy as well as the talent and poise to compete successfully in the tough LSC.
It’s why shooting guard is one of the more thinly recruited positions in Tarleton’s largest recruiting class on record. Of 11 new Texans, Johnson is the only shooting guard with college experience.
“I told Brandon when I recruited him that we need him to make an immediate impact,” Chris Reisman said. “We lost two all-conference guards last season, and he as the ability, if he works hard and buys into our system, to be that caliber of player right away as a sophomore.”
Johnson reminds the associate head coach of Jeffrey Henfield, a one-year guard transfer from Division I New Mexico who helped Tarleton host a regional tournament the Texans very nearly won in 2008.
“He’s strong and athletic like Jeffrey, and he can get to the basket and finish in traffic the way Jeffrey could,” Chris Reisman says. “But he’s also capable of getting hot from the outside.”
Johnson describes his game in almost the exact same fashion.
“I see myself as a crafty, athletic scoring guard,” he said. “I find my role within the offense and try to get into a rhythm where I find the right spots at the right times. I’m a streaky shooter, but once I get two buckets in a row, I can get to rolling.”
Johnson says for him, it’s all about staying in attack mode.
“I think that’s why I rebound pretty well for a guard, is because I attack first and find the ball second,” he said. “Knowing where the ball is doesn’t do any good if you’re not in position for it. I attack the basket, and when I’m in position, I find the ball and make sure I secure it.”
Chris Reisman likes the size and physicality of his new shooting guard.
“Brandon brings great size to the guard spot. He even played some point guard in high school. He’s a great athlete who can fill up a stat sheet, score at different levels and can initiate and absorb contact. He’s a physical player, and that’s something you have to have in our league,” Chris Reisman said.
Having a relationship already in place with head coach Lonn Reisman means already knowing the intensity expected at at the other end of the court.
“I wasn’t even here during the season, it was the summer, but I learned real fast that he loves defense,” said Johnson. “I know my physical capabilities, and I trust that our coaches will help me become the best defender and the best all-around player possible.”
But it’s deeper than that. He doesn’t just trust that Lonn Reisman and his staff will make him the best player he can be. He knows at Tarleton he will have the guidance to be the best student he can be, the best man he can be.
“When they’re recruiting you, most coaches just want to tell you how great you are and try to win you over, but not Coach (Lonn) Reisman,” Johnson said. “We met last summer, and I already felt a desire to play for him. Then he first saw me play in a game in Dallas, and he told me very honestly what he thought about my game and what I needed to improve. The way he said it, I knew it was out of love and it was sincere because he wants to see me to get better.”
The Reismans now have three years to work with Johnson. Three years for the lad who had nothing to improve everything.
Johnson is a general studies major for now, considering a change to business or perhaps kinesiology, saying he’s thought of coaching and staying around the game. With three years of eligibility remaining, it’s a decision he’s not in a rush to make.
For now he isn’t rushing after anything. He’s just enjoying the feeling of home.
With a family and a world of opportunity.
When Johnson walks through Wisdom Gym and stops to peer over the railing onto the court, the 4,700 square feet of hardwood is nothing more than a backdrop, just scenery behind the hopes and dreams he is no longer blind to.
The rest of us see a basketball court.
Brandon Johnson sees the opportunity of a lifetime.