Team USA's Orlando Johnson had been up so high and for so long that he found himself fighting the descent.
August 30, 2011 6:34 AM
Nearly 7,400 miles of jet lag is a mighty adversary, even for one of college basketball's best players.
He decided to check on UCSB classmate Greg Somogyi, who had made the same journey home last week from China's World University Games with the Hungarian team.
"I called Greg to ask what he was doing," Johnson said. "He said, 'Sleeping.' "
But Orlando Johnson has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.
And so this weekend, he and Somogyi will join the rest of the Gauchos on a five-game, preseason trip to Canada.
"I'm tired and worn down a little bit, but it feels good to be back home," said Johnson, a 6-foot-5 senior. "I can't wait to hang with the team and get ready for this year.
"All these things I've learned from these coaches and players I can bring back and give to the team."
Johnson's basketball odyssey was best described by UCSB coach Bob Williams as "the summer of his life."
It began with an NBA prospect camp in New Jersey, continued with elite skills camps in Chicago and Akron, and then the tryout in Colorado Springs to play for Team USA at the World University Games in Szenchen, China.
"Oh man, it was nerve-wracking," said Johnson, a two-time All-Big West Conference guard. "I really didn't know if they were going to pick me.
"I called my brother and said, 'I don't know, man ... I don't know,' and he told me that everything would be all right."
His anxiety reach its zenith during one practice in which his shooting went awry.
"But coach (Matt) Painter said he was looking at bigger things," Johnson said. "He told me, 'You did everything else - you rebounded, you played defense, you're passing the ball ... I know you'll be able to score the ball, but it's the other things, like being a play-maker, which will get you on the team.'"
And which could also help take UCSB to places it's never seen in collegiate basketball. Johnson led the Gauchos to their second-straight NCAA Tournament last year with a 21.1-point scoring average, but they have higher aspirations for 2012.
"They really opened his eyes to the value of defense," Williams said. "Over there, he was asked to be the stopper. As a coach, what do you think? I'm just smiling. Absolutely. All of a sudden, your best player realizes that he has the ability to be the stopper?
"I feel really, really good about what he's learned, and also about the relationship he had with the coaches and the interaction with the players from all different levels. He had an unbelievable experience."
It reached an unexpected level for Johnson when an official from the U.S. delegation approached him on the eve of the opening ceremonies.
"She said, 'You've been chosen to be the flag bearer,' and I went, 'Oh man!' " he said. "I felt like it was a dream: 'I've made the team already, and now I'm the flag bearer for all these athletes? Man! I just hope I don't fall!' "
There were few slipups at all for Johnson in Team USA's eight games, seven of which they won. He averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds with 15 assists and only nine turnovers, averaging 19.5 minutes per game.
The fifth-place finish, which included a two-point defeat to Lithuania in the quarterfinals, tied the best finish ever for the U.S. team - which, unlike most of the teams, was put together just this summer.
"We became really close," Johnson said. "We didn't win the gold, but the last thing we said in the huddle was 'Family!' It's funny how basketball can do that to you - any sport, any team.
"We didn't know each other before or anything like that, but when we left, it was like, 'Man! We're going to miss each other!' We're always going to be tight with each other."
He didn't get to see the Great Wall of China - it was too far from the host city of Shenzhen - although he did see the Great Wall of Hungary, beating the 7-foot-3 Somogyi in pool play.
"I was like, 'Man, I'm used to playing with the big fella, and now Greg's on other team, so I was like, 'I'm not going to let him block my shot,' " Johnson recalled. "It was a great experience, seeing a familiar face out there. And Greg being a part of his team, I know it was a special moment for him."
It's all about relationships for Johnson, even with the local Chinese who worked at the tournament.
"I even had some of them a little sad when I was leaving, asking me, 'Can I email you?' And stuff like that," he said. "I'm looking forward to keep talking with them."
But he was also anxious to rejoin his UCSB teammates. Williams said that both Johnson and Somogyi entered practice last week.
"As soon as Orlando jumped into a defensive drill, the entire level of the team raised," he said. "He's good, and he's a great kid. And he's on a upward path in terms of his basketball, his learning, his knowledge, physically - he's done everything he could to get better.
"If we didn't have Canada, he'd be taking a rest right now, and he knows that I'm cautious of his use. So I'm going to hold him out of as much practice as I can. When we get back from Canada, I'm going to shut him down for a good week."
But one more summer trip is just fine with Orlando Johnson.
"I'm really excited because I really haven't been around the team all that much this summer," he said. "I'll get a chance to hang out with them, and we'll get the chance to experience something together - something that we'll definitely remember for the rest of our lives."
He knows this better than most, that summer eventually leads to March Madness.