Orlando Johnson is a Product of Brotherly Love

Courtesty of USA Basketball

The completion of practices this week at the U.S. Olympic Training Center have been a study in consistency for all of the players in attendance at the 2011 Men’s World University Games Training Camp.

After all of the post-practice shots have been taken and the ice bags have been wrapped nice and tight, each of the players do the same thing before leaving the gym: they dig in their backpacks, retrieve their iPhones, Blackberrys or Droids and let the outside world back into their lives.

And that’s true for guard Orlando Johnson (UC Santa Barbara/Seaside, Calif.), who makes it a point to take his phone with him everywhere he goes, never letting it far from his reach.

Johnson is tethered to his phone for a reason different than most his age, though.

Sure, he uses it for the usual: to stay in touch with friends and family back home or to keep up-to-date on his Twitter feed (@OJ2nice33). But he usually gets all he really needs from it just by turning it on.

See, the background on Johnson’s cell is a picture of his mother Vicki Renée Johnson and older brothers, Jamell Damon Sr. and Robert Johnson. The picture was taken a long time ago (years before Johnson was even born) and it now allows Johnson to ensure his mother is always with him as he makes his way in the world.

Vicki Renée Johnson died when Orlando, her youngest son, was just 1, and his only memories of her are the result of browned-with-age photos, like the one on his phone.

And seeing his brothers there provides him a shining reminder of unbelievable commitment. Jamell and Robert put their life’s pursuits on hold when they were in their 20s and Orlando was 11, and they raised him together after the death of his grandmother, who initially took Orlando in after his mom passed away.

Johnson has experienced a lot of loss in his life -- four of his relatives also were killed in a house fire when he was 6 -- but that photo, always just a thumb push away, helps him to never forget what made him who he is and what’s truly important in his life.

“What happened to me early on and through my childhood shaped me into the man I am today,” Johnson says, “and (that picture) just makes me realize that I’m not just here, playing for me, but for them, too. My brothers sacrificed so much for me, and I didn’t really know my mom, but they did, and I live through those stories that they tell me.

“She’s still a big part of me, and she’ll always be. And my brothers … I’m them, you know? With just a little bit of me.”

The turn of events that landed Johnson under the guidance of his brothers likely kept him out of foster homes and also allowed him to excel in the northern California prep basketball ranks, where he was the 2007 Division IV Northern California Player of the Year and Monterey County Player of the Year.

Following his senior year in 2007 at Palma High, he signed on to play at Loyola Marymount, where he started in 30 of 31 games and averaged a team-best 12.4 points per game as a true freshman.

A coaching change with the Lions following that first season in Los Angeles pushed Johnson to move even closer to home -- that tug of family and home always prevalent in his life -- and he found a spot a little up the California coast with UC Santa Barbara and head coach Bob Williams.

Johnson sat out the 2008-09 season, per NCAA transfer rules, but has started in all but one game since for the Gauchos and has scored in double figures 61 times in 62 games. He’s also led UCSB to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2010 and 2011, after the program had experienced the Madness just four times previously.

It’s likely none of that would even have happened had his older brothers not taken him under their wing when they were at an age where so many choices were still available in their worlds.

“Those guys definitely could have done a lot more things with their lives, but they decided to put their dreams and goals aside and really tried to help me out with everything,” Johnson says, his voice trailing off. “I thank them a lot, and if it wasn’t for them, I definitely wouldn’t be in this position.”

“This position” is as one of the 12 collegiate stars in town this week preparing for the United States’ 17th appearance in the World University Games next week in Shenzhen, China.

He’s one of just three in camp who came to Colorado Springs from the mid-major ranks, joining Yale’s Greg Mangano (Orange, Conn.) and Detroit Mercy’s Ray McCallum (Beverly Hills, Mich.). All three are more than holding their own for head coach Matt Painter (Purdue), but there’s something about Johnson that stands out.

He’s a mature young man, which comes as little surprise considering his story. His confidence, though, is somewhat unexpected. He has every reason to have graduated from his youth with a lack of self-esteem.

His brothers made sure that didn’t happen.

“I’m very confident in my abilities,” Johnson says. “I know I’ve worked hard to get to this point in my life. That’s just how I’ve been. I’ve overcome a lot of things since my childhood, and the work that I’ve put in has kind of defined who I am, as a hard worker, who never quits and is ready for any challenge.”

“Just being around Orlando, you can see his brothers did a great job of raising him,” says WUG assistant coachCuonzo Martin (Tennessee). “He’s a humble young man, and he appreciates the fact that he’s just got the opportunity to be here, let alone make this team.

“He wants to be a great player. He’s a guy who gets to the gym early and leaves the gym late. He’s just a tough kid, but with a great sense of humility and understanding.”

This summer has been a bit of a roller-coaster for Johnson, and it’s continuing here under Painter’s tutelage. Johnson declared for the 2011 NBA Draft following the Gauchos’ loss to Florida in the NCAA Tournament but didn’t hire an agent and ultimately withdrew his name from consideration.

And here at the USOTC, he’s gotten to experience the joy of making the final roster that will first tip against Mexico on Aug. 13, and he’s gotten a taste of the unknown frustration of not being the best player on his team.

He’s taken it all in stride, though, and kept pushing on -- like he’s done ever since he was 1.

“(My brothers) keep telling me that hard work keeps paying off and to never stop believing in myself and never stop working,” Johnson says. “They’ve always told me that good things happen to good people, so as long as I keep being a good person, good things will happen. So hopefully I can keep that up."

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