June 17, 2009
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - When Orlando Johnson made the decision to transfer after one year at Loyola Marymount, he could have gone just about anywhere.
In his one season with the Lions, Johnson led the team in scoring (12.4 points per game) and rebounding (4.9 per game), setting freshmen records in both categories. Yeah, he could have called his shot.
Johnson picked UC Santa Barbara.
"UCSB was a perfect fit," said the Seaside, Calif., native. "The coaching staff and players really opened up to me on my visit. It kind of felt like family. I really felt there was no other school that would have been better for me."
Johnson knows all about the importance of family. After his mother - Vicki Renée Johnson - passed away when he was a child, his grandmother and brothers took over the duties of raising him. When his grandmother passed, the responsibilities fell to his brothers, Jamell Damon, Sr., and Robert Johnson.
"My brothers really started raising me when my mom passed," he recalled. "Robbie was like 16 and Jamell 12. It was crazy. They took turns. Sometimes they would miss school just to make sure I got to a doctor's appointment or something. It was tough, but I'm living well now. I'm in college and nobody ever thought I'd make it this far. I've overcome the odds, and my brothers are really the main reason."
In addition to the everyday duties of raising him, Johnson's brothers also steered him in the right direction at every turn.
"I grew-up in a neighborhood that wasn't very good," Johnson recalled. "I grew-up seeing fights everyday. You were either out there hustling, doing stuff like fighting, or you were in school, reading books and playing sports. My brothers stayed away from the other stuff too. They shielded me and put me on the right path."
As college athletes - Robbie played basketball at Weber State and Jamell played football at St. Mary's - Johnson's brothers also instilled in him a competitiveness and work ethic that has paid off.
"I've learned so much from them," he said. "I've learned how to be a man, how to conduct myself in public, to be a leader in my community, to respect people and to work hard."
UCSB head coach Bob Williams sees all of those things in Johnson.
"Orlando's commitment, work ethic and competitiveness are incredible," said Williams. "He has such a strong desire to be coached and because of that he has improved his game so much. But outside of basketball, he is just such a quality person and a natural leader."
How competitive is Johnson?
"You can put me on the court against anybody," he began. "It doesn't matter if it is an NBA player or one of my little nephews, I have to go hard on them. I take nobody lightly. My competitiveness is really what drives me."
As a high school athlete Johnson also played football. In his first two years - at North Salinas High School - he was a quarterback. Following his sophomore year, he transferred to Palma High School in Salinas where he played tight end during his junior year.
"I think Orlando's football background is one of the reasons he is so tough and physical," Williams surmised. "He doesn't shy away from contact. He really likes to mix it up."
Johnson, who once caught a pair of touchdown passes in a game against top-ranked De La Salle High School, agrees that his experience in football has contributed to his style on the basketball court.
"Football is definitely more physical than basketball and that's what I bring to the court," he said. "I am a physical player and have a physical nature. I like contact."
Could Johnson take a hit?
"I could definitely take a hit," he laughed.
As competitive as the 6-foot-5 Johnson is, he was forced to take a year off from competing after transferring to UCSB from Loyola Marymount. NCAA rules require athletes in men's and women's basketball, as well as football, to sit out a full year after transferring.
"Just sitting and watching the games was the most difficult part," recalled Johnson of his redshirt season. "We struggled at times this year and it was tough knowing that I could have helped. I wasn't injured like J.J. (Justin Joyner) so I knew I could have made a difference."
Sitting out a season while still practicing full time did offer some positives. Johnson believes he improved as a player, in many ways. He thinks he is a better ball handler, defender and shooter. But he also feels that he understands the game better.
"I became smarter about the game," he said. "I started seeing things that I had never seen before. The next time I'm on the court, in a game, I will be a much better player."
Williams believes that Johnson brings more than just statistics to the table. He sees him as a leader.
"Orlando is a natural leader," he said. "A lot of it has to do with how hard he works and how competitive he is, but it's more than that. Even as a redshirt he and J.J. were the ones who the other guys looked to as leaders."
Once his playing days have ended, the ability to lead could lead Johnson down another path: coaching.
"When I am done playing basketball, hopefully I'll be coaching somewhere," he said. "I want to give back to the community like that. Twenty years from now, I definitely see myself coaching."
After a pause, he adds: "I'll be 40 then, so hopefully, I'll also be watching my children grow-up."
A communications studies major, Johnson has also expressed an interest in a broadcasting career. Either way, he is thankful for where he is in his life.
"I don't ask people to feel sorry for me," he stated. "I just want to be treated like everyone else. I've lived a good life and I've been given great opportunities. I'm thankful for all of it."
On Nov. 14, when the basketball season tips-off against Cal State Los Angeles, the Gaucho coaches will be thankful too. Thankful that Orlando Johnson selected UCSB when he decided to transfer.
UCSB student-athletes are a special group of young men and women who also serve as great role models to the many fans and youth that support them in sports and in everyday life. Each day more than 450 UCSB student-athletes compete in the classroom, compete in their respective sport and give back to the community.
Orlando Johnson is this week's Great Example.
Earlier this year UCSB Athletics unveiled the BE Great initiative. BE Great is dedicated to maximizing leadership ability, strong on-campus interaction, and general welfare for all 450 student-athletes and Intercollegiate Athletics staff at UC Santa Barbara. BE Great also focuses on personal and career development, diversity, and social awareness, along with ensuring academic success. UCSB has a 92% student-athlete graduation rate.