Johnson had quite the resume as a player — 1990 state champion at Science Hill, two years as a starter at Tennessee, and 16 years as a professional playing overseas — but he never envisioned his career taking the path it has taken in recent years.
“When I retired from basketball, I really didn’t know who I was,” Johnson, now 44, said. “I tried to find my identity. I was lost. My whole life was basketball.”
These days, basketball is still a big part of his life, although he approaches the game from a much different perspective than he once did. Johnson runs an organization called the Tennessee Chosen Few, a faith-based basketball program he uses to teach young players fundamentals while competing at a high level and learning life skills in a Christian environment.
“I saw a need in my community,” Johnson said. “The basketball players were not getting the fundamentals that were taught to me at a young age and you could see it when they got into high school. Also, I was becoming a Christian. I wanted to show what I learned in church to the kids. And I thought of no better way than to combine the two.
“That’s how the Tennessee Chosen Few was born.”
The idea came with a catch, however.
“I didn’t know if I could coach basketball, let alone lead kids,” Johnson said. “I had no idea. Everybody who plays can’t coach. I didn’t know if that was for me.”
After a few years, the verdict is in.
“I found out I ain’t bad at it,” Johnson said.
Johnson said working with mentors such as his former high school coach George Pitts, now at King University, and John Good at David Crockett High School prepared him for dealing with players on and off the court.
“My experiences playing all over the world with high-caliber coaches helped out a lot,” he said. “As I grew up, I didn’t listen to many people. My dad died at a young age. There weren’t too many people that could reach me. Coaches were the people that had a big influence on my life.”
Now that’s what Johnson is trying to do.
“The kids are receptive, even more than you think,” he said. “We tell them God keeps a scoreboard and I had a parent come up to me and tell me her kid said, ‘I want points on the board. I want to win the game.’ The momma was flabbergasted. I didn’t think that kid was listening.
“Another time, this was a tough kid and I didn’t think he was listening,” Johnson said. “His momma came up and said ‘I appreciate what you’re doing. My boy came home and said he wants God to start driving his car.’ ”
Johnson had asked the kids if they picked up God as a hitch hiker, would they let him ride in the backseat or let him drive?
“It’s the little things like that that make it worth it,” Johnson said. “You never know when you’ll get through to them. They listen, they hear you and they respect you if you respect them.”
The program, which began in 2010 in Knoxville as God’s Chosen Few before moving to Johnson City and changing its name, reaches about 200 kids of all ages from as far away as Knoxville and Wytheville, Virginia.
The fifth-grade girls team won a national tournament in Atlanta and is expected to be listed as the No. 1 team in the country in the Naismith National Youth All-American rankings that come out Sunday. Several of the age groups are ranked nationally.
“It’s not about winning,” Johnson said. “But those things catapult you to things in life that you’ll never forget. I learned a lot of things through basketball. We still talk about the state championship and I’m 44 years old.
“Those experiences helped me make this decision. God led me here.”
The Tennessee Chosen Few plays two seasons throughout the year, from October to February and from March to July. Contact them at Tennessehchosenfew@gmail.com or visit their website at www.tcfbasketball.com.