Steve Johnson was one of the most alive individuals I’ve ever known.
That booming, yet boyish laugh. That stern, yet caring voice. That pep in his step.
Johnson didn’t merely start days. He embraced them, attacked them, breathed them in heavily and gave his best back to them, and to whomever he was trying to educate, be it on the basketball court or in the classroom.
That’s why even knowing for these last four months that he was gravely ill still wasn’t enough time to comprehend Steve Johnson in that kind of condition.
The longtime Elkhart Memorial boys basketball coach died Saturday, Dec. 21, at age 71.
Johnson minimized his visitors and phone calls after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late this past summer. Though plenty of people did come to know about it, he didn’t want his situation formally publicized, either.
There were a lot of things Johnson could make a fuss about or want a fuss made about. Himself wasn’t one of them.
Regardless, the man was much beloved locally, as was clearly evident in colleague Ken Fox’s story Saturday upon Johnson’s death.
But that love wasn’t just locally. It was all over.
Did you know that after his gig at an elite basketball academy in Florida didn’t work out quite the way he had envisioned, he dove right back into the high school game down there, helping a tiny school get going?
Did you know Johnson, a tireless lover and teacher of the game, had been directing a summer basketball camp in New Hampshire for about 20 years?
Check the Camp Winaukee page on Facebook. At last check, there were more than 50 comments in reaction to Johnson’s death, all of them glowing in their praise of the man.
And turning right back to locally, Johnson’s influence on basketball didn’t end here when he stepped down at Memorial in 2006, either.
Working with 6 to 12-year-olds, he assisted local basketball trainer Craig Bush the last two years, initially at Eastlake Athletic Club and then with the start-up of Tipping Point Basketball when Bush moved over to the Elkhart Sports Center. Johnson also worked other camps locally.
“He was the most integrity-driven man I have ever met,” Bush said upon learning of Johnson’s death. “Every day he was on the court was a great day for him no matter what was going on in his life. He could turn negatives into positives instantaneously and always had a teaching point in the game of life.”
Bush, a former NorthWood player, said Johnson was “doing what he loved to do all the way up to the point he got sick.”
That was in August, and Bush remembers the call he took from Johnson at the time.
“A lot of it was very personal, but he knew, and he told me, ‘It’s not good,’” Bush said. “I remember his exact words were, ‘I have to hang up the sneakers.’ We told each other we loved each other.”
My own memories of Johnson are naturally many.
On the sideline, he often wore a red sweater, red-flavored jacket or red sleeveless vest — none of those reds bearing quite the same intensity that Johnson’s face could turn when he became exasperated by an official making the perceived wrong call or a player not executing exactly what that player had been taught.
As frustrated as Johnson could become, though, I never heard him belittle a player, on or off the record, nor ever fail to hold out hope that the player was somehow going to turn it around eventually.
He often spoke of how lucky kids were to be in school, rather than out working, and would become admittedly mystified by them not taking full advantage of their educational opportunities.
I’m not sure about Johnson’s first tenure at Memorial (1978-83), as it preceded my arrival in Elkhart, but during his second (1994-2006), I remember that it was automatic that any player would sit the rest of the first half upon picking up two fouls.
Most coaches will make some exceptions based on the player, the opponent, the score or some combination, but not Johnson. He wanted his team at full throttle to start the second half.
Of his teams that I did witness, my favorite was the 2001-02 club that went 20-3 and won the program’s first sectional in 13 years. Any opposing coach knew exactly what that group was going to do at each end of the floor — on the defensive end, I’m not sure they ever did come out of their 3-2 zone — but it simply didn’t matter because of their fine-tuned level of execution.
His first tenure, meanwhile, was other-worldly. Elkhart’s had no other half-decade stretch like it since it split into two public schools in 1972. Johnson’s teams from 1978-79 to 1982-83 went 92-24, including the only sectional three-peat that’s been logged by Memorial or Central.
Overall, Johnson won or shared The Truth’s Area Coach of the Year honor a record five times, three times during his first go-around, twice during his second.
In between, he went into private business, educated the basketball community as one of Vince Turner’s engaging color commentators on WTRC and returned to coaching as an assistant at Valparaiso University.
Johnson and I lived in the same neighborhood for several recent years.
It was eerie how often we ran into each other at Martin’s. If it was basketball season, he almost always spoke with excitement of a college game he had just watched or of one he was going to be watching when he got home.
I also saw Johnson out running a lot, and in more recent years, out walking.
But even when it became walking, it didn’t really feel like he had slowed down.
It didn’t feel like Steve Johnson would ever slow down.
Contact Anthony Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AnthonyAnders11.
ANTHONY’S TWINE 12
Team W-L 1. Penn 5-0
2. NorthWood 5-0
3. SB Adams 4-1
4. Northridge 6-0
5. SB St. Joseph 2-1
6. Warsaw 4-2
7. Triton 4-1
8. SB Washington 4-1
9. Elkhart Christian 5-1
10. Westview 3-2
11. Prairie Heights 5-1
12. West Noble 5-0
Teams chosen from among the 38 making up the NLC, NIC, NSC, NECC and independents Bethany and Elkhart Christian.
IHSAA AREA RECORDS
W-L Off. Def.
Northridge 6-0 58.2 49.3
NorthWood 5-0 55.4 43.0
Penn 5-0 69.8 52.8
Elk. Christian 5-1 75.0 49.0
Fairfield 3-2 64.2 50.0
Westview 3-2 56.6 50.0
Goshen 4-3 44.9 45.0
Concord 2-2 55.0 56.8
Jimtown 2-3 49.2 37.2
Memorial 2-3 50.6 55.8
Bethany 3-5 48.4 60.4
Central 2-4 59.5 62.2
Marian 1-4 56.0 58.0
Wawasee 1-6 46.1 52.6
G Pts Avg
Devin Cannady, Marian 5 120 24.0
Jordyn Bontrager, Wview 5 110 22.0
Joe Line, Fairfield 5 109 21.8
Nate Ritchie, Nridge 6 130 21.7
Cory Waycaster, ECA 6 117 19.5
Ramon Johnson, Concord 4 74 18.5
Treyton Harris, Central 6 107 17.8
Ryan Kupferschmid, ECA 6 101 16.8
Zach Zurcher, NWood 5 80 16.0
Filip Serwatka, Concord 4 64 16.0
Chandler Aspy, Wview 4 61 15.3
Jon Wilkinson, NWood 5 73 14.6
Deric Haynes, Goshen 7 96 13.7
Billy Doslak, Penn 5 68 13.6
Alex Clark, Wawasee 7 95 13.6
Abe Thorne, Bethany 8 104 13.0
Dimitri Giger, Memorial 5 65 13.0
Kenny Bearss, ECA 6 72 12.0
A.J. Gary, Memorial 5 60 12.0
Cam Maxwell, Memorial 3 34 11.3
Nick Floyd, Jimtown 5 56 11.2
Will Stueve, NWood 5 56 11.2
Taylor Brooks, Penn 5 55 11.0
John Stack, Fairfield 5 48 9.6
Jordan Geist, Penn 5 73 14.6
Ryan Lutz, Penn 5 52 10.4
Aaron Flax, Central 6 69 11.5
Sol Brenneman, Bethany 8 76 9.5
Austin Woolett, Goshen 7 67 9.6
Brady Bechtel, Goshen 2 19 9.5
THIS WEEK’S GAMES
Friday, Dec. 27
Indianapolis Arlington (0-3) vs. Central at North Side Gym, 3 p.m. JV start
NIC/NLC Shootout at Bethel College: Memorial vs. Marian, 6 p.m., followed by Concord vs. Mishawaka (2-4)
NIC/NLC Shootout at Northridge: Penn vs. Goshen, 6 p.m., followed by SB St. Joseph (2-1) vs. Northridge
Saturday, Dec. 28
NIC/NLC Shootout at North Side Gym: Marian vs. Concord, 6 p.m., followed by Mishawaka vs. Memorial
NIC/NLC Shootout at Penn: Goshen vs. SB St. Joseph, 6 p.m., followed by Northridge vs. Penn
Jimtown at Central Noble (0-5)
Lakeland (2-2) at Westview