When he was just a curious toddler, Aaron Johnson would look out his apartment window and study his oldest brother’s basketball moves. He wanted to be just like him.
Johnson watched from a distance because his older brother Rashaun didn’t want him tagging along. But one day, Johnson’s father instructed the older sibling to take the younger with him to a local park where some kids were playing basketball.
“I guess the kids playing needed another man for their team, so they asked me to play,” Johnson said.
Johnson, then 6-years-old, jumped into the game, and it was on.
“I am running past everyone, passing and scoring,” Johnson said, reliving the moment and sitting on the edge of his seat. “They said, ‘Who is this kid and where did he come from?’”
Today, Johnson is one of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s most famous students — a star basketball player and All-American honorable mention. During the UAB morning commencement ceremony May 7, 2011, he will carry the College of Arts and Sciences banner and become the first in his family to graduate from college.
“I am honored,” said the 22-year-old. “I feel as if this is the starting block for my family.”
Johnson grew up one of 12 kids on the south side of Chicago. His childhood memories are painted with scenes of being chased by hoodlums amid a symphony of gunshots ringing.
“It was rough,” he said. “My parents had to go through a lot to keep us safe.”
Johnson’s salvation was his close-knit family and basketball. He joined a community youth league called Small Fry and was a standout. He then went on to play with the Amateur Athletic Union, a summer travel team for grade-school athletes.
Johnson was a big fan of college basketball, but never dreamed of playing on a team. Kids from his neighborhood don’t often get the chance to go to college, he said. But then, UAB came calling.
|Aaron Johnson. Download image.|
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “I had watched UAB on TV and couldn’t believe they wanted me to play for them.”
The 5-foot-8 kid came to UAB not prepared for the preseason conditioning. “I about died,” Johnson said of the rigorous training. “I hated it. Everyone thought I wouldn’t make it to November.”
His grades were bad, too.
“My first semester in college was terrible,” Johnson said. The coaches confronted him, and Johnson promised he’d turn things around.
When Johnson made it to the first game, an exhibition bout against the University of West Alabama, he was intimidated.
“I was super nervous,” Johnson said. One of the veteran players walked up to him and said, “This is where you become a man.”
That added pressure, Johnson said. But when he finally got the ball, “I shined. I had like three steals, five assists and a couple of points. From then on, my career took off.”
This past season Johnson led the Blazers to the school's first Conference USA regular-season championship in men’s basketball and a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. He also led the country in assists at 7.7 per game, broke UAB's career assist mark and was selected as the Conference USA Player of the Year.
Johnson said he owes much of his success to God and to the UAB coaching staff, especially Mike Davis.
“Working with Coach Davis was great, but hard,” he said. “He not only tried to make us better basketball players, but better men.”
Johnson broke his leg in the NCAA Tournament game against Clemson, and Davis gave him words of encouragement.
“I was crying and was real down,” Johnson said. “Coach Davis said, ‘I love you and no matter what, we will get through this.’ He stuck with me. No matter how hard he pushed me on the court, off the court, he was there for me.”
The accolades Johnson received during his sports career are great, he said, but getting a college degree, and in four years, is something that makes him especially proud. He will receive a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications and feels as if he has set a new bar for his younger siblings, he said. His younger sister followed in his footsteps and is a freshman in college.
“UAB means so much to me,” Johnson said. “What I have gone through here has made me into a better person. When I came here I was a boy, and now I am a man.”
Johnson recently acquired an agent and hopes to play basketball professionally after college.
“In five years, I see myself having a camp for kids who came from a background like mine,” he said. “I want to be able to help people and maybe be a part of inspiring the next Aaron Johnson.”