When Memphis Tigers head coach Josh Pastner announced on Aug. 30 last year that guard Geron Johnson was cleared to play, everyone knew it was a gamble that could be a hit or miss. After all, Johnson had become well acquainted with law enforcement since he was in high school at Dunbar in Dayton, Ohio.
His troubles started while at Dunbar when he was arrested for attempted burglary and was not a star student. His grades were poor and as a result, he did not qualify academically to play, forcing him to go the JUCO route. Johnson enrolled at Chipola Junior College in Florida entering his freshman year, but was kicked off the team for a marijuana arrest. He then made his way to Garden City College in Kansas until he was kicked off their team as well for allegedly stealing a girl’s cell phone and other legal issues.
Despite all of this, Pastner offered him a scholarship and Johnson happily accepted. But, it did not come without some ground rules, with one of them being a curfew. While his teammates had the luxuries of coming home at their convenience and having nights out, Johnson had to be in by midnight, no exceptions. Pastner made calls day and night to Johnson to make sure he was staying out of trouble and was home on time. Other players could miss class at times without repercussion, but Johnson had to be in class every day. He was basically under 24/7 surveillance by the coaching staff.
If Johnson was a thug, these rules would have quickly caught up with him, but he was determined to show the city and the nation that his past was not who he was. His contributions on the court last season were crucial for a Tigers team that finished 31-5 and a perfect 16-0 in C-USA play. Johnson said before the season he just wanted to help Memphis win games in any way he could. He was true to his word; virtually being the Tigers do-it-all guy with averages of 10.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
His most impressive accomplishment, though, certainly has to be how he turned his life around off the court. Johnson was on extremely thin ice and one slip up would have had him catching the next flight back to Dayton. But all the credit in the world goes to him for adhering to all Pastner’s rules and genuinely working to become a better person and teammate. He took it upon himself to go above and beyond what people expected of him, working with children at basketball camps and being a model citizen. If you see Johnson at a press conference or event open to the public, he spends most of his time walking around talking and introducing himself to fans.
There is no guarantee that Johnson won’t fall back into his own ways. However, his transformation, after just a year with the Tigers, has been nothing short of remarkable. We all knew the kid could play ball, but had no idea if he could get himself together and get away from his old lifestyle. No longer is that a burning question. Johnson has said he wakes up every day and thanks God for the chance Pastner and the Memphis program have given him.
A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine Johnson being a class act and going around the city talking to kids about the importance of education and doing the right things. He still has a long road ahead of him, but Johnson is a feel-good story that is a prime example of how hard work and determination can bring you success on and off the court.