Coach Robert Johnson R.I.P.
“Coach Robert Johnson was, without a doubt, the best coach I ever had, but that doesn’t really do him justice.”
These are the words of Brandon Price (#50; Virginia Tech/Incarnate Word), one of my fellow teammates on the San Antonio GATA I from 1989-1992.
I’d like to start out with those lines, because I believe that there are many of his former players here today that would agree with these under statements.
He was undoubtedly a great coach and teacher, but to all of us that played for him, and learned by him, he was also much more than that.
My name is Jesse Cravens (#54; Rice Univ), and I was a member of the San Antonio GATA I.
When I decided to give this eulogy, I began contacting my old teammates and rehashing all of the old memories. I quickly realized I underestimated the magnitude of that responsibility. I only hope that I can do this justice for those here in attendance and those that we’re unable to attend today.
In 1989, San Antonio Youth Basketball leagues were pretty limited. There simply weren't any quality summer basketball programs in the area. Believe me. Basketball was my life. I played for the San Antonio Knicks, the Highland Hawks, BCI Summer Leagues, East and West Side Boys Clubs and so on and so on. I used to beg my Dad to move the family to any town in Indiana so I could be a part of a serious basketball program with a serious BASKETBALL coach. After our 8th grade season, a group of parents put together a team of the best 14 year old players in the greater San Antonio area, and we started to hold practices. One of those parents, Doug Mock I believe, knew Robert Johnson and invited him to practice. When Robert Johnson quietly and unassumingly walked through the doors to join our practice at Coke R Stevenson Middle School, the ragged group of 14 year old kids, were suddenly blessed with a coach, a college-level coach; In my opinion and many others, a coach that could coach at any level.
He was the answer to my prayers.
What we didn't know, but would later find out is that we were also blessed with a leader, a leader that had the desire, commitment, and knowledge of how to put together a system; a system that taught teamwork, character, work ethic, and integrity through the game of basketball.
That system became known as G.A.T.A and it would eventually span twenty plus years and beyond, with over 20 AAU National Qualifiers and countless achievements.
When we first started the team in 1989, we didn’t have a name, GATA was merely an adjective that Coach Johnson used to describe his style of defense.
We played GATA defense. And GATA didn’t stand for GET AFTER THEM AGGRESSIVELY. As many of you know, Coach Johnson had a burning, infectious, passion for defense. Great defense was at the core of his strategy for winning basketball games.
He used to say to us ... "If we score, we might win. If they never score, we won't lose...the worst we can do is tie.”
Brandon shared a story about DEFENSE:
I also remember one time when coach was trying to emphasize a story during a pre-game speech by describing the storytelling methods of some ancient civilization. He said that they would inflict pain on tribal members in order to make sure they would remember the important points of a story. The whole time coach was telling us this, he was lighting matches, one after another. He ended the story by saying, “Now I want you all to remember this. We are going to go out there and play good defense!”
So One day after practice, he asked us what we wanted to name the team, and someone said 'How about GATA?'
We looked around for consensus, I mean, could we really get away with naming our team GATA?
He smiled, and said 'OK, sounds good, San Antonio GATA it is' … and to our disappointment, that's when the acronym changed to GET AFTER THEM AGGRESSIVELY.
After that, GATA became our mission statement; It was simple, to the point, and GATA set the tone for everything we did. NOW, There is something REALLY important about making defense the core of your strategy. For many young players, defense is just plain boring. For me, running defenses at practice was painful.
BUT, this was a tremendous life lesson.
Coach Johnson taught us that in life the really important work is usually the less glamorous work, the work that nobody else wants to do. It is often the individuals that are willing to do that type of work, and do it well, that are the most successful.
GATA taught us to take the less glamorous and embrace it with passion every time we stepped onto the floor, or studied for a test, or clocked into work, etc.
Coach Johnson led by example, when we won he never took credit, when we lost he was more apt than anyone to take the blame, and he was never into the glamorous.
Just like any great story, at our first AAU Nationals tournament in Las Vegas 1989 we lost BAD. We didn’t play well.
We were 14, away from home, in Las Vegas ... of ALL places, staying in the UNLV dorms … let's just say we could have done a better job of obeying Coach Johnson's curfew. Maybe if we would have gotten some sleep, we would have won more games. In our minds, we could stay up all night long and still play 5 games back to back the next day. We were wrong.
But every year we got a year older, and under the leadership of Coach Johnson, a year wiser. When we started, we didn't know how to prepare mentally or physically for games. We were a ragged, undisciplined bunch of individual players.
I used to room with Mark Read(#15) and ND Kalu, and I remember that every year we would get more and more serious about getting to bed early the night before games. And let me tell you that was tough to do rooming with those 2 guys. Mark was hilarious and ND had a deep bellowing laugh that would fill the entire wing of a hotel.
When we first started, we would also eat fast food before games. By our final summer in Winston-Salem NC, when we won 10th at the AAU National Championship, we operated like a well oiled machine. Coach Johnson had us eating pre game meals of fruit and cereal, and watching game film.
First, he taught us that if we failed to prepare, we prepared to fail, and then he taught us HOW to get mentally and physically prepared for every game.
Over the course of 4 years, Coach Johnson transformed us from a group of gangly, rugged little boys to a group of mature, responsible young men.
As ND Kalu put it, "As an adult, I now really appreciate how generous Coach Johnson was with his time and wisdom as a teacher. He did not have to help us become the men we are today but he chose to and for that I will forever be grateful"
One time we played in a 15 and under tournament at Huston Tillotson College in Austin. This was one of those tournaments, one of those where the referees were horrible, probably related to the players on the home town team, the scoreboard was run by a 12 year old kid juggling a snow cone and Frito pie from the snack stand. I was thrown out of the game, along with a player on the other team. Towards the end of the game, the player who was thrown out suckered punched Brandon Price in the mouth.
The player landing the punch had his car keys in his hand (remember this was a 15 year old tournament...I guess he had a permit). ND Kalu, who would later have a long NFL career as an outside linebacker, chased the guy out the door, with Coach Johnson close behind yelling “ND!, ND!”
After all the madness, we either won first or second place, none of us can remember, Coach Johnson accepted the trophy.He then turned, walked straight to the door. He was so disgusted with the whole scene, he slammed the trophy in the garbage can on his way out the door.
Unfortunately, we found ourselves in this type of situation more than a handful of times, and I am somewhat ashamed to say today that I was personally responsible for quite a few of them. Despite all of our antics, Coach Johnson never gave up on us.
In the end, he taught us that it’s not IF you win, its HOW you win...and that sometimes trophies aren't trophies at all they are just cheap, metal, meaningless statues.
BASKETBALL AS A FOUNDATION FOR LIFE
We can all admit as players, we all had weaknesses, and Coach somehow knew how to address each and everyone one of them. Some of us couldn’t only go left, some of us didn’t keep the ball high in the post, some took bad shots at the wrong time, ....but he had strategies for addressing them all.
Most importantly, his mere presence made us want to get better ... just to gain his approval.
Brad Stephens(#32) said, "I will never forget Coach Johnson's voice when after an errant pass, 19 foot heave, or missed assignment on the baseline he would scream - STEPHENS! As my life has moved on, I seem to have told everyone I have met about this, and as a consequence, most of my male friends, and some of the female ones always greet me just like that - STEPHENS!
He is the only coach I ever had whose word was a rule of law, and the one whose approval I most zealously wanted. He ran into my mother on several occasions and was wonderful to her in spite of my inability to consistently hit a wide open 15 foot jumper. "
For myself, my weakness was controlling my emotions.
One time we were in Kingsport Tennessee, and I fowled out of game, and got a technical foul on my way to the bench. And when I was done making a fool out of myself, Coach approached me at the end of the bench. He got down on one knee.
He said, "You see those scouts sitting right there in the stands, they approached me before the game and your name was on their list. It just got crossed out."
He made a motion with his hand, and walked away.
Coach Johnson was the first coach to ever help me through overcoming this weakness. A weakness that if I would have not overcome, the course of my life would have been drastically changed.
Two years later in Winston-Salem, NC. We played an outstanding ballclub from Oklahoma, and during warmups I looked into the stands and their sat Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight.
We may have collectively played the best game we had ever played. We were certainly the underdog. We won. The outcome for me personally was also different. It was the best game I ever played for Coach Johnson. It was a defining moment, and after that game I went from being a player known in Texas to a nationally known player, and the scholarship offers followed. I will forever be in debt to Coach Johnson for providing me with that opportunity and teaching me how to turn raw, uncontrolled emotion into disciplined intensity.
ONE MAN’s MASTERPIECE
My Dad used to work weekends, and I would catch a ride to our Houston, Austin, and Dallas tournaments with Coach Johnson riding shotgun in his Chevy blazer.
In the console he had a box of Bob Dylan tapes, and these long rides were my introduction to the songs and stories of Bob Dylan.
I would later realize, as I became a Bob Dylan fan myself, that his passion for Dylan was a testament to Coach Johnson's incredible depth and thoughtfulness.
One of those albums in his console was Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971), and one of my favorite songs was, and still is, 'When I Paint My Masterpiece'
Bob Dylan sang:
Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rent, When I paint my Masterpiece.
Coach, everything is different. You made so many differences in so many lives.
And to me, San Antonio GATA, and the system you created to make that difference was your Masterpiece.