Former walk-on now a hero to team

Former walk-on now a hero to team

   CHAMPAIGN  The name''s Brian, not "Rudy."

   For your information, Brian Johnson has never shacked up in a cot in the bowels of the Assembly Hall or spent a Friday night spraying paint on Illini football helmets. He never tried to mooch his way into the University of Illinois through a man of the cloth.

   And the future engineer, with the vocabulary that goes way beyond "Gotta take it one game at a time," has never, ever spent a day in junior college.

   But like that runty Notre Dame walk-on they made a movie about, Johnson''s life story would probably play well on the big screen.

   "If you would have told me this is how it would happen, I would have sent you to an insane asylum," Johnson says.

   To recap:

   It''s the story of a kid who, after an all-star career at Des Plaines'' Maine West High, was offered a handful of Division I basketball scholarships.

   Who wanted to be an engineer so bad and cared about academics so much, he opted to pass up every offer and pay his own way to Illinois.

   Who couldn''t stand life without basketball and decided to walk on the team in the fall of 1993.

   Who showed so much pizazz and promise as a practice dummy, he was awarded a full scholarship a year later.

   Who played a few minutes here, a few minutes there for two years under the old coach, who retired after his sophomore season.

   Who went home during the summer of ''96, hit the weights harder than Hans and Franz, and returned that fall new and improved, bigger and better.

   Who earned the admiration of his teammates for his spunk and spirit, then a starting spot in the Illinois lineup, an odd combination for a one-time walk-on.

   Who, after Saturday''s win over Ohio State, has played more minutes this season (322) than his career total coming in (298).

   Quick, somebody pinch the guy.

   "I couldn''t have written it any better," Johnson says.

Act I: The wonder years

   He''s the son of a former high school All-American, the big brother of one of the top junior prospects in the ''burbs, the twin of a former Northern Illinois walk-on.

   "His mother and I have sat in a lot of bleachers," said Ronald Johnson, a former NIU Huskie himself and Brian''s basketball inspiration.

   Dad goes 6-foot-5. Mom''s 6-foot.

   As basketball families go, the Johnsons are Chicagoland''s answer to the Barrys.

   "It''s how the family bonded," Johnson said. "When you''ve got a dad like that, a twin brother who''s a gym rat and a younger brother, it leads to some pretty good two-on-two games.

   "Or some pretty heated one-on-one games against your twin."

   Calls of, "Boys ... supper time," often went unanswered ever since that day 18 years ago when Ronald put the hoop up in the driveway.

   "We''d be out there till midnight going at it," said Brad, the twin.

   Except those nights when Nolan Ryan was pitching on the tube. Johnson, a baseball card junkie with some Mantles and Mayses among a collection worth several thousand bucks, "worshiped" the Ryan Express, a little something he also picked up from Pops.

   "When I was little, I always admired how he''d been able to stay on top of the profession for so long," Johnson said. "I know it sounds kind of deep for a kid, but my dad admired him when he was younger, and here I was, watching him 20 years later, beating up on the Sox."

   Johnson''s most memorable athletic moment? Has to be that day four years ago when he, Dad and little brother Lucas hopped in the car and drove to Milwaukee to watch the Ryan Express roll to career win No. 300.

   "I think he probably has every Nolan Ryan card that was ever made," Ronald Johnson said.

Act II: It''s academic

   Johnson made the recruiting process a cinch for Jim Sullivan, his Maine West coach.

   "He kept telling me, ''Stop working so hard,'' " Sullivan said. "He knew he wanted to be a part of the Illinois campus very early in the process.

   "I said, ''You know what you''re up against, trying to play ball in the Big Ten?'' He said he wanted to try it."

   Wichita State, Wyoming and a few other Division I schools invited the third-team Illinois Basketball Coaches Association All-Stater to visit, each promising scholarships.

   Thanks, Johnson said. But no thanks.

   "It wasn''t that I wasn''t appreciative of their very generous offers, I just wanted to go to the University of Illinois and study engineering," Johnson said. "I was kind of close-minded as far as academics went."

   He''ll graduate this spring with a bachelor''s degree in electrical engineering, another year of eligibility and a proud couple of parents.

   "His biggest priority has always been getting a quality degree," Ronald Johnson said. "We''re very fortunate."


Act III: Change for the better

   He''s scoring three times as many points (7.3), playing four times as many minutes (27) and grabbing five times as many rebounds (5.3) as he did last season under Lou Henson.

   But the last thing he is, is bitter.

   "Never have been," Johnson said. "It wasn''t a case of me ever saying, ''Man, if Coach Henson wasn''t here, I''d be playing.'' It was always, ''If Coach Henson wasn''t here, I wouldn''t be on the team.'' "

   Henson''s the guy who had the foresight to redshirt Johnson as a freshman, a rarity among walk-ons. Henson''s the guy who put him on scholarship.

   "I''ve been telling people all along Brian was going to be a good player," Henson said.

   But it took a new coach, Lon Kruger, and a summerlong workout for Johnson to get the minutes the folks in Des Plaines thought he deserved all along.

   "I think he''s really getting fair treatment now," Ronald Johnson said. "He''s getting a chance to show what he can do and he''s coming through. He fits in very well with the new system."

   "With the change in leadership at the top, it might have sparked a renewed interest in what Brian was capable of doing," Sullivan said. "I always thought he was a talented, hard-working kid that kind of got buried behind some players that were more highly regarded by Lou, and they were scholarship players."

   It wasn''t all that. Johnson''s quick to admit he''s a better fit in the Kruger system, but the 15 pounds of muscle he added to his 6-6, 196-pound frame helped the cause as much as any coaching change.

   "Now I''m not as easy for the Robert Traylors of the Big Ten to toss around," said Johnson, a starter from Day 1 of the season.

   He''ll give up 3 inches Thursday when he locks up with Michigan''s Maurice Taylor. No biggie. The small forward turned power forward spotted UCLA''s Jelani McCoy 31/2 last month, and was a splinter under his skin all afternoon. McCoy, the national field goal leader, managed just six points.

   "I think Brian, a little bit like Bryant Notree a year ago, kind of takes advantage of being a little bit undersized in playing against bigger people," Kruger said. "His mobility, his agility, his quickness give him an advantage in some ways."

Act IV: The fighting Illini

   If you didn''t know any better, you''d think he had something to do with the decision to put "Fighting" before "Illini."

   "Teammates know who''s really sincere with their effort and who''s really bought into what''s happening," Kruger said. "They all recognize and respect what Brian does.

   "His credibility has been boosted tremendously because they know of his willingness to dive and fight and claw and scratch."

   Chris Gandy''s a big fan.

   "You want to know why B.J.''s my hero?" asked Gandy, the UI''s senior center. "He''s the only 6-6 dude in the country to do everything he does."

   To name a few ...

   "Getting a hand on a loose ball, diving on the floor to gain a possession, keeping a rebound alive, having really good awareness with regard to setting good picks, making that extra pass," Kruger said.

   "Brian, from Day 1, has done so many of the little things."

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