These days, Justin Johnson lingers.
He’ll sit at his locker a few extra minutes after games. He walks a little slower toward the exit when it’s time to leave E.A. Diddle Arena. He’ll catch himself glancing toward the banners that hang from the ceiling of the building where he’s played 59 games – and spent so much more time in when the stands were empty.
“My dream is to have 23 put in those rafters one day,” he said. “That’s something that no one can ever take away from you. You can bring your kids and your grandkids back, people look up and that’s you up there.”
Johnson’s final two games in Bowling Green, one Thursday and one Saturday, in a Western Kentucky uniform are this week. His No. 23 jersey has been the one constant for a program otherwise inconsistent in its success and personnel since his arrival as a true freshman in 2014.
The eastern Kentucky native has stuck with the Hilltoppers through the good times and the bad. As his last season winds down he has a chance to cement his legacy as one of WKU’s all-time greats.
CHANGE IN THE HOUSE OF HARPER
Abruptly, swiftly, everything changed March 17, 2016. Ray Harper was out. Three players were suspended and later dismissed. Johnson was left alone in the aftermath.
“It was a really tough time. Even after coach Harper got fired, for a couple weeks straight I would go to his house to have dinner,” Johnson said. “If I ever need anything he’s there for me. I could send that guy a text right now if I needed anything he would take care of me. That’s just the type of relationship we built.
“I’ll always have respect for him because that’s why I’m at Western Kentucky. At the end of the day he’s the guy that recruited me.”
As a three-star prospect at Sheldon Clark High School and then Perry County Central High School, Johnson jokingly said he feels like he’s been a WKU student for seven years. He began taking visits as a recruit as a sophomore and committed to be a Hilltopper in 2013, opting to spend his career in Bowling Green instead of at Boston College.
Johnson was close with Harper and many of the program's former assistants like David Boyden (now at Radford), Shawn Forrest (now at Southern Methodist) and Phil Cunningham (now the head coach at Troy). And when the 6-foot-7 forward arrived on campus in 2014, the Tops were coming off a 20-12 season and second-place finish in the Sun Belt Conference. In each of the two years before that they had played in the NCAA Tournament.
Western hasn't been back to those heights since.
“It was kind of a whirlwind of a shell-shock of a situation,” said Johnson, who had been through a coaching change in high school. “In the college situation, going into a coaching change, as a player you’re scared. You really are. You don’t know if this guy likes the way you play, if you fit his style, you don’t know if he’s gonna bring guys with him he thinks are better than you or who will outwork you.
“The whole situation was just shell-shocking. You learn from it and you just compete and that’s just how you get through it.”
It took a little less than two weeks for Western Kentucky to hire Rick Stansbury as Harper’s replacement. Johnson had averaged 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in his first two years under Harper and was clearly going to be the best player on Stansbury’s first roster.
But no one would have blamed him had he opted to start fresh somewhere else.
“He had a tough time with it,” said Floyd Central High School coach Kevin Spurlock, Johnson’s coach at Perry County Central. “Coach Harper’s a great guy. Coach Harper was recruiting him since he was a freshman in high school and they had that relationship built up. He was basically down in Bowling Green almost every month. He just liked being around the coaches and the coaches that were there. He and George Fant, shoot, they were best buddies before Justin ever got to Western. He just loved coach Harper and that coaching staff. It was hard on him.
“He’s adjusted and I know coach Stansbury’s adjusted. They’ve worked through some kinks. (Johnson) seems to be a lot happier this year than he was last year.”
Keeley Rogers, a 5-foot-8 guard out of Powell County High School, was a great (maybe even better than Johnson) basketball player in her own right.
Johnson was in the stands one night when the PCHS girls’ team was on the court – and the play of a crafty lefty caught his eye. He quickly, and conveniently, forgot his current girlfriend at the time.
“After the game was over I followed her mom and dad out and just introduced myself,” Johnson said. “She comes out of the locker room and I talked to her after the game and we exchanged numbers. For about six months we were friends. Then one day she was like, ‘It’s either her or me.’ It’s kinda been history ever since.”
After scoring a school record 2,647 points, averaging 9.5 rebounds, 2.7 steals, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks in 93 games at PCHS, Rogers joined the team at Kentucky Wesleyan. She played 11 minutes in four games and decided to hang up her sneakers and transfer to WKU.
Rogers hasn’t missed a home game during Johnson’s four-year career. She’s come to terms with Johnson being gone on Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. She spends late nights in the practice gym rebounding Johnson’s missed shots.
When the day is done the two will sit down to a home-cooked meal.
“She’s the glue piece, she’s my No. 1 fan,” Johnson said. “She’s been a blessing for me.”
CRASHING THE BOARDS – AND THE RECORD BOOKS
Johnson needs 46 rebounds to reach 1,000 for his career. He’s been obsessed with the milestone since this past summer when he decided to give up a brief fancy with playing football and return to the basketball court.
With just five guaranteed games remaining, Johnson needs to average 9.2 rebounds per game to get there.
“Anybody that can play basketball and score a little bit and plays for four years can, most likely, score 1,000 points,” he said. “It’s not easy to do, to score 1,000, but to get 1,000 rebounds? That’s a put-your-hard-hat-on-and-go-to-work-everyday stat. It just shows how hard you play, I think. I don’t know that there are many guys across the country that go get 1,000 rebounds very often.”
This past spring, Johnson put on a football uniform at the urging of WKU’s star quarterback Mike White (more on that momentarily). Johnson had averaged 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds as a junior, endured Western’s first losing season in five years and was about to graduate with a degree in sport management.
Days after the Hilltoppers’ season ended with a thud in the first round of the Conference USA tournament, Johnson was at Houchens-Smith Stadium trying to do his best impression of a tight end.
“When he went from basketball to football, he had to put on weight – and he put on weight. And then, when his knee got hurt, he busted his ass to get back,” White said. “When he had to make that transition back from football to basketball he had to drop all that weight. He was going to 5 a.m. hot yoga every morning, no matter if it was raining outside or if it was super cold outside. It even got to one point where he went on this strict diet where, I’m not even kidding you, all the dude was eating for lunch was canned tuna.
“Those are the little things that, obviously, people don’t see. Justin’s just not the guy to go out and brag about that. He just kinda does what he has to do.”
White, training for the NFL Combine in Florida, is partly to blame for Johnson’s foray into football. He had always pushed the basketball standout to come out for the team, but it wasn’t until White watched Johnson in pregame warmups for the first time that he seriously understood the athletic prowess of his friend.
All of a sudden White and Johnson were, not only football teammates, but roommates thanks to Johnson’s offer to White to have a short-term place to live during the 2017 football season. The two also ended up having every single class together on campus. They would eat family dinners at Johnson’s family’s house in nearby Smiths Grove on the weekends.
And both would soon realize that Johnson needed to be inside Diddle instead of inside Houchens-Smith Stadium.
“He’s never been that big, egotistical guy. The fame and notoriety isn’t what drives him,” White said. “I think just the genuine competing and working hard and having that hard-work pay off in forms of victory and things like that is what really drives him. He’s the ultimate competitor. When we’re at home we’ll find ways to compete, whether it’s video games or golfing, that’s just kind of the athlete he is.”
Johnson is currently sixth on WKU’s all-time rebounding list and will likely pass Bob Daniels (964) to move into fifth. But it’s getting to that 1,000 plateau that drives him.
Only five players in Western’s history have been able to grab 1,000 rebounds and score 1,000 points – Ralph Crosthwaite and Jim McDaniels were the last two Hilltoppers to do so way back in 1971.
McDaniels died in September.
“I’ll be proud if I can get these 46 rebounds. That’s the one I want bad,” Johnson said. “Knock on wood I stay healthy and we can make a run in this tournament. Hopefully, I’ll get it.”
It’s impossible for Johnson not to think about playing professional basketball – agents are permitted to contact the senior in hopes he’ll sign with them once his amateur playing career is complete. But the Hilltoppers have a huge showdown with Old Dominion on Saturday, a trip to No. 24 Middle Tennessee next Thursday and the Conference USA tournament next month.
That hasn't stopped Johnson’s phone from constantly buzzing with emails, texts, social media messages and phone calls regarding his future.
“Right now all my focus is on winning a ring, but then in the back of your head, what’s the next step? You always have to have a plan,” he said. “If that plan doesn’t work out then you have to have a backup.”
Johnson is undersized in the height department and won’t top any speed or quickness charts. But he makes up for those deficiencies in hard work and toughness, and he’s developed his game to be able to make 3s and be more consistent with mid-range scoring.
Those attributes will undoubtedly allow Johnson to have a chance, if not in the NBA, then at least in its developmental league or with an organization outside the United States.
There will be plenty of time to figure all that out. For now it’s all about stepping onto John Oldham Court one last time and trying to hold it altogether.
“Shoot, I only played at Western for two years and I was super emotional on senior day playing in front of that crowd for the last time,” White said. “So I know for him, being a four-year starter, he’s gonna be emotional. He grew up in that arena. He went from an 18-year-old boy to a 22-year-old man. He’s gonna be emotional and I’ll probably tease him about it, but just enjoy it. He’s had a helluva career. He doesn’t have to go out and prove anything. His career has spoken for itself.
“He’s gonna be one of the great Hilltopper legends that’s ever played there – and that says a lot because there s a lot of basketball tradition at Western. Just soak it all in. Enjoy it all. It’s a blur. You’re warming up for a game, next thing you know you gotta go up for senior day and that whole ordeal, then it kinda hits you, and then right after you gotta get going for the game. He’ll be ready to roll.”
Johnson will finish in the top 15 in scoring, the top five in rebounding and in double-doubles and in the top 10 in free throw attempts and in minutes played in Western Kentucky history. Five times he’s finished with at least 15 rebounds in a single game and 37 times he’s grabbed at least 10.
Those numbers weren’t compiled with a lot of flash and flair, but rather with a chunk of persistence and perseverance following the path many in this modern era of college basketball would have avoided. Those are also numbers that, in the end, are just numbers.
No. 23 hopes he’s regarded for more.
“People will remember what you’ve done on the court, but I think – something that my mom has told me my whole life that sticks out to me, people will remember the person you were more than your accomplishments,” Johnson said. “I want them to say, ‘Justin Johnson was a good dude. That was a great guy. He was a great role model for my kid. My kids loved him. He always took the time to speak to people in the community. And just a respectable guy.’
“At the end of the day the basketball goes flat and you’re a person. I wanna be remembered as a great person and a good basketball player. If I get remembered like that, that’s the greatest thing I could have done in my career.”
— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop