Marcus Johnson used to let his 5-year-old son, Elijah, attend his Gary (Ind.) Wirt High School freshman basketball team practices.
And, almost every day, coach/proud papa Marcus would let tiny Elijah take the court against the imposing ninth-graders who did not scare his child.
“Elijah could shoot from the elbow at that age,” related Marcus Johnson, who now lives and works in Las Vegas — where Elijah is a 6-foot-2 senior guard at Cheyenne High.
“Whenever Elijah scored on somebody, I’d make that player (defender) run. One of my 6-foot-8 centers got tired of running. Elijah went up to shoot, and his 6-8, 230-pound frame came down on my 5-year-old. Elijah was squirming on the ground. He was actually hurt. That 230 pounds came down on him hard,” Marcus exclaimed.
Elijah remembers striking fear in the hearts of his dad’s players. Well, sort of.
“I think it was more of, they couldn’t believe it,” Elijah Johnson said, reflecting back on those ninth-graders Monday after signing a national letter of intent with Kansas University. “Going against older players helped me. I’ve been doing that a long time.”
Thanks to his loving parents, Elijah Johnson had a head start on most youths in basketball.
“I bought him the arcade game ‘Run and Gun’ when it first came out,” said his mom, Yolanda, noting Elijah was 3 or 4 at the time. “It’s the game with the basket and the clock running down. We just cleared out the living room and let him play.”
He played football and basketball in youth leagues and elementary school — he actually was a teammate of KU junior Tyrone Appleton at one point — moving from Indiana to Las Vegas five years ago.
Elijah long had been a KU fan by the time he moved to Glitter City.
“He’s been looking at KU since he was in the third grade,” said Yolanda, one of about 25 family and friends who attended Elijah’s signing ceremony Monday afternoon at the high school.
“It’s just something he’s been after,” she added of her son earning a KU scholarship. “He always saw how hard they played. It seemed they got along as a family. He watched Kansas players go on to play professionally or be sportcasters or other things (in business world). He learned even if there was an injury there are still other things they did to keep going in life.”
It’s been a mutual-admiration society for a while now.
“Elijah is a guy we targeted for a long time,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday after receiving Johnson’s letter of intent via fax. “We think his potential is very very high.
“If he was on our team now,” Self added, “he would be hands-down the best athlete on our team. He is a running, jumping, scoring, fast, active guard. He has a great chance to help us right off the bat.”
“That makes me feel good to hear him say that,” Elijah said of Self’s comments on his athleticism.
Johnson — who averaged 15.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.9 assists as a junior at Cheyenne High — is beginning his fourth year as a varsity player for 12th-year Cheyenne High coach Teral Fair, who will use Johnson mostly at the point this season.
“There are really no weaknesses in his game that I can see offensively,” Fair said. “He is a streaky long-range shooter, legitimate NBA range when he’s on. He’s exceptional finishing around the basket. I’d like to see him develop his mid-range game more. His passing is the strongest point of his game. He’s unselfish to a fault.”
Fair is not surprised Johnson, Rivals.com’s No. 27-rated player nationally, chose KU over Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA and others.
“The first time I saw their coaches was his sophomore year,” Fair said. “This is something he has wanted and worked for a long time.”
Since he was 5.
“I’m really happy,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll be really good my freshman year.”