St. Louis March Madness always helps to carry major-league baseball players through the dog days of spring training. They chase playing games that mean nothing with watching ones that mean everything.
“I’m a much bigger fan of college basketball than I am of baseball,” veteran Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim reliever LaTroy Hawkins said by phone from Arizona. “When you play a sport, you usually like watching another sport better.”
Hawkins, who played against former NBA All-Star Glenn Robinson when they attended rival high schools in Gary, Ind., never has been a bigger fan of college basketball than he is right now. When Kansas tips off at 9:17 p.m. or later today, Hawkins will be where he is every time Kansas University plays a basketball game he can’t attend: glued in front of a TV set.
His godson, emerging junior guard Elijah Johnson, has been KU’s best player two games into the NCAA Tournament.
Johnson, who has shot threes with a .517 accuracy rate the past five games, also made what so far ranks as the most daring play of the tournament.
“The alley-oop,” Hawkins said before a question about the play had been completed. “Oh, God. It was just so late in the game. Tyshawn had leg issues the game before.”
With a voice again gripped by the stress of the moment, as if he were watching the play for the first time instead of in his head, Hawkins shared his thoughts from the instant the ball left his godson’s hands and started its path toward the hoop with Tyshawn Taylor as the intended receiver.
“Can he go up and get it? Can he go up and get it?,” he recounted. “Tyshawn went up and got it. Each knows what the other is thinking now. Each knows what the other is capable of doing and not capable of doing. They have that little thing teammates should have.”
Hawkins’ Twitter avatar is a picture of him posing with the Jayhawk outside the student union. He was in Maui watching his godson and in Lawrence for the Oklahoma game.
“My wife, my daughter, my whole family, we’re Jayhawk fans,” Hawkins said. “It’s part of our daily lives. We were watching the women’s game against Delaware, and my daughter said, ‘Why aren’t you tweeting about the Lady Jayhawks?’ So I started tweeting about them heading to the Sweet 16. Oh my God. Angel (Goodrich) went nuts.”
Johnson didn’t dominate in quite the same fashion as Goodrich, who scored 27 points, but he did make huge play after huge play in the final minutes of the 63-60 victory against Purdue in Omaha, Neb. He had 18 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and just one turnover in 38 minutes.
“It was a good game for Elijah to step up and show he’s ready,” Hawkins said. “Tyshawn’s graduating, going onto other things. Hopefully, this is coming-out party for Elijah. When you have a coming-out party like that, they expect it every night, day in and day out. They don’t care how you’re feeling, who you’re playing against. They expect it day in and day out. You have to be up for the challenge.”
Early in the season, Johnson deferred to Thomas Robinson and Taylor. Lately, he has become more assertive, picking his spots masterfully.
“Elijah kind of knows when he needs to step it up,” Hawkins said. “T-Rob was getting beat to a bloody pulp by those 6-8, 260-pound Purdue guys playing Big 10 basketball. Tyshawn couldn’t find his rhythm. Elijah knew he needed to do a little more. It was perfect timing for him to have his coming-out party.”
In the first game, against Detroit Mercy, Johnson ran the point for all but the first couple of minutes of the second half because Taylor was sidelined by leg cramps. He looked as if he had been doing it all season on his way to a 15-point game in which he made three of four three-pointers.
“Cool, calm and collected,” Hawkins said of that one. “I was impressed with him maturing before our eyes, which is pretty cool.”
Johnson remembers spending the night at the relief pitcher’s house with his son and teammate, Dakari, and being driven to their games by him. Hawkins remembers how Johnson treated his son.
“Elijah was 6, and my son was 4,” Hawkins said. “Elijah could do it all at 6. He already could use his left hand. And he would take the time to be with my son to teach him things. He wouldn’t yell and scream at him when he couldn’t do things the way Elijah could do them. You just don’t see that at that age. He’s a born leader, that’s for sure.”
Hawkins, younger than Elijah’s father, Marcus Johnson, remembers watching Marcus star in high school games and said, “That’s where Elijah gets his hops, from his dad.”
Hawkins and Elijah talk often, but usually more about life than basketball.
“He wraps up every conversation with me with, ‘Stay humble, stay focused,’” Johnson said.
KU basketball enthusiasts would add two more wishful words of advice for Johnson: Stay hot.