Johnson ready for next challenge with Pacers
JUL 03, 2012 3:17p ET
His younger cousin -- his best friend -- wanted to ride along on the quick trip to drop off another cousin at his football game.
"We've got these metal bars on our house and she's looking out the bars, 'Can I come?' " Johnson said. "And we were like, 'We'll be back. We'll be back.' "
When they returned, the house was gone, and so was Angel, one of four victims of a deadly fire. That was just one of three tragedies taking the lives of six family members before Johnson turned 13.
"I knew something was planned for me and I knew I just had to stay on the right path," he said Tuesday. "I was very fortunate to have two brothers that didn't let me stray from that."
Thanks to the guidance of older brothers Jamell Damon and Robert Johnson, that path has led Orlando Johnson to the NBA. Drafted No. 36 overall by Sacramento this past Thursday, Johnson was subsequently acquired by the Pacers in exchange for cash considerations.
A 6-4 shooting guard with an NBA-ready body, Johnson became UC-Santa Barbara's all-time leading scorer in just three seasons, averaging 19.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He twice led the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points against Ohio State in 2010 and 21 against Florida in 2011.
He arrived in Indianapolis Monday night and worked out in Bankers Life Fieldhouse with veterans Dahntay Jones and Lance Stephenson Tuesday afternoon, a brief indoctrination to his new team.
You wouldn't be surprised if Johnson wanted to climb to the top of the bleachers, thrust his arms into the air and shout his arrival, for few have cleared the obstacles thrown into his path.
His mom, Vickki Renee Johnson, was murdered when he was in infant. The case is still open. He didn't know his father. Johnson moved in with his grandmother, Virginia Ruth Jackson, and 10 other family members, but then came the tragic house fire. His grandmother died when he was 13.
"I'll feel a sense of accomplishment when I can look back on it when I'm done playing and actually out of the game, I guess," he said. "I just feel I haven't really done anything. My brothers are so proud and they think I've done everything but I just strive to be so much better, they know I'm never satisfied."
Both brothers were former athletes. Jamell played football at St. Mary's, while Robert played basketball at Weber State. This was not a good-cop, bad-cop situation. More like bad-cop, worse-cop. When he needed motherly nurturing, he turned to Jamell's wife Shannan.
"I had one who was really strict and then I had another one who was even stricter," he said with a smile. "It was like I couldn't get any love from anywhere except my sister-in-law was the one I could turn to and she definitely was the motherly influence on me at the time. Just being around her and her family helped me out. They embraced me and took care of me."
They questioned his logic when, prior to his senior year in high school, he decided to quit football to concentrate on basketball. Football had been Johnson's primary sport. He played quarterback at North Salinas High but when he transferred to Palma the coach converted him to wide receiver.
"(His brothers) thought football was my calling," he said, "but I was like, 'No, I'm going to do this my way.' Basketball took over and was the love of my life."
He started out at Loyola-Marymount, setting a freshman record for points and rebounds, but a coaching change prompted his transfer. He prospered in Santa Barbara, earning first team All-Big West Conference three consecutive seasons. After his junior year, he played for Matt Painter (Purdue) and Brad Stevens ( Butler) on the U.S. team in the World University Games.
When the Pacers found him still on the board early in the second round, they called the Kings to arrange the deal.
"He's of the highest character, first of all," said General Manager Kevin Pritchard. "We pass on those guys that aren't of the highest character. He's a scorer, got tremendous athletic tools, committed to playing the right way. If you were to talk to his coaches, they all say 'This is the guy we would like to marry our daughter.' "
Somehow, Johnson never allowed himself to become a victim. Somehow, Johnson never allowed self-pity to consume his life. Somehow, Johnson not only found a calling, he devoted himself to it night and day and reached its highest level.
"There's people with way worse things that have happened to them," he said. "I definitely have had some shortcomings in my life but I just keep pushing, you know?
"Everything happens for a reason. I'm here for a reason. That's how I believe and that's how I'm going to keep on believing."
Whether he makes it in the NBA remains to be seen but this much is sure: Orlando Johnson already is a star.
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