- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- He could dunk. Oh my, how he could dunk. Blessed with an otherworldly 52-inch vertical leap, Joe Johnson skied over kids on the playground in California, towered over the competition at the College of Southern Idaho and at Arizona State. He once even bested two NBA stars in a contest, throwing down on an 11-foot, 7-inch rim for a $50,000 prize and a spot in the Guinness World Records book.
He was so good, so famous for his ups, they called him "Jumpin' Joey" Johnson, an alliterative alter ego that sounded more carnival act than basketball player.
Which, sadly, is sort of what Johnson became.
Of course, people loved him because people loved dunking, and Johnson figured his vertical would help lead him down the same path his big brother, Dennis (he of the Boston Celtics, a five-time NBA All-Star and an NBA Finals MVP) had traveled.
"Dunking was fun. Everyone wanted to see it,'' Johnson said. "And then I hit that first camp and they said, 'You can't play here. You're 6-4. You need to be out on the wing.' Well, I had never done that. I couldn't handle the ball on the break as well, and I didn't feel confident. I was limited."
Johnson still managed to carve out a decent career overseas, but when he finally decided to come back to Earth, he couldn't help but wonder what might have been. What if he had been more basketball player than carnival act? What if, somewhere along the line, someone chose to tell him not to dunk, but instead put him where he belonged and taught him to play?
Now he knows.
The answers to the what-ifs have a name, and the name is Nick Johnson, Joe's youngest son.
The Arizona junior is everything his father was not -- or, more like everything his father never had the chance to become. Yes, he can rattle his share of rims, but he is so much more than a dunker. He can score (16 points per game) and pass (2.6 assists), rebound (3.8 boards) and defend (arguably the team's best perimeter defender). He is both the team leader and social maven, the one responsible for rallying the Wildcats after they lost Brandon Ashley to injury and the one who thought sharing a house would make for a tighter team.
And he has his dad to thank for it.
"My dad knew from the very start what his label was,'' Nick said. "He didn't want that for me. He knew I had a gift for being an athlete. I got it from him, but he wanted more for me.''
Nick Johnson has gotten more and then some. Once a highly touted recruit but a kid without a real position, Johnson is now a national player of the year candidate.
Certainly, Arizona coach Sean Miller has had a say-so in Johnson's evolution as a player, but the roots of his success run deeper: to a backyard court; a dad determined to help his son avoid his own mistakes; a big brother happy to keep him humble; and a mom who was good at keeping the peace.
Nick Johnson isn't a family success story so much as he is a family's success story.
"My dad and my brother were such a big part of my development,'' Johnson said. "I can't say enough about what they did for me.''
To his way of thinking, Joe didn't do anything extraordinary. He spent his down time teaching his boys basketball, but he never foisted it on them. They played soccer and football. Whatever they wanted to try, they tried.
But when the boys came to love the game as much as their father did, Joe taught them to play it the way he wished he'd learned it -- completely and thoroughly.
In the summers, the boys would go to California where he lives (their mother, Michelle, still calls Arizona home) for dad's mini-boot camps. They'd work on ballhandling and shooting, defense and passing. Pretty much everything except dunking.
There wasn't anything fancy to Joe's methods, no secret drills or crazy schemes. He simply culled together things he'd picked up over the years, lessons learned from coaches, teammates and his own big brother.
"I stopped playing when [older son] Chris was about 15. That was enough for me,'' Joe said. "I'd sit on the sides and bark an instruction or two, but then they'd start their own battling.''
Theirs is the traditional brothers-as-athletes story, one in which the pickup games more often ended in arguments and a mother's intervention. But beneath the rivalry was genuine respect, which is why when Chris decided this summer to transfer out of Cal State San Bernardino, Nick begged, and eventually persuaded, his coach to bring Chris to campus.
Chris is a walk-on at Arizona now. He's played in just three games for the Wildcats, but don't discount his contribution to the team's success. He has picked up where he left off with his kid brother, pushing him and prodding him to work harder and be better.
What Joe Johnson started with Nick, Chris is now finishing. When Miller's practices end, sometimes Chris' begin, with the two brothers heading to the gym after dinner for extra shooting.
"No one can push you like your head coach,'' Chris said. "But [Nick] still listens to me and relates to me. Anyone who has a little brother knows what it's like. It's kind of like muscle memory. This is what we did every day growing up.''
Joe has happily receded to the sidelines, his work as a coach done. His job now is to take the boys fishing. Joe got hooked on commercial fishing a while back, and he's passed the passion to both Chris and Nick.
They try to swing one deep-sea fishing excursion as schedules allow, even traveling to Mexico to fish for tuna. Joe might remain the best jumper in the family and Nick the most all-around player, but Chris is the best fisherman.
The last thing they usually talk about is basketball.
That, though, is all for the summer and the offseason. Right now, all anyone is talking about is basketball, with Arizona pointing its aim toward a top seed in the NCAA tournament and, potentially, a run for a national title.
And with Nick Johnson, the complete player with the all-around game, leading the Wildcats' charge.
"To hear people talking about Nick the way they are, and recognizing him for the things that we worked on, it gives me such a good feeling,'' Joe Johnson said. "I know I did the right thing for him. I did right by him.''
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