Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The way Marcus Johnson sees it, there were only three choices in life for his son, Elijah: college, military or a bum on the street.
“If you’re a Johnson, you’re not going to be a bum on the street,” Marcus said.
That left two.
“I’ve seen a lot of people go to the military and do very well when they’re in, but go up and down Owens Street, you see a lot of our veterans not doing so well,” Marcus said. “So that left us with school, and school and ball went together.”
From a very early age, basketball and school were big parts of Elijah’s life. He moved to Las Vegas prior to seventh grade with his father, stepmother and siblings, but not before spending that summer training in Houston with his uncle. That work paid off at Cheyenne High, where Elijah was a perennial all-Sunset Region pick and led his team to the regional title game as a junior.
Now a 6-foot-4 junior guard at the University of Kansas, Elijah is on the doorstep of something even bigger. On Saturday at about 5:50 p.m. on CBS, he’ll be in the starting lineup as the second-seeded Jayhawks take on second-seeded Ohio State in the Final Four in New Orleans.
“In the back of my mind, I always knew that I could (do this),” Elijah said. “I knew that I would do whatever I have to to win.”
When Marcus was an assistant varsity coach in Gary, Ind., he would often take 4-year-old Elijah to practice. The teaching rubbed off, as Marcus said that Elijah, as a kindergartner, was good enough to play with the fifth-grade team.
“Actually, he taught them a lot of the drills,” Marcus said. “I mean, he’s lived in the class and the gym all his life.”
Proud parent boast aside, Elijah’s abilities were apparent early on. The son of teachers, he had the skills to play many sports but chose basketball early on. And once he did, he was able to learn and grow constantly as a player.
Marcus coached his son in second grade and a little bit in middle school, but for the most part, he wanted Elijah to go out and become his own man. They talked often about everything that he could achieve through basketball, and a lot of that would be done away from home.
Even home changed. Elijah, the youngest of five siblings, was the one who stayed with Marcus when the family split up. Marcus remarried and started a new family, but he and Elijah remained close.
The dangers of Gary forced Marcus to relocate his family, and the desert ended up being the best option. His wife, Cledra, found work in the Las Vegas school system and the family was happy with their new home.
Away from danger, basketball dominated Elijah’s life. He excelled at Cheyenne. He played AAU ball with UNLV junior Anthony Marshall for the Las Vegas Prospects. He rose to No. 24 in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings for the class of 2009.
His skills gave Elijah the choice of almost every college in the country, and his selection actually surprised Marcus at first, if only because Elijah had always been a fan of Cincinnati and Connecticut. But Elijah felt Kansas offered more.
“My scouting report back in high school was that I don’t play hard all the time. And then people told me, ‘If you go to Kansas, you’re going to play hard, and it’s going to make or break you,’ and I felt like I could make it, so I took the chance coming to Kansas,” Elijah said. “I think I bought into the system, and now I’m just doing what Coach wants me to do, and it’s showing in my game.
“And at the same time, I’m learning stuff for the next level. I’m learning stuff that people can’t really teach you at other schools.”
Elijah nearly redshirted as a freshman, but his athleticism was too much to ignore. He played sparingly the past two seasons as he waited his turn and listened to coach Bill Self and his staff.
This year was his chance. A depleted roster made this an “off year” at Kansas, a school not used to such a thing. Elijah and his teammates wouldn’t let it happen.
“That’s the best part about it, because it was unexpected,” Elijah said.
Through an up-and-down season, Elijah has come on strong under the brightest lights. He’s averaging 15.8 points over the last six games, up from his season average of 10.
In the round of 32 against Purdue, a game in which Kansas never led until the end, Elijah took over in the final 3:12 with five points, two steals, a rebound and a ‘no-No-YES’ alley-oop to fellow guard Tyshawn Taylor that put the Jayhawks over the top.
In the Elite Eight against top-seeded North Carolina, he hit a 3-pointer with 3:09 left, which kick-started a decisive 12-0 run. After the game, Elijah told the Lawrence Journal-World, “I wouldn’t want to go home tonight saying I could have shot that 3.”
For much of the nation, Elijah has been a breakout star of the tournament. To those who know him, this is old news.
“It’s like, ‘Yep, I already knew that,’” Prospects coach Anthony Brown said. “You were just waiting for him to show the world what he could do.”
The next step on a micro level is Ohio State. Beyond that, win or lose, the future is bright but uncertain for Elijah.
The NBA has been a talking point between father and son for many years.
“Our goals were really set to the highest level, trying to get to the NBA and trying to get a college degree,” Marcus said.
Exposure was definitely a factor in his college decision.
“I wanted to go to a school where they were going to teach me how to play, and I play on TV a lot, so I always kept that in mind with all of the decisions that I’ve made,” Elijah said.
At last check, Elijah was on pace to possibly graduate early. He’s ranked 54th in Chad Ford’s top 100 prospects and may “have more to gain than anyone else” on the board.
Wrote Ford: “Speaking to scouts after the (Purdue) game, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one enamored with him. He has all of the tools of an NBA guard.”
Self, who has called this his favorite team to coach, recently said that Elijah “stabilizes” Kansas. He’s helped the Jayhawks get to a point where they’re playing with house money, an analogy not lost on a Vegas native.
And when Elijah returns to Vegas, he already gets the pro treatment.
“When he’s in town, I invite him out to practice so the kids can touch him, see him, smell him and be like, ‘He really exists,’” Brown said.
Marcus is constantly fielding questions from co-workers at Opportunity Village, a nonprofit organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities. Even those who have no interest in basketball have been cutting out newspaper clippings for years.
“People from Vegas have been great, and there’s been a lot of people from Gary calling, telling us that they’re wishing us the best,” Marcus said. “I’m blessed to be a part of something very, very positive.”
Where it goes from here is just another exciting step in the journey.
Marcus’ Wednesday itinerary goes like this: Wake up, get an oil change, clean out the car, make sure the laundry’s done, take a nap and then load his wife and two kids in the car bound for New Orleans.
He flew to the Sweet Sixteen in St. Louis, but with airline prices through the roof to the Final Four, it’s an old-fashioned road trip for the Johnsons. It's nearly a full day of driving to Houston, where they will stay with Marcus’ brother, then everyone is leaving from there for the Big Easy and Elijah’s big game.
Mature. Coachable. Athletic. All of these have been used to describe Elijah through the years, and when the ball tips, that’s all that will matter.
The flashing lights and the grand stage will give way to a game of basketball, the game he’s been playing since watching his father teach it many years ago.
“I honestly think it will be another game. I think I’m in control of myself,” Elijah said. “I’m definitely going to be excited, but I don’t think I’m going to have some nerves that I haven’t had before.”
Elijah’s work has led him to this game. The drive, literally in Marcus’ case, has been long and hard. And that’s just fine.
The easy way isn’t the Johnson way.
“It’s funny, when you plan things and you have these great aspirations in life when you’re younger, it’s something when you actually get to it,” Marcus said. “It’s almost like stepping into a dreamland.
“That’s what we’ve been through. We planned it and now we’re doing it. ‘Daddy, it was a lot of work,’ he said. ‘Yeah, son. But anything good is not going to come easy.
“‘If it comes easy, just say no thank you.’”