Men's Basketball
    Dec. 29, 1997

    Gary Johnson Steals Wins for USC

    Johnson Photo Gary Johnson.

    If tonight's game is close in the final minutes, keep your eyes on No. 25 for USC. The Trojans' opponents would do well to follow the same advice.

    Senior point guard Gary Johnson has a habit of making big steals late in games. One at the end of the Washington State game last season helped propel the Trojans into the NCAA Tournament. Already this year, a steal at the end against Loyola Marymount helped preserve a victory.

    There are several factors toward making steals, says Johnson, who had 27 last year and already has 22 this season.

    "You have to go on instincts," said Johnson, who is 6-foot and 175 pounds. "It helps to have quick feet and good defensive pressure. If you can put good pressure on a player, it forces them to make mistakes.

    "I can be sneaky and get a lot of steals. I can hide behind a referee and they won't see me. A lot of times at the end of the game, teams are just thinking about getting the ball up the floor. I think I can get one or two steals every game just by doing that. My goal is to lead the Pac-10, maybe even the nation, in steals."

    Other teams are starting to catch on to his trickery.

    "People are starting to look for me now," Johnson said. "I hear coaches telling their players to watch out for Johnson. That won't change anything. I just need to get sneakier."

    Johnson -- who also goes by the name "To-to" (pronounced Too-Too) -- isn't only making his mark on defense. After averaging just 3.6 points a game in 1996-97 while primarily coming off the bench, Johnson has developed into a complete player this season, boosting his offensive output.

    Through nine games, Johnson was averaging 11.6 points, 4.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals.

    "Last year my job was to play defense, drive and kick the ball out to a shooter," he said. "This year I know it had to be different with Rodrick (Rhodes) and Stais (Boseman) leaving. I have to be more offensive minded."

    Against UNLV on Dec. 2, he scored a career-high 18 points while taking an eye-popping 19 shots. Johnson's shot selection doesn't bother USC Coach Henry Bibby, though.

    "Some people say that Gary shoots too much for a point guard," Bibby said. "But I want him to take good shots. His job is to push the ball up the floor and if it's there, he can take a quick shot. I want Gary Johnson to play his game. He's running this team.

    "Gary Johnson does everything that I ask him to do. He's tough mentally and wants to be good. He wants to be successful in the classroom and on the basketball court. Those are the kind of people I like to have in this program."

    There's a good connection between Johnson and Bibby, a former point guard.

    "Coach Bibby wants to have a close relationship with his point guard," Johnson said. "We work on it every day and on our communication in games. I know exactly what Coach Bibby wants. As long as we do what he wants, we'll be fine."

    Johnson hopes that will result in a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

    "My goal is to finish my senior year with a bang," he said. "I want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Not very many people can say that they played in a couple of NCAA Tournaments. It's important to me to have that chance again. We're capable of making the tournament, but we have to follow what Coach Bibby says and come together more as a team."

    After Johnson finishes up at USC, he hopes to stay with basketball in some capacity. It might involve returning home to Washington D.C. and coaching at the youth level.

    "I'd really like to go back to junior high and teach kids the fundamentals of basketball," said Johnson, a history major. "I didn't really have anyone to teach me the fundamentals back then, and so many kids aren't taught the right fundamentals. I'd like to teach kids to be successful early in their careers, unlike me. Washington D.C. is a city where kids can go wrong, and I want to show them that's not the only way to go. Hopefully I can be a role model and help others."

    Johnson's childhood was uneventful, he says, because of basketball.

    "D.C. is not a bad place, the media just portrays it worse than it is," he said. "There's crime and drugs, but that's only for people that involve themselves in it. If you live the life the way you want to live, you won't have a problem. That's what I did. Basketball was always on my mind and kept me away from those things."

    One unforgettable game -- which Johnson lists as his most thrilling moment in sports, even though it wasn't his own performance that was memorable -- came against an AAU team led by Allen Iverson, a future NBA first-round pick. Iverson scored 63 points on Johnson's team, though Gary wasn't completely at fault.

    "Only 12 of the 63 points came against me," Johnson said. "It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I had never seen anyone score like that. But the great thing was that we still won by 20 points."

    To get to USC, Johnson made a few stops along the way in what turned out to be a cross-country journey. He played one year at Jacksonville College in Texas, then went to Brown Mackie College in Kansas for another season.

    "(After high school) I wasn't really thinking about college," he said. "My AAU coach had a lot of connections and the team was doing well so everyone got a look. Jacksonville came to me and was interested. I felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    "Jacksonville was different. It was a Bible college, and first and foremost you were there to serve the Lord everyday. There were regular chapel meetings and religious classes. But the coach was fired after my first year and I didn't think I wanted to play for the new coach.

    "I had a friend who had played the previous year at Brown Mackie, and he told me to go play there. I never looked back.

    "I've really enjoyed the journey to this point. I don't regret any of these stops and I've learned something at each of these places. I'm happy with my life and myself."

    -- By Roger Horne, Assistant SID