Senior Tribute: Reggie Johnson

USA TODAY Sports

When he finished high school Reggie Johnson was an absolute leviathan, tipping the scales at over 330 pounds. Aside from Wake Forest, the rising 3-star recruit wasn’t heavily recruited by teams in his native North Carolina, so Reggie took his paint-occupying frame and soft touch to Coral Gables where he became a fan-favorite instantaneously. Reggie’s decision to head straight down I-95 wasn’t just a basketball decision.

Reggie’s mom, Erika Johnson, revealed that she was upset when learning of Reggie’s intent to attend the U. "He doesn’t know I cried, but I cried," she said. "Looking back, his opportunity at UM has been wonderful. I’m glad he made that decision and I think it worked perfect for him. I wish it could go four more years."

During his recruitment, Reggie told her that the best thing for him to do to become a man was to leave the home he was so fond of and carve his own path in life. To take the next step in personal evolution all young people try to take in their lives as they navigate the craggy path to adulthood.

Raising Reggie as a single mother was difficult – as it is for millions of single-moms across the United States. Erika spoke of her longtime boyfriend, Chris, who has been in Reggie’s life since he was 4 years old; Reggie’s Godfather, Laverne, who took him to the local rec center to play ball and traveled with him to games and tournaments when Erika couldn’t attend; and his high school coach, Andre Gould, who is still the basketball skipper at Winston-Salem Prep.

Coach Gould said that Reggie was raw, but could tell he was advanced as far as his footwork and capable hands. "I knew he had it in him," Coach Gould said. "He always asked questions and wanted to get better. His personality just lights up the room. Everyone loves Reggie, he's a great kid."

While Reggie’s penchant for abusing teams from his native North Carolina has become somewhat legend among ‘Canes fans, Reggie’s journey to the sport of basketball is probably not what you would expect, especially when coming face-to-face with the 6’10, 292-lb center.

According to Erika, Reggie was always the tallest of his friends. This is not a surprising revelation, because people in the vicinity of 7-feet in height are usually vertically gifted at a young age. While Reggie is known for his girth and the "space he occupies" (you’ll hear that a few times every broadcast), you’d be wrong to think that Reggie was a mammoth early on and was driven to athletics like a moth to a flame.

"When he was 7 he was so big [tall] they wouldn’t let him play football," Erika said. "He was always taller than everyone, but he was all skin and bones growing up. He was so skinny his knees would rub together. At around 10, when he started eating meat, he got stocky."

Reggie didn’t play basketball growing up, despite his height. According to Erika, he came home one day at the age of 13 and said he was interested in playing basketball. Just like that. She took him to sign up for league play at the local rec center right away.

In just 5 years Reggie Johnson turned himself from a basketball neophyte into a D1 college player and then into one of the most prolific rebounders in ‘Canes history.

After watching the ‘Canes get killed on the boards during Reggie’s redshirt year, it was difficult to understand why the mountain in the white warm-up suit was spending the year riding the pine.

In 2008-2009, Johnson played sparingly, but his PT increased dramatically as the season wore on. It was maddening to not see him on the court more. He showed flashes of things to come in conference play and especially during Miami’s run to the semi-finals in the ACC Tournament. Reggie had more than solidified his claim as the ‘Canes starting center going into the next season.

In 2009-2010, Reggie was a double-double machine. The Big Fella tallied 13 double-doubles and missed many more by a mere point here or a rebound there. Reggie racked up career-highs with 11.9ppg and 9.6rpg despite not having much help down low.

The ‘Canes were a veritable MASH unit in 2011-2012. Armed with a new coach and buzz around the program, Miami was immediately decked by a rash of injuries. Reggie went down with a torn meniscus before the season started and missed the first 9 games.

Erika recalled how difficult the injury was for Reggie. "I came in [to Miami] for 5 days. He was devastated. When I left, I said ‘This is just a bump in the road and you’re going to shake it off’. And he did."

Over that stretch Reggie was out the ‘Canes were dominated on the boards and went 5-4 in his absence. In his first game back, Reggie went for 15pts, 9reb, 5blk, and 5ast in a thrilling OT win over Florida Atlantic. Several weeks later, on Feb 5th 2012, Reggie exploded for 27pts and 12reb in leading Miami to a monumental win at Cameron Indoor over Duke – "called the biggest win in program history" at the time.

Reggie started off his senior season averaging 12.6pts and 10.1reb. He was a big reason why the ‘Canes beat Michigan State as he helped to neutralize MSU’s talented big men, Adrian Payne and Derrick Nix. He went for 19pts, 13reb, and 6blk to lead the ‘Canes over UMass on the road. Then came the freakish thumb injury in the first minutes of the first practice before the Diamond Head Classic in Maui. Reggie was playing some of the best basketball of his career until that point.

"Reggie Johnson has overcome probably more adversity than probably any player last year and then this year with injuries, suspensions and more injuries and now having to come in off the bench for a major portion of his senior year," said Coach Larranaga.

Despite struggling some after returning early from injury, Reggie outplayed Richard Howell at NC State and won the game with a great tip-in at the buzzer.

Against Virginia, Reggie finished off the Cavaliers in dramatic fashion off a nifty Shane Larkin pass.

Reggie means more to his teammates and the University of Miami than just his performance on the court - in both good times and bad. He's full of personality and is one of the team's strongest leaders both on and off the court.

Erika is proud of her son for a lot of reasons. Sure, there's his success on the hardwood - but most of all is the person she has seen him grow into. Reggie, like his other senior teammates, is leaving Miami with a diploma. When he told Ericka that he’s going out on his own after college, she said: "The only thing you can’t take is that degree. That stays here with me."

There may also be another 'Cane from the Johnson family in a handful of years. Reggie's 13 year-old 5'10 sister, Chrisalyn, is already on Coach Katie Meier’s radar.

Epilogue:

Today, Reggie Johnson sustained a knee injury. It's said to be relatively minor - at least in comparison to the injury sustained before the 2011-2012 season. While Reggie is expected to make a full and complete recovery, he will definitely miss the games in Washington, DC and has likely played his last game in the orange, green and white - even though the door is still open for a possible return in the Final Four.

Knowing Reggie's flair for the dramatic it would be crazy to count him out. College careers have a fairly specific lifespan. Still, Reggie will be a part of the 'Cane family forever. Not only that, there's a lot of basketball left in Reggie in the years to come.

On a personal note, it was the 2nd or 3rd time I had covered a UM press day last season. I was still new to the process and kind of overwhelmed because UM hoops is something I profoundly enjoy. All the players, Coach L, and Amy Woodruff (media relations) were really cool and the novelty of the experience was definitely amazing. I got a chance to sit down with Reggie before Miami played UNC and the first thing he did after I introduced myself was to say that he read and enjoyed the blog Jerry and I started (Category6) before we merged with SOTU. It wasn't a big deal but it made my day.

Thanks Reggie, for all you gave to the team, the University of Miami, and 'Canes hoops fans both on and off the court. Tonight, I'm going to leave my leftover dinner in the fridge to mature another day and head out to Publix for some Pizza Rolls!

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