Commentary

Aaron Johnson, always willing to assist

Originally Published: January 5, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Nothing was sacred.

Not Aaron Johnson's clothes or his personal stuff. Not his bedroom. Not even his time.

Somebody always needed something -- a T-shirt, help with homework, a diaper changing, a wrestling partner, a basketball foe, a protector.

It wasn't so much about sharing in the Johnson household.

That implies a choice.

With 12 kids in the house and two parents working like mad to keep food on the table, sharing wasn't optional.

Johnson family
Courtesy of Aaron JohnsonWith 11 brothers and sisters, Aaron Johnson will never have to worry about a lack of sibling support.

"I grabbed from my older brothers; the little ones grabbed from me,'' Johnson said. "When my parents were at work and my older brothers and sisters weren't around, I was in charge. I had to help. Sometimes I didn't want to, but who else was going to do it?''

There is something poetic, then, that the boy who had to help others for his entire childhood has grown into the least selfish basketball player in the country.

Johnson, who will steer UAB when it plays at No. 1 Duke on Wednesday night (ESPN2, 7 ET), leads the nation in assists, averaging 8.3 per game. And unless he suddenly sprouts a me-me-me gene, he will smash the school record for handouts. He already has 524. The record is 597.

Considering he's had five double-digit assist nights in the Blazers' first 12 games, cobbling together 74 more over the next 17 or so games shouldn't prove too difficult.

The funny thing is, no one ever really put two and two together, the nature versus nurture experiment seemingly playing out in Johnson's basketball persona.

They never stopped to think about the kid who literally had to give the shirt off his back to his siblings growing seamlessly into the player who would prefer to set up others to score rather than get the glory himself.

"I never really thought about it that way,'' said Tony Bowens, Johnson's father. "He's always been an unselfish kid, really unselfish. I guess playing that way just became second nature.''


While Bowens talks on the phone, a little voice in the background is trying to mimic animals. First she meows. Later she barks.

"Is that your youngest?" Bowens is asked.

Bowens has kids ranging in age from 28 to 5, so it's a fair question.

"No, that's my granddaughter,'' Bowens says, laughing.

For Bowens, the grand plan always was to have a big family, but not necessarily one quite this big.

When my parents were at work and my older brothers and sisters weren't around, I was in charge. I had to help. Sometimes I didn't want to, but who else was going to do it?

-- UAB point guard Aaron Johnson

However, the brood kept growing, and Bowens and longtime partner Sharon Johnson kept going, working, providing as best they could and fending off the troubling temptations in the Chicago neighborhood where they raised their family.

Englewood, on the city's South Side, ranks as one of the more dangerous communities in Chicago. Gangs are prominent. So are drug dealers. As a kid, Aaron was playing outside when one of his sister's friends was shot and killed, an innocent victim of sprayed gunfire.

And with two parents working -- Tony in a food warehouse and Sharon where she could when she could -- the kids looked like easy pickings for the lure of the streets.

And yet here they are, half of them through high school without a blip.

Aaron, the fourth-oldest, was the first to go to college, but the three in front of him never made a misstep. No run-ins with the police, no problems.

The younger kids, following the examples of their big brothers and sisters, have toed the line, too.

Younger sister Shannon is a freshman at Missouri, and this year the family will celebrate four graduations: 5-year-old Arion from kindergarten, eighth-grader Trevon from middle school, Corey from high school and Aaron from college.

"It's my parents,'' Aaron Johnson said. "They're the strongest two people I know. Just amazing people. My mother would say, 'You see those boys, y'all go the other way. If you see danger somewhere, take the long way home.' They were on us all the time. It was pretty easy for us."


Easy?

Maybe easy isn't the right word.

When asked how he does it, how he's survived toddler tantrums and teenage angst, kept 12 kids safe and 12 kids happy, Bowens honestly has no answer.

"I don't know how we did it; I just don't know," he says. (Mom Sharon, by the way, isn't much for interviews, which is why only Bowens spoke with ESPN.com.) "You worry all the time. Every hour of every day is taken up by something. But you just do it. You get by. I can't explain it. We just did it."

The Bowens-Johnson clan did not bounce through life untouched by trouble. Money was always tight, and Aaron admits that often school was a welcome haven, a place where he knew he could find two hot meals a day.

[+] EnlargeAaron Johnson
Courtesy of Aaron JohnsonThere were times when Tony Bowens (center) and his sons had to split with the rest of the family.

More than once, the family was evicted from its home. Sharon and the younger kids would take up residence in an area shelter, while Bowens and the older ones bounced from house to house.

Johnson recalls those splits -- one as long as eight months -- and remembers how scared and worried he was.

More than that, though, he remembers something remarkable: The family bonds never frayed.

"We realized that all that really matters is family,'' Johnson said. "We appreciated what we had. Maybe we didn't have a lot of money, but we had a family. If that's all you got, you have a lot."

And in regard to family, the Bowens-Johnson family is fabulously wealthy.

The kids are all extraordinarily close. Part of it is being tossed together all the time. You need a playmate? Find your brother. You need your diaper changed? Ask your brother.

The kids spent their free time turning the family room into a basketball tournament and the carpet into a wrestling mat, wreaking havoc on any hope of quiet domesticity.

Johnson figures he changed his first diaper when he was around 10 or 11 and prefers not to think about how many he's changed since then. "My little brothers?" he said. "They had themselves some diapers. It was not a pleasant thing to go through."

But theirs was more than love by proximity.

For Johnson, the direct result of all that sibling chaos is a man who is equal parts independent and knotted to the family umbilical cord. He is affable and engaging, a guy who clearly is used to making the most of any individual attention he can score.

Yet when he calls home, he still gets emotional, heartbroken that the younger ones are growing up without him.

"When it was time to go to college, I knew it was the right thing, but it was so hard to leave," Johnson said. "I'm leaving my family, the people I've been around my whole life. How was I going to get through this? My brothers and sisters just told me, 'You gotta make it. Go make something out of your life, away from us. We'll still be here.'"


The only place Johnson really wanted to carve his own identity -- to not be just someone's little brother or big brother -- was on the basketball court.

Rashaun Johnson, the oldest of the 12, was a terrific basketball player growing up. As a senior at Hubbard High, he ranked as the third-leading scorer in Illinois.

For years, Aaron was Rashuan's little brother, a mini-me simply following in line.

"I was always walking around bragging about Rashaun," Aaron said. "I'd be like, 'My brother beat your big brother.' And I was always 'Little Rashaun.' I didn't mind because my brother could play."

And then Aaron picked up a basketball himself, probably around the time he was 7. He went to the park with Rashaun and joined a group of kids playing pickup ball.

Aaron's game, while entirely different from Rashaun's, was equally effective. A setup point guard from the instant he began playing organized basketball, Aaron also was a natural leader, a byproduct of all those years caring for his siblings.

Directing people came naturally to him, setting others up for success equally simple.

[+] EnlargeAaron Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAaron Johnson leads the country in assists (8.2) for the 10-2 Blazers.

"Growing up just made me more responsible, and it makes sense that it carried over on the court," Aaron said. "As a point guard, you're responsible for so much. It never bothered me, though. It came easily."

When it was his turn to attend Hubbard High, he led his team to three regional championships and three times was named MVP.

His parents hoped he'd stay closer to home -- Marquette, UW-Milwaukee and Evansville also recruited him -- but Johnson, accustomed to traveling thanks to his AAU career, decided to leave for Birmingham.

Heeding Bowens' words of wisdom, Mike Davis put the ball in Johnson's hands, and Johnson was happy.

So was Davis.

As a freshman, Johnson averaged 4.1 assists per game and started 26 of the Blazers' 34 games. By his junior season, he had played in all 102 of UAB's games, collecting 425 assists.

"I've had one plan -- keep the ball in his hands," Davis said. "It's worked pretty well for us."

Only 5-foot-8, Johnson's post-college basketball career isn't exactly a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps an overseas tour of duty will come his way. If not, he plans to put his communications degree to work. Maybe a career in broadcast journalism.

Whatever he chooses to do, Johnson knows his first priority will be taking care of his family.

"He's a kid that wants to make it, not just as a basketball player, but as a person," Davis said. "And I have no doubt that he will."


The "circle the date" game is March 5. The opponent is East Carolina, but that's almost irrelevant.

That is UAB's last home game of the season, senior night for the Class of 2011.

By then, Davis hopes, Johnson will have captured the school record for most assists in a career and most assists in a season.

The basketball records would be nice, but Johnson has grander plans, eyeing something more along the lines of the Guinness Book of World Records -- the longest senior night introduction in history.

He wants to walk out with an army of 13 escorts, and he wants the public address announcer to introduce every single one of them -- his parents, Sharon and Tony, and then Rashaun, Tabitha, Shanita, Tony, Shannon, Corey, Trevon, Ashley, Shaniya, Amrie and Arion.

They are, he figures, every bit as responsible for his success on the basketball court as he is.

"I think I was put in this situation, to have a big family, for a reason," Johnson said. "I wouldn't be the person I am. I wouldn't be the player I am, and I don't think life would be as good as it is."

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, "There is no delight in owning anything unshared."

Aaron Johnson would agree.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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