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Cook: Senior class Pitt's Johnson refuses to pout, becomes leader

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Chad Johnson -- if you read the papers or listen to the talk shows, you know you can't mention his name without noting he's the only senior on a Pitt basketball team that's 21-4 and ranked No. 14 in America -- is way too hard on himself.

He talks as if he's disappointing the one person who matters most to him.

His father.

"It's been tough the last couple of years because I haven't progressed as much as he had hoped I would. He expected so much of me. That's definitely hard. I think of all the times I used to tell him I'd be a better player than he was. But he made it in the NBA. It doesn't look like I'm going to get there."

Clemon Johnson played 10 seasons in the NBA and won a world championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. But the guess here is the best thing he did was raise a fine son. His kid is no failure.

"I'm more proud of Chad than I am of anyone on our team," Ben Howland said.

Johnson probably won't play in the pros, but it's easy to see him being successful in business. He is scheduled to graduate this summer with a degree in natural sciences. For sure, that will make his dad happy. A Florida A&M graduate, Clemon Johnson is an economics teacher and the basketball coach at a Tallahassee, Fla., high school and always preached to his son that a good education was a must. He was not available for comment yesterday.

Johnson isn't Pitt's best player, but no one more embodies Howland's selfless team. "He gets 17 minutes a game with us when he might be getting 35 at a lot of other places," Howland said. "But he's never complained once. He's like all of our players. He does whatever I ask. He's been nothing but a great leader for us on and off the court."

It hasn't always been easy.

"Especially as a senior, there are times you think you can be doing more," Johnson said. "But I have to control that. I can't complain about it. The other guys would see and maybe they'd start complaining, too. Then what would happen to our team?"

It helps that Johnson is close with Jaron Brown, the starter he backs up. They came to Pitt together, Johnson as a transfer from Nebraska and Brown as a recruit from a Maine prep school. They sat out in 1999-2000, Johnson because of the transfer rule and Brown as a redshirt. That long, lonely year on the sideline created a tight bond between them.

"I was a little disappointed when Jaron got the starting job this year, but I know how hard he's worked to become the player he is," Johnson said. "That's one of the reasons I try to push him hard in practice every day. I'm not going to allow him to let down."

That competition also has made Johnson better. He makes the most of his 17 minutes.

At Syracuse Sunday, Johnson entered the game in the second half with Pitt trailing, 47-33. Almost immediately, he blocked a shot and scored six consecutive points. Pitt ended up coming back to win, 75-63.

"We couldn't have done that without Chad," said Brandin Knight, the team's best player. "He got us started with his intensity. He's just really active when he gets in a game. It seems like when we need a big basket or a rebound, he gets it."

The win was the latest in a series of stunning road victories for the Panthers. They won at No. 23 Ohio State, at Boston College, at Georgetown and at Rutgers against a team that is 11-0 against its other home opponents. They will play at West Virginia Saturday night.

"Maybe things would be different if we weren't doing so well as a team," Johnson said. "Maybe I wouldn't be so happy not being a major contributor. But this is the most fun I've ever had playing basketball."

The bummer is it will end soon -- no matter how deep Pitt goes in the NCAA tournament.

Johnson laughs at being known as "Chad Johnson, Pitt's only senior," but it clearly pains him. He would love another season so he could play in the new Petersen Center. "I get sick looking at it every time I go by, it's going to be such a nice gym." More than that, he would love just one more season with his teammates. "Obviously, they'll have a great nucleus coming back. [Redshirting guards] Carl Krauser and Tony Tate will be in the mix and will be big contributors. Maybe they can recruit a small forward to back up Jaron ... Man, that's a Final Four team right there."

Let's just say Pitt will do just fine without Johnson next season.

But you know what?

He'll be OK, too, without basketball.

His old man has no reason to be disappointed. He should be proud.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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