This article originally appeared
in Basketball Times.
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PLAYER, LEADER, FATHER
When Jerry Johnson first stepped
onto the campus at Rider University, head coach Don
Harnum wasn’t exactly sure what he had. Two weeks into
practice it was clear that he had something special.
Looking back four years later it’s hard to believe that
the kid from Lancaster, PA had just one scholarship
Johnson’s career at Rider hasn’t been dotted with
championships and national headlines, but his impact on
the program and community has left a lasting impression.
It’s a void that will not easily be filled.
“We always knew he was a talent,” says Harnum. “But it’s
a credit to him that he became the player he did. More
importantly he’s a great kid. It’s easy to coach when
you have a kid like Jerry Johnson.”
Statistically, Johnson improved in each of his four
seasons in Lawrenceville, NJ. Beyond the stats, Johnson
matured as a leader. He came to Rider as a scoring
guard, but openly accepted the idea of changing his role
to that of lead guard.
After a freshman campaign that earned him MAAC Rookie of
the Year honors, Harnum asked Johnson to move to the
point guard spot. It was a difficult transition for a
player that had the green light in his first season. But
convincing Johnson that less was more proved to be an
“There were times when he really struggled with the
move,” says Harnum. “But he wasn’t one of those kids
that looked for excuses. He would always look for help.
He was always the first one to arrive and the last one
to leave. He really committed himself to taking on any
challenge we put in front of him.”
Johnson has made a career of being a basketball cliché.
Always working harder than everyone else and simply
refusing to acknowledge that there was something he
could not do. On the court he might be the epitome of a
self-made player, but off the court Johnson is anything
but a cliché. It was Johnson the person that prompted
Harnum to offer him a scholarship.
“We liked him as a player, but his SAT scores were not
good,” Harnum says. “But we couldn’t find a person that
didn’t rave about Jerry as a person. He is one of those
unique kids that is mature beyond his years. He has a
As a senior at McCaskey high, Johnson’s team scored a
one-sided win over rival Hempfield. Rather than revel in
victory, after the game Johnson asked if he could
address the Hempfield squad. He told the team, made up
predominately of sophomores and freshmen, that they had
a very bright future and that their best days lie ahead.
The same was true for Johnson.
Despite some doubts that Johnson would not score well on
the SATs, Harnum had already made the decision to sign
him. Now in his eighth year as the Rider coach, Harnum,
has only taken one Prop 48 and he was ready to go that
route again with Johnson.
The one concern was the financial responsibilities
attached to sitting out that first year. Unknown to
Johnson until just recently was the fact that his high
school coach, Steve Powell, had made arrangements to
assist Johnson with the financial commitment. But
Powell, who owns a Steel Mill, didn’t want Johnson to
know that he had a fall back plan. He didn’t want him to
be any less motivated in making the grade.
Making the grade was a challenge for Johnson, but a
bigger challenge awaited him. Following an eye-popping
freshman season, Harnum told the reigning Rookie of the
Year that the summer, before his sophomore season, would
be the toughest of his basketball career.
“He told me that, but I didn’t believe him,” laughs
Johnson. “But I soon found out that he was right. It
wasn’t just about learning a new role. He wanted me to
understand that I had to work harder than I had ever
The hellish summer paid dividends as Johnson upped his
scoring average to 18 points a game, but while the
points went up, the shooting percentage dropped. After
connecting on 40% from the field as a freshman, his
shooting percentage dropped to 36.5%.
Many thought it was simply a case of a sophomore slump,
but the fact was the Johnson was a marked man. First
team All-MAAC performer Mario Porter had graduated and
the weight fell on Johnson to produce more. The
stat-line told one story, but it was evident that
Johnson had in fact raised his game.
“When you are freshman of the year the expectations
become so great,” says Harnum. “People expect you to be
twice as good. That’s just not realistic. We lost some
key players to graduation and Jerry assumed a bigger
role. As a freshman anything you do is gravy. People
always say, ‘wow he’s doing that and he’s only a
freshman.’ The expectations are so great.”
Following another hard off-season conditioning program,
Johnson put up big numbers as a junior. He scored nearly
100 points more than either of his first two seasons,
upped his rebounding total by nearly 40% saw a dramatic
jump in his assist total (121). The pure scorer had
become a complete player.
“As a freshman my responsibility was to put the ball in
the basket,” says Johnson. “Each year that changed a
little bit. Getting everyone more involved made us
better as a team.”
Unlike a lot of former Rookie of the Year performers,
Johnson made the transition with a smile on his face. He
wasn’t a one-man show anymore, but the team was winning
and that is all that was important.
“He is so coachable,” says Harnum. “It can be difficult
to change the mindset of a kid that is accustom to
scoring all the time. Not only did he accept it. He
embraced it. Kids like that are hard to find.”
Watching Johnson mature as a player has been rewarding
for Harnum, but his maturing process has been different
than most. The word “kid” simply doesn’t apply here.
Johnson has always carried himself like a young adult.
And after all the accolades and all the attention,
little has changed.
“I am not even thinking about the NBA or anything like
that,” says Johnson. “I have a responsibility and that
is all I am thinking about.”
Johnson the player, Johnson the leader and Johnson the
father. It’s very difficult to distinguish one from the
other. But it’s easy to see that being a dad to his
one-year old daughter, Jeriyah and soon a husband to his
fiancé, Bianca, supersede all.
And that is what makes him special.