That Mitch Johnson was born during basketball season seems fitting now that he lives for it.
On his second day of life, shortly after leaving the hospital, Mitch Johnson went to the gym.
His father, former Sonic John Johnson, was coaching the boys basketball team at Bellevue High School. While his father worked the game, folks passed the newborn boy around “like they were passing biscuits.”
Little did they know that the baby would grow up to be one of the best point guards on the West Coast.
Or that he would lead his high-school team to a state championship, be named the tournament’s most valuable player, and earn a scholarship to Stanford.
That Mitch Johnson was born during basketball season seems only fitting now that he lives for it.
“I’ve always loved it,” said Johnson, O’Dea’s senior point guard. “It has always been a part of my life.”
By the numbers8 Consecutive years a Metro League boys basketball team has appeared in the Class 3A state title game, winning championships in six of those years.
A varsity player for the past four seasons, a starter for the past three, and a team captain for the past two, Johnson enters the final week of his high-school basketball career with a chance to again go out a champion.
Tomorrow, he and the third-ranked Irish (22-4) begin their title defense against eighth-ranked North Thurston (20-4) of Lacey at 5 p.m. as the Class 3A state tournament opens at the Tacoma Dome.
Johnson blossomed at this tournament last year, turning heads with a title-game performance in which he scored 27 points, including seven clutch free throws in the second overtime to help the Irish prevail 68-64 over Rainier Beach in one of the more thrilling finales in state history.
Class 3A state tournaments
Boys and girls basketball champions will be decided tomorrow-Saturday at the Tacoma Dome. Tickets cost $7-$10 per day or $24-$30 for all days.
A photo of that moment remains one of the lasting images from the tournament: John, beaming proudly at his son; Mitch, looking happy, but exhausted, a strand of net clenched between his lips.
Basketball has always been an important part of their relationship. Many people say they see a lot of John in Mitch’s game, especially when it comes to the latter’s toughness and smarts.
That’s not by accident. Ever since Mitch can remember, his father was there, ready to dispense lessons learned during a career that spanned 12 seasons in the NBA.
“His knowledge and his teaching is something I definitely haven’t taken for granted,” Mitch said. “Just having that at my disposal basically every day, 24 hours a day, is probably the biggest advantage I’ve had in basketball.”
John stressed the fundamentals to his son, demonstrating every new skill first with one hand, then with the other, making sure Mitch developed a balanced game.
On Monday nights, when Mitch was just 4 or 5 years old, the two would go to the Bellevue Athletic Club — “Boys Night Out,” they called it — where they’d shoot and dribble and bond.
“I hope so,” said John when asked if he sees himself in Mitch. “I taught him from when he could first walk.”
Equally important was the mental side of the game. John, nicknamed J.J. when he was a savvy forward for the 1979 Sonics team that won the NBA title, designed drills to teach that, too. When Mitch was younger, for instance, John would sometimes stand on top of a hill near where they lived and have Mitch pass him the ball.
If John had to move his hands to catch the pass, he just let it go, leaving Mitch to chase the wayward toss to the bottom of the hill and back.
“He was a perfectionist,” Mitch said. “And I think it kind of rubbed off on me that you can never be too prepared; you can never work too hard; you can never do too many repetitions of anything.”
All that work produced a fundamentally sound player who rarely makes mistakes, a player who takes pride in doing the things you can’t record in a scorebook. Perhaps that’s why Mitch sometimes is the last player mentioned when talk turns to the so-called “Super Six” of Seattle’s prep basketball Class of 2005.
At 6-foot-1, he doesn’t play above the rim. As a point guard, he doesn’t always try to score. As a lefty, his jumper sometimes looks a little quirky.
So his numbers don’t leap from the page: 18 points, five assists, big deal.
But here’s the thing about Mitch Johnson: He wins.
During his three years as a starter, O’Dea is 67-18. And what can you say to that?
All summer, Mitch had been the one feeding his teammates the ball, piling up the assists while the other guys got their points. He had run the show, always under control, and played his trademark brand of “sticky, tough-nut” defense.
“I feel badly that he’s left off all the lists,” Marsh said. “But he’s just that way. Other guys are leading the break and dunking. He’s running back to halfcourt saying, ‘Great job.’ But he’s the one that threw the 50-foot pass to get them the ball.”
Marsh often refers to Mitch as an “acquired taste,” meaning you have to see him a couple of times before you really appreciate his skills or understand why he’s known as “The Maestro.”
“Everybody is into the points,” Marsh said. “This kid has been short-sheeted by the public because he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers. But who be the defending (state) champs? And my guess is they’re going to get No. 2.”
Added John: “The thing that people don’t appreciate about Mitch is how cerebral he is on the basketball court. The average fan, and the people who don’t know the ins and outs of basketball, they tend to get caught up in the glamour parts — ‘What’s his vertical? What’s his wing span?’ — instead of, ‘Can he play?’ ”
Mitch shrugs off the suggestion that he’s “underrated.” He has his state title, the respect of his team, and a Division I scholarship. What more does he need?
“When you’re in between the lines and the ball goes up, the rankings are thrown out,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, if you can play, you can play. And people are going to know it.”
Mitch credits others, too, for helping him on his journey. His mother, Jenny Redman, who played tennis at Washington. His stepfather, Rick Redman, a former All-American football player at UW. His godbrother, Chuckie Williams, an assistant coach at Bellevue Community College. And, of course, his many coaches.
“I’ve just been really fortunate to have a lot of people in my life that have cared about me enough to pass down knowledge or things that they know about basketball,” Mitch said. “It has really helped.”
Off the court, he boasts a 3.6 grade-point average and a 1,210 SAT score. He’s interested in studying business at Stanford, though that could change. For now, he just wants to put together four more victories.
That would cement his legacy, the only one he ever cared about, that of being a winner.
“One thing that my mom, my dad, Chuckie, Coach Lumpkin, have always preached to me is winning cures all,” Mitch said. “As long as you win, they have to notice.”
Matt Peterson: 206-515-5536 or email@example.com