Johnson played Division I basketball at Montana, walked down the red carpet at the ESPYs and briefly shared a court with Kobe Bryant. He also has spent long years sorting through his issues, which included a childhood beating that still affects his eyesight.
A boy learns darkness. He is 9, on a bed in his tighty whities, looking at the angry man in front of him — his stepfather.
The man grabs a belt with a big cowboy buckle. The boy knows the routine. He’s supposed to lie on his stomach so the man can whip his back, legs and neck. But on this day he faces him.
The boy’s name is Anthony Johnson, and he isn’t a boy anymore. He would eventually play Division I basketball at Montana, walk down the red carpet at the ESPYs and briefly share a court with Kobe Bryant. But all these years later the memories of that day trickle back, his voice rises, and he shakes his head. He’s 28 and has spent long years sorting through his issues.
Big game, by the numbers
Big Sky title game
Montana beat Weber State for a spot in the NCAA tournament
Anthony Johnson scored 34 of Montana’s 46 second-half points, including the final 21 points. He ended with 42 points. His vision was so bad, though, that he had trouble seeing the rim.
“A lot of people have my story,” he says now.
He pleads with his stepfather on the bed, trying to reason.
No, no, no …
The leather smacks his skin, first against his hands, then against his feet. He looks the man in the face. Like a damn lion, the boy remembers.
Typically the boy’s mom is around so the beatings don’t escalate. But not today. The belt finds the boy’s stomach, his chest. His stepfather winds up again, but the belt slips.
… He blinks. His head is pounding. His eyes dart around the room. He can’t see out of his left eye, and blood quickly pools on the edges. He bolts from room to room, his screams filling the two-bedroom home. Drops of blood mark his trail.
In the coming days, he lands in a hospital room, and doctors tell his mom there’s a chance he might never see out of his left eye again. Two surgeries return a sliver of his vision, but they don’t fix the feeling that trails him all his life:
Love is a stranger.
Lies and lessons
Anthony Johnson is laughing, his mind taking him back to the halls of Tacoma’s Stadium High School.
“What the hell was I thinking?” he says.
The blinds in his living room are drawn. Too much light hurts his eyes, and unless visitors are over, he keeps his apartment in Tacoma mostly dark.
He is flabbier than the 6-foot-3 guard who once appeared on “SportsCenter” and in USA Today. His 42-point performance against Damian Lillard’s Weber State team in 2010 sent Montana to the NCAA tournament and beamed him into living rooms. That he did so without clearly seeing faces or the rim was a secret he kept until recently.
He doesn’t watch basketball anymore. He is interested in opening a food truck or developing mobile apps. But first he had to dive into his past.
“I just cringe,” he says.
How could he be that insecure, let alone that dumb? He desired many things growing up, but what he craved was importance. That manifested in many ways, the most embarrassing of which was that he lied, all the time, about dumb stuff.
He told classmates he scored 25 points in a game when he really scored 12. He convinced his closest friends he scored high on the SAT even though he hadn’t taken the test. He told others he had an academic scholarship to UCLA even though he needed an extra semester at Oakland Alternative High School just to graduate.
The lies embarrass him so much that he still hasn’t come clean to some of his friends.
What the hell was I thinking?” - Anthony Johnson on past mistakes
He searches his past for lessons. His wife says he is too deep for his own good, but how else can he stare at the biggest and scariest questions of them all?
What happened to him growing up? What the hell was he doing here?
He moved from Arkansas to California before settling in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. He didn’t have a relationship with his dad until he was 12 and hasn’t had one since. He lived with his mom until he was 19, but their relationship always has been cold.
I run the risk of sounding like a victim, but I don’t mean to: I was not cared about. I was not cared for when I was younger.
An uninterested student at Stadium High School, he turned to basketball not as a way out but as a way in. He was a loner, an emotional hermit — and a jerk.
I felt like I was alone, and I’ve had to deal with that. I’ve had to deal with those unsettled emotions, and a lot of that I used to put on my mom.
Admit feelings of loneliness or anger? No, jokes were safer. Competition came easier than compassion.
Without sounding too harsh on my mother, I understand now that she had her own things she was going through. She grew up neglected, she wasn’t cared for, she wasn’t loved. Someone can’t give you what they don’t have to give.
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His mother, Lillie Hicks, had him at 17 and considered herself a single parent even while married. She confirmed Anthony’s eye injury and says she drove him to the hospital. She insists she tried to be a good mother.
“Every day that I talked to him, every day I always let him know that I loved him,” she says. “Going to work, working the extra hours to make things happen. If I could go back now and change it, I would because I didn’t know it affected them like that. And I’m paying for it every day.”
Her voice cracks.
“In all the years, I felt like I was giving them more than what I had, more than what I was giving myself. And he feels I wasn’t, so if that’s how he feels, then that’s the truth, because I can’t say how he’s supposed to feel.”
Children who are abused or neglected are more likely to become abusive or neglectful parents, and the thought of having his own kids terrified Anthony.
By the time he graduated high school at 19 and began working as a dishwasher and construction worker, he hated who he was.
I learned how to love out of that. I learned how to make it not about me, but about somebody else. I learned how to really care about somebody. And that’s a really weird thing, because when you grow up not being cared for you don’t give a (expletive) about nobody else. But the other side is, you can choose for it to be different.
He had no money or plan, but he had love. He ran to the bathroom in the summer of 2005, grabbed a black rubber band from a pack of thousands and figured it was the closest thing he had to a ring. Then he hopped on one knee in front of the girl he’d been dating for two weeks. She said yes.
Her name was Shaunte Nance, and she could give him the love he hadn’t known, that scary affection he had avoided. But when the summer ended, she went to play college basketball, and he kept washing dishes. A future? He had never thought about one beyond basketball, and that dream was dead.
Shaunte dragged him to the gym when she was back home in 2006 and noticed kernels of talent. When she got a call that offseason from a coach at Yakima Valley Community College offering her a spot on the team, she said she would come — under one condition: Anthony could come, too. He made the team.
When Division I colleges wanted Anthony in 2008, he returned the favor by telling Montana he would go there — under one condition: Shaunte could come, too.
But love can’t solve everything. Just the way Shaunte looked — similar to his mom — could send him into a rage. If Shaunte became confrontational, his tongue unleashed years of frustration on her.
Or how he subtly pulled back when Shaunte tried to hug or kiss him.
His big moment
An alarm sounds. It’s early, especially for a junior basketball player at Montana, but Anthony forces himself out of bed. Waiting in the kitchen is a married couple with three children.
The family is the Wozniaks, and he has become close with them while at Montana. He wants to see how they live.
The kids are seated around the table when Anthony walks in, half asleep. Their mother, Leslie Wozniak, is juggling bacon, eggs and toast. Their father, Tom, kisses his family goodbye. By the time the kids hop on the bus with their lunches and a kiss, it’s just Leslie and Anthony at the kitchen table.
“Does it happen like this every … single … day?” he asks. “Do they know how lucky they are?”
Around that time, he begins what he calls a crisis of spirituality. He buys self-help and spiritual audio books on iTunes. He confronts his purpose. All the while his vision continues deteriorating.
His left eye always was limited by his stepfather’s belt buckle, but at Yakima Valley one day, his right eye flared up red. Pink eye, he was told, but the issue persisted.
Soon, he had floaters in his right eye — an experience he likens to looking through a snow globe. By his senior year at Montana, the floaters had spread, and cataracts had formed in both eyes. Faces looked like the blurry, anonymous talking heads on crime documentaries. He didn’t know that he suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can affect the eyes, just that he couldn’t see so well.
He didn’t tell his coaches or teammates.
He still led Montana in scoring his senior season, and the Weber State game in the Big Sky tournament championship that year gave him the importance he craved.
But he stunk in the first half, and Montana trailed Weber State by 20. He wanted so badly to star in the spotlight of the national TV audience that he played only for himself.
In the visitor’s locker room at halftime, he promised to change. When he ran by his coach on the way to the court, he blurted out, “I’ve got you, don’t worry.”
The lights at Weber State shined low, and his eyes struggled absorbing light. The glare off the rim made it hard for him to see the hoop, but the player who emerged from the locker room at halftime was a guy Anthony Johnson doesn’t recognize when he re-watches the game.
He scored 34 points in the second half, including the final 21 for Montana, a stretch of hero ball that made him a fleeting legend.
Awaiting him were USA Today, the New York Times and an ESPY nomination for the best championship performance alongside Drew Brees, Michael Phelps and Shaun White. But as the team bus bounced along the streets of Ogden, Utah, after the game, he felt hollow:
This is it?
His big moment
Before they left for college together in 2006, he and Shaunte had walked late at night along the Tacoma waterfront, dreaming.
“Mark my words,” he told her, “I won’t stop until I make it in the NBA.”
But his career after Montana left him sulking. He didn’t get drafted by the NBA, got cut from pro teams in Greece and Cyprus and was back in the States.
Then his phone rang in December 2011. His agent told him the Lakers’ D-League team wanted to bring him in. His vision for his career always included playing for the Lakers. This was fate.
He flew to Los Angeles and got a jersey without his name on the back. He played a total of five minutes in three games, and when his standard 10-day contract ended, he handed his gear to the team in return for a ticket home.
He put on sunglasses and went back to his hotel. By the time the door to his room clanked shut, he was sobbing. He called Shaunte, but what could she say?
“It was like somebody died,” he says. “I felt my dreams die right then.”
It didn’t matter that his vision had deteriorated so much that in Cyprus he thought his windshield was filthy only to realize it was his eyes. Or as a point guard he couldn’t see his coach’s hand signals.
He moved back to Tacoma and rarely left his home. When friends texted him, he typed one-word replies. He couldn’t read ingredients, couldn’t drive or see Shaunte nodding to his questions.
“Did you hear me?” he’d shout in frustration.
Hell, Shaunte calls it.
A new life
Freckles. That’s what he remembers. When he woke up from his second eye surgery to remove cataracts in February 2013, he saw Shaunte’s freckles and cried as he touched her face.
“You’re so beautiful,” he kept telling her, “you’re so beautiful.”
He calls that his awakening. He went to Red Robin soon after and was shocked to look at the HDTV and see the pinstripes on the anchor’s suit. For the next two weeks, he stopped Shaunte to point out flowers and trees.
“We could breathe again,” she says.
But he has also had to learn to live. Food is his passion, but he doesn’t know where that will take him or what he will do for a living. So much of his life has focused on basketball, but now what?
A new love
In the shade of his living room, Anthony Johnson holds his son. Kaine-Carter Johnson is seven months old and heavy, but his father doesn’t mind. The boy bobs his head. He’s dancing to music no one else can hear.
“What’s up, duuude?” Anthony says, looking at his son. “You see how hyper he is? My guy is funny right now.”
As much as Anthony wrestled with his childhood, as much as he tried to reconcile it, his past never let go of him. For a long time he didn’t want kids because he was scared of himself.
Some days Shaunte cried and worried that she was the problem. They were married in 2006, but Anthony couldn’t shake his fears. Would he repeat the ills of his childhood? Would he pass on his curse?
He knows the issues of his past will be the issues of his future, and he will have to decide for it to be different. Coldness is in his DNA, and the programming of his childhood will shadow him forever.
But he can’t stop kissing his son. He holds him for hours, just because. He still struggles showing his wife affection, but not Kaine.
He has only one hope for his son.
“I hope that when he grows up,” he says, “he feels that we loved him.”