Before arriving at Memphis, Geron Johnson had his fair share of run-ins with the law. First, he was arrested during his junior year of high school for attempted burglary. Then he was dismissed from Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., as a freshman for possession of marijuana.
Johnson averaged 10.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last season.
Finally, on February 22, 2012, he was kicked-off the team at Garden City Community College for three incidents with law that month, including theft of property and two citations for criminal trespassing. Johnson’s behavior had him, and many others, wondering if he’d ever play college basketball again.
“After Garden City, I thought I wasn’t going to have an opportunity to bounce another basketball collegiately,” Johnson said. “That frustrated me mentally and I’m glad God has given me the opportunity to make a way and keep striving at my goals, my dreams, and my aspirations.”
Josh Pastner ultimately decided to take a chance on Johnson, who most considered to be the best junior college player in the country. Pastner set rules and a curfew uniquely for Johnson, in an attempt to keep him out of trouble and give him the structure he has never had. His curfew called for him to be in by midnight each night, no exceptions. It’s safe to say the strict set of rules made a difference for Johnson.
“I just started making the right choices when I got to Memphis,” Johnson said. “Some of it is just being around this structure and these positive people every day to help me make positive decisions.”
Johnson said he would never forget his Ohio roots and where he was raised, but Memphis has truly saved him from the dark road he was heading down.
“Dayton raised me,” he explained. “I loved where I came from and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But when I got to Memphis, I got good people around me, I got my circle tight, and I have been making the right choices ever since.”
The 6-foot-4 guard said he has noticed a number of things about the fans in Memphis, including the fact that if you aren’t working hard, they won’t care for you too much. Yet, if you are doing positive things and trying to be a better person, you’ll win them over for good.
“I have just noticed that they get behind people that are making positive strides that wear Memphis on the jersey or even just on them period,” Johnson added. “It can be a Memphis hat or a Memphis shirt. It’s just that blue, man. It’s power. It’s striving. It’s progress. It’s struggle. It’s everything.”
Johnson shot 35 percent from behind the arc in 2012-13.
If Memphis hadn’t taken a chance on him, Johnson said he believes he would be in the military right now, fighting for the country. Instead, he spends his days on the basketball court, striving to get better at the game he loves.
“I’m being productive,” he said. “I’m getting better as a player, getting better as a person on and off the court, so I’m good.”
Over the summer, Johnson was one of 19 collegiate players invited to the Kevin Durant Skills Academy. He said he got the opportunity to go up against the man who has won three NBA scoring-titles and admitted he was basically unstoppable. Still, Johnson believes he left his mark on Durant, the four-time NBA all-star.
“I know a professional now that I have met him,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t really know me, but if he sees my face, he’d recognize me because he’s seen me putting in that work in the gym, and that I’m coming.”
Getting to spend time with some of the best players in the game was something new for Johnson. He wasn’t at the McDonald’s All-American game in high school or any of the other events for the best players in the country.
“Growing up, I put myself in bad situations that didn’t allow me to be involved with other national guards,” Johnson explained. “I didn’t know those guys. I wasn’t at the Jordan Classic and those kinds of things. Just being in the gym with them and knowing that I can compete with them on a high level is a dream. I’m living it. I truly am.”
Many people questioned the decision by Pastner to give Johnson another chance, and their doubt was certainly understandable. With the help of Pastner, Johnson has not only exceled on the court, but even more so off of it.
He has worked hard to become a better person and go above and beyond what was asked of him. Johnson volunteers his time in the community on a weekly basis, reading to children and making a difference wherever he can.
Johnson has even turned around his failure in the classroom, which forced him down the junior college path in the first place. In September, he was recognized in front of his fellow student-athletes as a recipient of the Center for Athletic Academic Services (CAAS) Achievement Award, which is presented to two student-athletes who have overcome significant obstacles to find success in the classroom.
Now, the senior guard has conquered more than most 21-year-olds, and credits the guidance and example set by Pastner for his metamorphosis on and off the court.
“He’s been a role model,” Johnson said. “He does everything by the book. He’s been a supporter on and off the court. He’s been someone that I can I look up to and that I can say is a great guy even outside of coaching, just being a great individual himself. Anyone that knows him in Memphis, in Kingwood, Texas, or in Arizona, they know he is great guy. I’m glad to say that he is in my circle and that I can call his phone when I’m done with Memphis basketball if I need help with anything. I think I’ll be taken care of.”
Aside from the personal attributes Pastner has instilled in Johnson, he has also improved his work ethic and the level of commitment he has to the game of basketball.
Without hesitation, Johnson said his game has definitely improved as a result of coming to Memphis. Right after the loss to Michigan State in the third round of the NCAA tournament last year, he began working and hasn’t taken any time for granted.
“I’m going to get to the cup more and I’m going to knock down more jump shots,” he said. “I want to try and be the best player at the collegiate level.”
Pastner has preached that Johnson has to get to the free throw line more this year than he did last season. Attempting less than two free throws a game won’t cut it if Johnson wants to make it to the next level.
“If that’s one of the things you have to work on, it’s safe to say you don’t have that much,” Johnson added. “Always strengthen your weaknesses, but if your true goal for yourself is trying to get to the basket, you must be doing something right.”
With the start of the 2013-14 season less than a month away, expectations for the Tigers are at a fever pitch. Johnson gave his opinion on this year’s squad and what he thinks they are capable of doing.
“I’m a believer that there are about 15 teams before the season starts that can win a national championship,” Johnson said. “Our name is in there. That’s where I am.”
At this time last year, it would have been hard to imagine Johnson becoming who he is today. He is a prime example of how hard work and persistence can pay off.
If you see Johnson on campus, at a football game, or volunteering out in the community, it’s likely he’ll come up and shake your hand and introduce himself. That’s just the kind of person he's become.
No one can guarantee Johnson won’t slip up again, and revert back to the person he left behind at Garden City. But one thing is certain: the transformation he has made in just one year as a Tiger is nothing short of amazing.