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As for Hughes' influence on Johnson, the starting point guard on that '97 squad, Grawer says: "It's huge, huge -- in so many ways. That's his idol, from the way he moves to the way he wears his hair. He's done everything the same."
McCormack adds, "Larry and Ryan playing together was as big an inspiration as you could imagine. Ryan was like a sponge when Larry was around, to the point where, this year, he's one of the best guards in the area."
Johnson, however, downplays the Hughes connection: "Larry's more like my cousin, so he's no superstar to me."
Tatum, who's "been playing ball with (Johnson) since he was 5 or 6 years old, playing football and basketball in my uncle's basement," comes down in between on the issue. On one hand he says that team's dominant 28-4 season gave Johnson a hunger to lead a team of his own: "It's very important to him. Very much so. The two of us led that season. Now, there's just one from that team, him. He's always wanted to be the man going back to the state championship. He knew how Larry and I led that team. He was basically waiting his turn." On the other hand, Tatum says, the Hughes relationship is still simply on a friendly level, no "idol" involved: "(Johnson) hangs with me and Larry on and off the court. Same attitude, same walk, everything. He's just one of us."
"People who know us know what (Hughes) means to us," says Johnson. "He's one of my best and closest friends."
Certainly playing with that Hughes-Tatum-Stricker lineup gave Johnson some extra ammo in the basketball-recruiting wars. A good number of coaches knew the name, knew that he could run the show with talented players around him, knew that he'd put up good numbers the year after the senior trio left.
A variety of mid- to high-caliber programs, McCormack says, were inquiring about Johnson in basketball, including Bradley, St. John's, Georgia, Illinois State and SLU. Instead, during the spring signing period, Johnson put pen to paper and signed a football scholarship with the University of Memphis, after starring with the 4-5 CBC team as a wide receiver, defensive back and QB.
He admits that the college-recruiting process was sometimes tiring. "Yeah, it created a few problems," he says. "All that 'Where you goin?' You don't know what to tell 'em."
Eventually, he wound up telling them, "Memphis." And despite his football scholarship, Johnson has every intention of going out for the basketball team. He says head basketball coach Tic Price told him the squad is in need of point guards. (For the record, Memphis assistant coach Johnny Jones says that he hasn't "seen film" of Johnson yet and doesn't know the player in any detail. In a statement relayed through the school's sports-information department, Jones says, "We're looking forward to giving Ryan the opportunity of walking on with our basketball team. We're definitely looking at him after his football commitments.")
"I went down there on a recruiting visit," he says. "It seemed more like home than anywhere else. Basically it's not all that big, not all that small. Only four hours going down the highway."
"I'll get to go to some of the games," his mother says. "I'm happy he chose them."
Askew, who's seldom missed one of her son's games -- from grade school through AAU and CBC -- says with some understatement that the experience of the last year was "interesting": "He got a lot of letters, from both sports, mainly at the beginning of the school year. Mostly it was football. When I talked to the Memphis coach, that's what he was saying -- people thought he was going to go football."
Johnson clearly brings some of that sport's mentality to the court. His position calls for both patience and aggression, and for the most part he delivered the two qualities in equal measure, with his flashy style of play providing an easy target for fans. He also came up big in big games.
At Webster Groves, in midseason, Johnson hit two free throws with three seconds remaining, icing a game that had raged back and forth for 32 minutes.
At UM-St. Louis, the entire game seemed to run through Johnson and Vashon's Shelton, with Johnson scoring 18, including several huge, often acrobatic buckets down the stretch.
And at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, earlier in the state playoffs, Johnson responded to Lindbergh's coach's mentioning that he was overrated in that day's Southwest City Journal by ringing up 22 points, 10 assists and five rebounds -- all despite a fever.
"That really helped motivate Johnson," says forward Kevin Muesenfechter.
"He got his just dues," Johnson says. "That's one thing you just don't do."
That type of bravado should be a good thing when Johnson gets to Memphis. As a freshman on the football team, he'll be back at the beginning, one of dozens of talented new kids who'll initially serve as cannon fodder for the upperclassmen in late-summer drills. His mom feels that "if there's a spot for him and he has any power to do it, he'll do it. If he can earn a starting spot, he'll do his darndest. I think he knows what's coming. But he's never come off the bench in anything. I think he'll be OK."
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