Joe Santoro: Why Pack fans should be happy for Armon Johnson | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Why Pack fans should be happy for Armon Johnson

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

 Be happy for Armon Johnson.

 Don’t snicker and turn to your friends and say Johnson is making a huge mistake by leaving the Nevada Wolf Pack for the National Basketball Association draft a year early. Don’t say he should have stayed in school for his senior year. Don’t bother telling anyone who will listen that Johnson is making the wrong decision.

 It’s not your decision or mine. It’s not our life.

 It’s Armon Johnson’s life. And Johnson has earned the right to tackle the next — and biggest and most frightening — challenge in his young life.

 “I have thought long and hard about this decision,” said Johnson through a Wolf Pack athletic department statement on Friday announcing his intentions to hire an agent and enter the NBA draft in June. “The decision was made very difficult because of the great affection I have for the entire University of Nevada community.”

 That affection now should flow in both directions. Johnson deserves our support.

 Oh, sure, it would have been nice to see Johnson in a Pack uniform next winter. Just the thought of Johnson as a crafty senior running David Carter’s offense like another coach on the floor, dishing the ball to Luke Babbitt, Dario Hunt and newcomers Olek Czyz, Jerry Evans, Jordan Burris and Malik Story makes your Wolf Pack heart skip a beat.

 Next year, after all, was going to be the year when Babbitt and Johnson, the two greatest players ever to come out of northern Nevada, were finally going to lead the Pack back to the glory of the last decade.

 And now, suddenly, those dreams will never be realized.

 It’s OK as a Wolf Pack supporter to feel a little betrayed on some level. You, after all, will always be true to the Silver & Blue and you just expect the same out of your heroes, at least until their eligibility runs out.

 So, yes, it’s natural to take verbal jabs at Johnson now. Go ahead. Get it out of your system. Fill the chat rooms and Tweet it till you can’t Tweet no more. He won’t make it in the NBA, right? He’s destined to play in Europe or the D-League. The NBA will eat him alive.

 Feel better? Well, have you forgotten that those same things were said about Ramon Sessions and JaVale McGee a few years back?

 Sessions, a backup point guard with the Minnesota Timberwolves, is now in his third year in the NBA. He’s averaged 9.9 points and 4.7 assists a game throughout his career. He made it.

 McGee, who turned out to be a NBA lottery pick after his sophomore year with the Pack in 2008, is in his second year with the Washington Wizards. Earlier this week he had 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks against the Golden State Warriors. He’s ready to explode as a NBA force.

 The bottom line is that nobody — not Johnson, not Carter, not you, not me, not even the NBA scouts who attended most Pack games this year and drooled over Johnson — knows what will happen to Johnson at the next level.

 Will he make it? Well, why wouldn’t he make it?

 He’s got good size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) for a point guard, a burning competitive spirit, a killer cross-cover dribble, a deadly jumper from inside the 3-point arc. On top of all that, he’s fearless, confident and, more than anything else, his entire life lights up whenever he’s playing the game of basketball.

 Yeah, he can make it. And you shouldn’t blame him for wanting to find out if he can right now.

 ESPN reported Friday that Johnson is projected to be a late first round to mid-second round draft pick in June. Johnson’s name has been all over the internet the last few months as a probable draft pick in 2010.

 This is not some kid sitting in his bedroom staring up at a poster of Michael Jordan on his wall and deciding out of the blue that he wants to play in the NBA. The NBA has been telling Johnson for the better part of the past year that he has a future in their league.

 If you were 21-years-old would you tell the NBA to wait another year?

 Before you answer that question, you should know where Johnson is coming from.

 He’s a young man who, for whatever reason, has not had a consistent adult influence in his life. He moved to northern Nevada from his native Chicago with his mother Camella and older sister Caprina when he was just in grade school.

 His mentors have been his basketball coaches and teammates. He spent the spring and summer after his junior year at Hug High bouncing around from Reno to Pennsylvania to Oakland and back to Reno.

 The one constant in his life has always been his love for the game of basketball.

 “My coaches have always helped me on and off the court, my fellow students have been unbelievably supportive and all of the fans have made these past years unforgettable and incredible to me,” said Johnson in his statement.

 “It is difficult to leave a place and people you love, and this is a hard day for me. I hope that when I come back here to visit that I can see as many of the people in the community as possible. I want to thank everyone for supporting me and helping me in my journey, and hope you all continue to cheer for me in this next step.”

 Johnson should be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever slip on a Wolf Pack uniform. He is ninth all-time in Pack history in scoring with 1,441 points and fourth in assists with 445. With Johnson at point guard the last three years, the Pack never failed to win at least 20 games or go to a postseason tournament.

 He had unbelievable games (30 points this year against BYU and 33 at California as a sophomore). He beat Idaho single-handedly in the final 30 seconds this year on the road. The kid even went to Chapel Hill as a freshman and scored 23 points in just his 12th college game. He had a dozen assists this year against Houston and Hawaii.

 Was he always great, always perfect? Of course not. But, you can be sure, every minute, every second he stepped out on the court, he gave the Wolf Pack everything he had for three years and 101 games.

 There wasn’t a Pack player who took the loss in the Western Athletic Conference tournament semifinals as badly as Johnson. It ripped his heart out. Yes, that was our first real clue that he had already made up his mind to jump to the NBA. He just looked like a kid who saw his last chance to get to the NCAA tournament slip through his fingers forever.

 So, now, don’t think for a second that Johnson never really cared about making the Wolf Pack a national power once again. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 Johnson made all three of the Pack teams he played on better. He’ll be in the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame someday. It’s going to be awfully difficult to replace him, on and off the court.

 And, you know what?

 Wolf Pack fans never really got to see Armon Johnson in all his glory. The Johnson that played for the Pack was a kid who spent all of his time trying to make everyone around him happy.

 On the floor he had to make his teammates happy. He had to play second fiddle to Babbitt the last two years and his freshman year, well, his job was to dribble the ball up the court and then quickly find all of his more experienced teammates.

 Johnson, in his heart, though, is more Jordan than John Stockton. He’s at his best when he’s attacking the basket at will, scoring in bunches, putting his team on his back. But at Nevada, except for rare flashes of brilliance, he was never really allowed or required to do that.

 Oh, sure, Johnson could have been a selfish player. He certainly had the skills to justify it. But he always remained loyal to the wishes of head coaches Mark Fox and Carter. He ran their offense. He deferred to his teammates. He became a great leader and a great teammate.

 It wasn’t easy. Just like leaving the comforts of college isn’t easy. But it’s something Johnson feels he must do.

 That’s his decision and he’s the only one who can make it.

 Johnson’s dreams are right there in front of him now. He spent his entire three years at Nevada trying to satisfy everyone around him. He’s earned the right to finally think of himself.

 Be happy for Armon Johnson.