Fairfield's Johnston making at Division I name for himself
Published 3:09 pm, Thursday, December 18, 2014
He was just one face in five. One kid looking to stand out in the crowd and maybe, just maybe, make a name for himself. But the odds were so stacked against him, Steve Johnston didn't have a chance. Or so everyone thought.
Everyone except Steve Johnston.
This is the story of a kid who walked on to a basketball team. A Division I basketball team. The kid wasn't tall, wasn't overly athletic. He was good, good enough to deserve a look, but that was about it. But the kid worked. Worked hard. Probably outworked just about everybody else on the team. But that still wasn't going to be good enough. The other four walk-on's went home. Steve Johnston stayed around. But taking part in practice was going to be the highlight. There wouldn't be anything else worth mentioning.
You see, Steve Johnston was also the team manager.
You know, the manager ... the guy that picks up the sweaty, dirty practice uniforms and dumps them into the laundry bins. The guy who wipes the spills off the floor. The guy who controls the shot clock in practice and does whatever the head coach tells him to do. Johnston did all that.
Think it was fun? Guess again.
"It was a very humbling experience" Johnston said. "It wasn't what I expected when I wanted to walk on, but I think it made me even more hungry and work even harder.
"I was a practice player and manager. Coach told me that that's what they needed at the time, and I wasn't a selfish guy and I wanted to be part of the team, so I did whatever I needed to do. I accepted it and worked my tail off."
Because Steve Johnston wanted to be a Division I basketball player and he was willing to do whatever it took to make that dream come true. And if that meant collecting and washing practice uniforms, whether that meant cleaning floors or running the shot clock, that's what Johnson did. That mindset eventually got him a practice jersey. That mindset eventually got him a game jersey. That mindset eventually got him playing time.
That mindset eventually got him into the starting lineup.
"He's done a good job at claiming things that other people didn't want," Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said. "I'm not surprised by his success because he does the same things day in and day out. There was a window of opportunity and he took it."
Took it and ran with it. From manager to practice player to getting in the playing rotation to starter, Johnston has worked to achieve each and every goal and is not content to stop there.
"I'm playing the game that I love and the most important thing for me is helping the team win," Johnston said, who grew up in Stamford and attended St. Luke's School in Norwalk. "I love putting time in the gym and it's worked out for me so far."
Johnston, who still is a walk-on, has played in all nine Fairfield games this season, starting the first four. He is averaging 5.4 points and 25.4 minutes a game, numbers that defy logic as far as walk-ons go. He has gone from the occasional garbage time to prime time -- like he did in a 56-52 win at Quinnipiac, where he scored 14 points, including the biggest basket of the game with three seconds left, when he stole a pass and drove to the hoop and scored, icing Fairfield's second December MAAC win.
"For me, he's an inspiration because he comes in every day and gives his all," junior forward Amadou Sidibe said. "There are days when I don't really feel like I want to give my all but then I look at Steve and how much he's overcome and that feeling disappears. He's working that hard and he doesn't have a scholarship or anything, I have to work just as hard.
"He's got a very high basketball IQ. He always knows what he's doing on the court. That's one of the things I like most, of course, it's great that he can shoot, but his mental toughness, that's key."
That basketball IQ ... that's what caught the attention of Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson, who with Derek Needham, Colin Nickerson, Desmond Wade, Sean Crawford, Jamel Fields and Gary Martin in fold, didn't really need another guard but decided to test Johnston's commitment as a freshman by making him a manager.
"We were a really good team that year (Fairfield went 22-15, reaching the semifinals of the CollegeInsider tournament) and I was kind of looking for the right type of practice guy, someone who could hit the ground running, and I just wasn't convinced about any of the guys that I saw," Johnson said. "So I said, `let me try and work him in' and that's where the manager role came in as opposed to being an every day practice guy.
"And part of that was to see if his commitment was for all the right reasons ... to try and help the team because that's what walk-ons do, they practice and they help the team, so I thought a manager role would be a nice stepping stone and quite honestly, it worked out the way that he wanted and certainly in a way that's benefited us."
So, Johnston washed practice gear and cleaned up spills and did that that managerial stuff and waited for, and finally got, his chance.
"I think he might have seen some potential in me," Johnston said. "He saw that I was a hard worker, I didn't slack off and he saw some flashes here and there and I think that's why he decided to bring me back."
As a sophomore in 2012-13, Johnston saw exactly nine minutes in five games over the first 20 that Fairfield played. But then came Marist. Justin Jenkins was out with a wrist injury and with Needham, Nickerson and Wade all graduated, the guard position was suddenly slim pickings. Johnson needed someone to give him some minutes. That someone was Johnston.
He played 23 minutes, made three of four 3-pointers handed out two assists and grabbed all the headlines in the next day's newspapers. A star was born.
"It was the first time that I was on the court and really got to play. I was so nervous," Johnston said. "One of the first plays I forced a turnover and tripped over my own feet and fell flat on my face. I just remember the adrenaline pumping through my body, thinking to myself, `I'm playing ... I'm trying to help my team win.' You always have to be ready to play because you never know what might happen."
Why did Johnson point to Johnston that night? Call it fate.
"No one to that point in the season had claimed that role, that's basically what it was," the coach said. "There was no one, through the highs and lows that said, `I'm going to be that guy that fills that spot.' So, what we noticed about Steve. During that time his work habits never changed. It was just like what we saw as a manager and what we saw as a practice player, his work ethic never changed."
Of his nine baskets as a sophomore, eight were 3-pointers. Last season, as his playing time slowly increased, of his 23 baskets, 22 were 3-pointers. But don't you dare consider him a one-dimensional player.
"He is such a hard worker," Sidibe said. "I can remember during the summer time when the guys all first got here (as freshmen) and (Johnston) had a (work) position with his dad and every day during his lunch break, he would come here and work out with us. From that moment on I knew he was all about it (basketball). He was very dedicated."
And that dedication led to a starting role this season, unheard of for a walk-on.
"I'm just glad as a coach that you have those moments. You have lows and you certainly have highs and I would put that as one of the highs," Johnson said. "To give him that wink, give him that nod, tell him he's a starter ... we're certainly a better team because he's here, no doubt about that.
"It's a great story but I can't say that he's the best success story I've been around because his story's not done. He's got a lot of big moments left. When he's played his last play, then we can talk about how incredible an underdog story this is."
And it is a hell of an underdog story.
"I think I've proved to a lot of people that with hard work and belief, you can achieve your dreams," Johnston said. "This was one of my dreams. And I'm not done chasing them."