December 7, 2010

Brothers help UCSB star find success

Dec. 7, 2010

Original Story with Video

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams once made the mistake of doubting Orlando Johnson.

Years before Johnson would transfer to the school and become the Big West player of the year while leading the Gauchos to an NCAA tournament appearance, Williams crossed the 6-foot-5 guard off his recruiting list as a high school junior.

"We didn't like how he shot the ball," Williams recalled last week. "What I didn't know was the kid. I didn't know the work ethic."

The rough edges of Johnson's game have since been smoothed over, turning the junior into one of the most explosive scorers in the nation and possibly the first NBA draft pick from UC Santa Barbara in more than 20 years.

For the skill and athleticism of this hidden gem on California's central coast to be uncovered, it took much more than tweaks made to his jump shot.

"A lot of what you see," Johnson said, "is what my brothers have instilled in me."

The two older brothers who raised Johnson devoted themselves to shaping his future and ensuring that it would not be defined by his childhood circumstances.

Johnson has never met his father, and when he was 1 year old, his mother was murdered in a crime that remains unsolved.

When he was 6, he happened to be away from his Seaside, Calif., home when a fire broke out and killed his great-grandmother, aunt and two little cousins.

At age 11, his grandmother who raised him passed away, leaving that responsibility to Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon. The brothers were in their 20s and had children of their own but welcomed Orlando into their homes. They were determined to take on roles as father figures and keep Orlando off the streets.

"I can remember the day," Orlando said. "They were sitting there thinking, 'How are we going to take Orlando, help him and make him grow?' It was rough. I kept losing people."

Said Jamell: "We were so protective of him. We game-planned our lives around him."

Robbie, who played basketball at Weber State and professionally in Croatia, took Orlando in during his middle school years and taught him lessons in the backyard. As the oldest brother, he challenged Orlando to push himself. "I'd tell him, 'You're good, but you're not that good' and beat him one-on-one," Robbie said.

"Nothing came easy for him. Whatever he was going to get, he was going to have to work for."

Jamell played football at Saint Mary's and served more as Orlando's life coach after his brother moved in during high school. He showed Orlando how to carry himself properly, critiquing everything from his appearance to the way he spoke to others.

"Those two men right there were able to take me under their wing and guide me to do the right things and be a good person," Orlando said. "I never liked disappointing my brothers. I felt like they've done so much for me, the least I could do was act right."

So before his junior year of high school, Orlando went along with Jamell's decision to have him transfer to Palma High School in Salinas, Calif., a private school that Jamell believed would better prepare him academically for college.

Jamell, who also had his wife and three children in the household, worked overtime hours to fund his brother's education at the all-boys school.

Johnson excelled playing wide receiver at Palma, but as a senior he chose to concentrate on basketball. He woke up early for 5:30 a.m. shooting sessions, averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds and also earned academic honors.

Loyola Marymount coach Rodney Tention loved the scoring potential and physical nature, and Johnson proved him right upon arriving on campus. In 2007-08, he led the team in points (12.4) and rebounds (4.9), setting the school's freshman scoring record.

But after a five-win season, Tention resigned, leaving Johnson in search of a new team.

Williams, who at one point stopped recruiting Johnson, realized his mistake after watching film in advance of UC Santa Barbara's game against LMU and pounced on a second opportunity to bring such a talent into his program.

"What we missed on was how much his shot would improve, how much time he would spend working on parts of his game," Williams said. In his redshirt season, Johnson would come early to practices and stay late even though he would not be playing in any actual games.

He spent the time with the coaching staff dedicated to becoming a better shooter, improving his release point, speeding up his mechanics and establishing a consistency that could only come with repetition.

Johnson also improved his ballhandling skills and lateral movement for defense. His body became leaner, yet he maintained his football-style toughness and at 205 pounds continued playing through contact.

The work paid off. In his first season playing for UC Santa Barbara, Johnson scored in double figures in every game, averaging 18 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. He also won Big West tournament MVP honors and helped the Gauchos earn their first NCAA tournament bid in eight seasons.

"Our main goal was for Orlando to live a successful life," Jamell said. "He made it so much easier than we expected. For him to be player of the year is just icing on the cake."

Johnson continues to get better. He averages 21.4 points and 5.7 rebounds this season, leading the team in 3-point shooting (46 percent) and assists (2.3 per game) while making more than half his field goal attempts (51 percent).

Williams has gone from wondering about Johnson's shooting ability to giving him advice on how to make an NBA draft decision at season's end. He credits the positive influence of Johnson's brothers for helping Orlando reach this level of success and fit so easily on a team that won 20 games last season.

"He had a great upbringing," Williams said. "His brothers were amazing with him. I mean, amazing."

Robbie and Jamell now spend their time making the eight-hour round-trip drive from Seaside for each home game at the Thunderdome and savoring every moment.

Johnson has honored them by getting a tattoo of a shield on his left arm that includes their initials along with his own and his late mother's.

"It's something that's protecting me with these people on my arm," Johnson said. "Whatever I do, I always know I can count on them."

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.

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