|Geron Johnson, who scores 21 points against Ohio on Wednesday, is trying to move forward after a spotty past. (AP)|
"Coach P calls me daily," Johnson said.
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Do you ever try to talk Pastner into letting you stay out later?
"I've tried," Johnson answered with a smile. "But he's not having it."
Memphis beat Ohio 84-58 here at FedExForum on Wednesday in what was the Tigers' most convincing performance to date. They smothered the Bobcats defensively. They dominated them on the boards. They created 12 steals -- three of which belonged to Johnson, and I know this is where I'm supposed to play off the word steal and crack jokes about Johnson's past because that's just what you do when the same person who was arrested for attempted burglary in high school is later accused of stealing another student's cell phone in junior college (and, in between, is arrested for marijuana possession and criminal trespassing).
You crack jokes about it.
You crack jokes about him.
So let's go ahead and get started!
"About time Geron Johnson stole something without getting arrested."
"He's gone from trespassing to chest-passing in less than a year."
"You think he got D.J. Cooper's cell phone, too?"
OK, is that enough?
Are three jokes enough?
I hope so. Because if you'll let me move on there's actually a nice story to tell -- a nice story about a young man who knows he's made mistakes but seems genuinely interested in trying to get past them. Is he perfect? No, Johnson is not perfect. And I'm not guaranteeing he won't do something stupid next week and be dismissed from school. I have no idea. His past is his past, and the truth is that he was removed from two different junior college teams before arriving on campus this summer. That's a red flag if there's ever been one. So I'm vouching for Johnson in no way, shape or form. We'll just have to see where things go from here. But what I can tell you matter-of-factly is that he has by all accounts been a model citizen since enrolling, and that he's adhered to Pastner's rules and regulations, of which there are plenty.
Some Memphis players can miss a class without penalty.
Some Memphis players can stay out late on a Saturday.
The Memphis staff basically keeps tabs on Johnson every hour of every day -- the idea being that constant structure with real consequences for any missteps should give him the best opportunity to succeed in basketball and life. Will it work? Again, who knows? But it has worked to date, and the byproduct was on display Wednesday when Johnson took 11 shots, made eight and finished with a career-high 21 points in 29 minutes.
"Geron changes the tempo of the game," Pastner said. "He's tough. He's got a great motor. He's a high-energy guy. He loves defense. ... And I'm proud of the young man. He's really done well. He's not perfect. But to this point he's done well."
I asked Johnson about his past again late Wednesday but not about the details because I've long known the details. What I wanted to know was when he thinks it'll cease to be part of his story because at this point he's still best known as the prospect with legal problems that Pastner gambled on when it became clear Memphis would lose Will Barton to the NBA Draft.
"It's never going to go away," Johnson told me, and I really liked that answer because it seemed to indicate that he understands the position he's put himself in. "I just use it as motivation. But it's really not an issue to me anymore. It happened. I'm past it. We can talk about it if you want to, but it's ... whatever."
A few minutes after saying those words, Johnson exited the media room and went, well, I'm not sure where he went. It was about 8:30 then. I didn't ask where he was going. He didn't say. I'm just assuming that no matter where he headed that he was home by midnight on this night just like he's been home by midnight on every night. Without exception. Without complaint. Because that's the rule.
"[It's going to be this way] until I prove I'm responsible and until [Pastner] feels like he can let me off the hook," Johnson said. "That's just how it is. And I'm OK with it."