Sunday, March 14, 2010

USA Today article about my friends

Y'all, this article from USA Today is about two friends of mine and is such a sweet and inspiring love story of overcoming obstacles and following your dreams. Please read it!

By Erik Brady, USA TODAY
Anthony Johnson and Shaunte Nance-Johnson have not seen each other for two weeks. That's OK with them. It's all part of a love story playing out amid the madness of March.

Thursday they were like ships passing in the night: He rode a team bus carrying the University of Montana Grizzlies from the Big Sky men's basketball tournament in Ogden, Utah, even as she rode a bus carrying the Lady Griz toward the women's tournament in Cheney, Wash.

"It's funny how life works out sometimes," Johnson said.

He was not talking about the bus rides or even the 42 points he scored the night before, including his team's last 21 in a 66-65 win at Weber State, which put the Grizzlies into the NCAA tournament.

Nor was the 6-3 shooting guard talking about how if the Lady Griz win today's semifinal and Saturday's final he and Shaunte will be the Astaire and Rogers of selection Sunday — a rare husband-and-wife team heading to respective Big Dances.

No, what he was talking about is his life's story and hers.

"I've had people say it's like something out of a movie," Johnson said by cellphone as the team bus rolled. "I don't think anything of it because it's me — it's us — living it. But I guess from an outsider's perspective, it is one heck of a story, if I had to say so myself."

March always brings stories of unsung heroes from lesser-known schools. Theirs starts at rival high schools in Tacoma, Wash., where she was a basketball star and he was in the chess club.

"He had his eye on me then, but he was too nervous to talk to me," she said by cellphone from her bus.

Johnson had tried out for his high school football team but quit after he got hit too hard. His friends persuaded him to try out for the high school basketball team as a junior, though he had never played organized ball.

Johnson made the team even as he struggled to learn the game. Senior year, he scored about 12 points a game. But he played on losing teams. Worse, his grades were awful. College was out of the question. That was in 2004.

He got a job washing dishes "at a little restaurant — a dump, really," he said. He had to go back to high school for another semester to graduate. Then, that next summer, his best friend was dating the girl he'd had his eye on. When they broke up, Johnson made his move.

She was going off to college in two weeks. They saw each other every day. The night before she left, he proposed — with a rubber band as a ring.

"It sounds crazy, I know," he said.

Think of it as a halfcourt desperation shot that found nothing but net.

"He had to do something big not to lose me," she said. They both cried.

Package deal

Nance went off to her scholarship at Division II's Northwest Nazarene. She missed Johnson and left after one season to go back to him. She watched him play at the YMCA and thought he was more than good enough to play college. But at that point, it looked as if both of their hoops careers were done.

"We were two young kids," he said, "trying to make it work."

But then she got a call from Yakima Valley (Wash.) Community College. And that's when the 5-5 point guard dished out the biggest assist of her life.

"I told them I would only come if my husband got a chance to try out," she said. "I didn't want a guarantee, just an opportunity."

They weren't married yet, but she used that word — husband. He got the tryout and made the team. They got married, and she got a real ring, on Nov. 1, 2006.

The next year, he played again and she sat out, on the theory that each would have two years of eligibility left for transferring to a major college. Johnson averaged 24.4 points a game and led the Yaks to a regional community college tournament championship where he was named MVP.

Division I offers rolled in for him, but not for her. Johnson told Montana he would come only if she got a tryout.

"It felt great to repay her," he said.

Men's coach Wayne Tinkle had no problem with the arrangement. When he played at Montana, he dated women's star Lisa McLeod, his future wife. "She was a heck of a lot better college player than I was," Tinkle said.

They have three children. Tinkle wasn't on the bus with his team Thursday; he was driving to see his younger daughter Elleson play in the state high school playoffs. Older daughter Joslyn will play in the NCAA women's tournament for Stanford.

Tinkle and McLeod didn't marry until after college. Johnson and Nance-Johnson are the first husband and wife to compete for Montana at the same time.

"When they've gone through tough, hard times, they've been there for each other," Tinkle said. "They were a very young and immature couple without much of a foundation when they first came to us. It's really been neat to watch them grow here."

Teammate Vassy Banny teases Johnson that his wife is stronger in the weight room. "I'm sure they have ups and downs," Banny said, "but they never show any hardness to us. They're just a great couple to be around."

Johnson cracked the starting lineup 10 games into his first year at Montana. This season, he scored nearly 20 points a game. And then came that magic Wednesday night on the home floor of top-seeded Weber State, which led the Big Sky title game 40-20 at the half.

That's when the ex-dishwasher — who once had little in life save for a woman who believed in him — exploded for 34 second-half points, including a jumper with 10 seconds left that won it.

Nance-Johnson, 23, couldn't be there. She had practices as her team prepared for its Big Sky tournament. But she watched on TV and cried, same as the night he gave her the rubber-band ring.

"It was emotional," she said. "I got 100 text messages from everyone we know."

His bus ride from Ogden to Missoula was about eight hours, hers from Missoula to Cheney about two. They talked by phone, which sometimes cut out as the buses rolled through the wide-open spaces of the American West.

Johnson, 23, can't be at today's semifinal. But if the Lady Griz win, he'll be there for the final, the first couple of Montana basketball in the same place for the first time in two weeks.

She used to keep a symbolic rubber band on her ring finger as she played. She figures she broke 1,000 of them that way. This weekend, as always, she'll have her wedding ring tied to the drawstring of her shorts as she plays.

He'll get a Big Sky championship ring. She already has one from last season and hopes for another.

"Our little joke is the Big Sky ring is better," she says. "Anthony thinks that's really funny. But if he takes off his wedding ring, I'll have to choke him."

Contributing: Andy Gardiner and Eddie Timanus


Sarah Wyland said...

Oh my gosh! his is such an amazing story!

Crazy Shenanigans said...

Aw, this was such a cute story.

Blackeyed Susan said...

Great story! I'm pumped about our bracket!! :)