Friday, July 9, 2010


To be in control, at least once in his life, was a pleasant, but not a thrilling emotion. Kelvin Johnson always wondered what it would feel like. Having lived all of his 49 years as if he didn't have his hands on the steering wheel, had its advantages. Never before had he felt responsible, really responsible. As he lifted the Glock 19, he could feel his heart begin to pound. Adrenaline and anxiety can do that. He felt flushed in the face and a few tiny beads of sweat formed on his upper lip and forehead. Resolute, decided and determined, Kelvin pushed the barrel square between his eyes, where his bushy eyebrows almost met. As he squeezed his eyes shut, he simultaneously squeezed his trigger finger. Swish!

Swish is a beautiful sound. The round ball has to hit the twine just so. Not only can't the rock hit the rim, the arc and speed of the ball, as it passes through, are critical. Moreover, the net itself must be both taut and loose enough to resonate. A fresh net and a worn net usually fail to sing the praise of the shooter. In short, a "swish" is a just the right kind of sound. And there's not a basketball player in the world who loved that sound more than Kelvin Johnson. Too bad he had wings of wax.

Diabetes is a funny disease. Most of the people with it hardly notice. In fact, 1/3 of diabetics don't even know they have abnormal glucose metabolism. Some, less lucky sufferers develop cruel complications. These include vascular diseases such as heart attacks, limb gangrene and strokes, neuropathies, kidney disease, vision loss and more. Kelvin's diabetes was diagnosed when he was 35. Dr. Mason Stone did his best with KJ, but dieting was never something "Don't Call Me Late For Dinner" Kelvin could master. At his heaviest, Kelvin Johnson weighed 398 pounds. When he died, with one leg amputated below the knee, he weighed 376 pounds. Oh, KJ was 6-11, but still he was not tall enough to be that heavy. Sad.

All who knew him, loved him. A gentle giant of a man, he had an easy grin and an engaging way. Up until his amputation two years ago, he was a familiar site cruising the downtown streets of Akron, Ohio. Curiously he preferred a small Harley, the Sportster. Kelvin had owned bigger and more expensive hogs, but after it was all said and done, he opted for an XL1200C Custom. Such a big man on a modestly sized bike was cartoonish, but that's the way it was.

Kelvin Johnson was the only child of Esther Johnson and either Madlock Williams or Santo Cey. Esther was, in her day, a woman of passion. She had an appetite for life and it was not unusual back then for her to need more than one man could provide. Although Kelvin's conception was a pill failure, Esther never rued the day she missed her monthly. Once Kelvin poked his big head and his 23 inch body into the world, Esther found the Second Baptist Church. She became a reborn woman and she devoted herself to the raising of Kelvin. When Madlock and Santo found out Esther was pregnant, neither stepped up and both pointed at one another. Esther, who didn't think much of either of them beyond their proud flesh, wasn't surprised. Not surprised at all.

KJ was a skinny kid. The neighborhood kids teased him. He was called "Stringbean", Too Long" or "Wilt". Kelvin was a quiet boy, but he always wished he was more "normal". By the age of 12 he wore a 13 shoe and by fifteen he took to a size 17. His foot wear needs nearly bankrupted Esther. A legal secretary can only make so much money. And he ate lots of food. Esther and her brother, Pete, turned the soil over in their small yard and they grew vegetables to supplement Kelvin's appetite. "Uncle" Pete was Kelvin's de facto Dad. Pete Johnson, who himself had planted a few swimmers, glommed on to Kelvin more than his own progeny. Sometimes it's like that.

As a junior at Garfield High School, Kelvin took up the sport of basketball. You can't teach height and you can't teach coordination and Kelvin had both. Beyond that, he was rough and a work in progress. A scout told another scout who told the then head coach of the University of Kentucky, Joe B. Hall, about the Garfield kid. Joe, himself went to watch Garfield play city rival, Ellet, when KJ was a senior. The potential was there. Joe met with KJ, Esther and Pete and a deal was struck. KJ would do a post graduate year at the Culver Academy to tune up his academics and his basketball and then Joe wanted Kelvin to join him at Kentucky.

KJ had a great college career. He scored 41 points in a tough loss to Tennessee in his junior year, but in that game he became a legitimate pro prospect. In his senior year, Kentucky made the Final Four. KJ was drafted in the first round, but at this point he was flying too close to the sun. They say as the going gets tough, the tough get going. Moving up the pyramid of athletic excellence, the going indeed gets tough and then gets tougher. Kelvin's resolve was tested and he came up short. Lacking discipline to work hard or to practice hard coupled with an insatiable passion for food led to underperformance, questionable motivation and disappointment. After a lackluster five year stint in the NBA, Kelvin retired. Fortunately, he played long enough to be eligible for the player's pension fund, which begins distributions at age 50.

Kelvin Johnson's life was front loaded. If you graphed it out, he hit his peak somewhere around his last year at Kentucky. His last twenty years of life were spent like a blackjack player, who puts and takes bets for three hours and then goes home even. Only in his last two years, did Kelvin suffer. The progressive diabetes finally got to him. Once the leg was removed, he lost the will to live and that's when the depression played out.

Maybe it was ironic that Kelvin killed himself three hours before a fellow Ackronite, LeBron James, a 25 year old basketball icon, announced on ESPN he was going to play for the Miami Heat next season. King James was the real deal, a paradigm player. In James' seven year career with Cleveland, he had flown into the sun many times. No one can ever know for sure what goes through the mind of a man looking down the barrel of a self held Glock, but in Kelvin's situation you gotta believe he was thinking what might have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment