SAN DIEGO — Whenever times seem tough for Steffond Johnson, he remembers what it once was like for his mother.
When Dorothy Johnson and her husband separated nearly eight years ago, she was left alone to raise five children. She worked simultaneously as a teacher and nurse to provide for them.
However, she provided more than material things. Her words, as well as her actions, echoed a lesson in life.
"Steffond," she used to say to the second-oldest child. "If you can ever make a situation better, you do it."
And so, Steffond has put his mother's words into action with the San Diego State basketball team this year. The Aztecs were 3-11 overall before Johnson returned from a lower back injury three weeks ago. They are 4-4 since.
Johnson, a 6-foot 8-inch center, is a big man to the team in size and impact.
His example in perseverance has been a lesson to teammates. He could have easily quit basketball for the year after suffering a herniated disc and multiple stress fractures in his back, as well as having detached retinas.
But he kept going.
Johnson has had to overcome more than physical setbacks in his basketball career. Coaches have implied that he has tendencies to be selfish, lacks motivation and can be difficult to get along with.
So now, as Johnson's senior season winds down, he has something to prove. So would anyone who never averaged more than 5.6 points or 3.9 rebounds, which he did at Louisiana State before transferring to SDSU. LSU was the school that expected him to be the best thing down South since gumbo soup, a guy who could have as much impact as Pete Maravich.
"When Steffond turns the switch on, it makes him a much better basketball player and student," said Dale Brown, LSU coach. "I believe he really hasn't focused in or followed through with anything yet. When he does that, he can be successful."
Johnson craves success, especially because his mother wouldn't want it any other way.
"That's the way my mother brought me up," Johnson said. "You bend, but you don't break."
Johnson had just completed ninth grade when his parents were divorced. His father, Felton, remained in Gilmer, Tex., and remarried, but his mother moved the family to Longview, Tex.
As a youngster, Steffond was often told by older acquaintances how great an athlete his father was. But Felton Johnson never carried through with his athletic endeavors.
He played varsity basketball as a junior at Longview. His coach, Leroy Romines, immediately noticed two things: Johnson was a very talented player, but he wanted things done his way.
"He had come from a small school where he dominated and was allowed to do whatever he wanted," he said. "We were team-oriented here and he wasn't used to it. We had a few altercations for three or four months before we got things straightened out. We had an understanding among him, his mother and I. I was pretty tough on him. Once we got our problems worked out, he understood where I stood."
When Johnson was a senior he led Longview to the final eight of the Texas large schools state tournament, averaging 18 points and 15 rebounds a game. During the season, he had broken the school record for points (38) and rebounds (35) in a game.
Early in Johnson's senior year, he verbally committed to attend Texas A&M. But when rumors, which were unfounded, persisted that Texas A&M might be going on probation, Johnson decided to look elsewhere.
He chose LSU, thinking the selection might be his road to the Final Four someday.
Soon after Johnson began classes at LSU, his troubles with Brown began. Johnson thought he had entered LSU to concentrate on basketball, but Brown thought otherwise.
"Dale would get mad at me for not being so academically minded," Johnson said. "He's stubborn, and you won't bend him. Basketball was always secondary to him. He always told me that I was articulate and could represent us well. He told me I could make as much impact on society as I could make in basketball."
Brown still stands by those beliefs, saying Johnson could be a good salesman, teacher or manager.
Johnson, a communications major, also could have been a good basketball player at LSU, but he never panned out. He once was thought to be the savior of the team, but he was unable to save himself from numerous headaches in his relationship with Brown because of his inability to reach his potential.
At times, Johnson displayed the brilliance expected by LSU fans. He had 19 points and 10 rebounds against Kentucky as a freshman, and he scored 20 against Mississippi as a junior.
But overall, he fell far short of expectations. Johnson averaged 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman, 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds as a sophomore and 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds as a junior.
His statistics regressed each year, and so did his on-the-court relationship with Brown.
"I needed to get Coach Brown's confidence that I meant business," Johnson said. "I never convinced him of that."