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THE NBA PLAYOFFS : He's the Spurs' Man Friday : As Youth, Steve Johnson Left Home, Religion

April 23, 1986|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

At one period early in the life of Steve Johnson, power forward for the San Antonio Spurs, he was forced to choose between religion and basketball, between family harmony and personal satisfaction.

To Johnson, playing basketball seemed as natural as going to church every weekend.

The problem was that his family's beliefs prevented Johnson from attending a public high school and, as a result, from playing competitive basketball outside his hometown of Loma Linda, a community near Riverside.

Johnson's parents are Seventh-day Adventists who observe Sabbath from dusk Friday to dusk Saturday. No matter how much Steve urged, his parents would not allow him to play basketball on weekends.

As Johnson and his reputation in playground games around Riverside grew, so did his frustrations. By the time he was 17 and getting ready for his senior year at Loma Linda Academy, a church-affiliated school, Johnson considered himself 6 feet 9 inches of unused basketball talent.

One day, Johnson resolved the conflict by leaving home without a word and embarking on a journey of basketball discovery that began at San Gorgonio High in San Bernardino, continued for four standout years at Oregon State and has endured five seasons in the National Basketball Assn.

Johnson, who will try to help the Spurs avoid first-round playoff elimination tonight at 5:30, PST, against the Lakers in Game 3 at San Antonio, has had 12 years to sort out all that happened during that confusing time in his life.

Compared with what Johnson dealt with growing up, the conflicts he had with Spur Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons four years ago in Kansas City seem minor. Fitzsimmons, coach of the Kings when Johnson was the club's first-round draft pick in 1981, never stopped Johnson from playing, but his style of play caused problems.

Johnson, then a center, wanted to play inside. Fitzsimmons wanted him at the high post. Eventually, Fitzsimmons gave up and traded Johnson to Chicago, where he averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds each of his two seasons.

But in a strange twist before last June's draft, Fitzsimmons, by then coaching the Spurs, traded for Johnson because he needed a power forward who could work well in the low post.

"It was a little bizarre," Johnson said.

Not nearly as bizarre, though, as the summer of 1975, when Johnson bounced around San Bernardino, living in fear that the juvenile authorities would catch up with him and send him back to Loma Linda.

Even now, when asked to recount how he hid in an abandoned house for a summer simply so he could play basketball in his senior year in high school, Johnson, 28, wipes a hand across his face and shakes his head.

"It's a long story," he says.

But it has a happy ending.

Had Steve Johnson not had such an active pituitary gland, he probably would not have found it necessary to choose between the religion he grew up in and stuffing a ball through a hoop.

Johnson and basketball were not formally introduced until he was in ninth grade at Loma Linda Academy. At the time, Johnson stood 6-7 and could dunk with ease.

He could only display his talents, though, in pickup games at lunchtime with Phillip Pollee, the friend who had persuaded Steve to give the game a try. Within a few months, the two dominated the playgrounds of Loma Linda, which, according to Johnson, wasn't that difficult.

"There was this rule around the city that me and Phillip couldn't play on the same team,' Johnson said. "Even though there was no organized games, I still learned a lot. At lunch every day, I'd pick a different player I'd want to be. One day, I'd be Connie Hawkins and fly through the air for one-hand stuffs. Next day, I'd be Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), shooting hooks. Or, I'd be Rick Barry, shooting jumpers.

"It's strange, but I never went through an awkward stage. I always had good coordination and foot movement. (Basketball) came naturally."

Not that it figured to get Johnson anywhere. For a brief time, there was an intramural team at Loma Linda, but that didn't satisfy Johnson's competitive desire.

"Real weak," he said of the competition. "A couple of times, we'd go to Redlands to play another Seventh-day Adventist school. We only had five players on our team and, one time, I fouled out and another guy was thrown out for fighting. But we still beat them by something like 50 points with only three guys because Phillip went crazy."

Before Johnson's junior year, Pollee got his parents' permission to transfer to San Gorgonio High so he could play basketball, even on Friday nights. Johnson, then 6-9, wanted to join his friend, but his parents again said no.

After hearing a year's worth of Pollee's proselytizing on life in public schools, however, Johnson determined that he would spend his senior year playing the low post for San Gorgonio High.

"I didn't know back then what a love Stephen had for basketball," said his mother, Carolyn Johnson. "But it wouldn't have made me change my mind. Our beliefs are such that you don't go against the doctrines of the church."

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