They asked him to jump, and his response was, "How high?"
Joey Johnson, the former Banning High basketball star, then slam-dunked a basketball through a hoop set at 11 feet, 7 inches--more than a foot-and-a-half over regulation basket height.
The dunk, on June 25 in Atlantic City, was the most profitable one of his high-soaring life, netting the 6-foot-4 Johnson $50,000 in a contest sponsored by Victory Promotions in Atlantic City. In a more-publicized event at the same location, Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble was victorious in a one-on-one contest, winning $100,000.
But Johnson won the contest he wanted, and against much taller players.
Since his playing days at Banning High, the brother of veteran NBA guard Dennis Johnson and the youngest of 15 children has been known for his phenomenal jumping ability. He has a mind-boggling 50-inch vertical leap, and was a national community college high-jump champion for the College of Southern Idaho.
"I heard about the contest when I was in the Illinois Express (of the 6-4 and under World Basketball League) preseason camp around May 1," Johnson, 23, said. "My agent called me up and told me about the competition. And from then on it was a point of do I want to make $10,000 for playing in the little two- or three-month league or do I want to try and win the $50,000?
"There was really no question about it, because I had confidence I could win the contest. Heck, all I really did was jump."
He entered the regional competition at Loyola Marymount in early June, qualifying for the trip to Atlantic City, where other competitors for the $50,000 were five or more inches taller. As each player was successful at dunking from a certain height, the hoop was raised an additional inch.
"The competition was going along and we got down to the final three competitors," said Johnson. "We all missed at 11-6. So (the officials) dropped it down to 11-5 and we all made it. Then it was raised to 11-5 1/2, 11-5 3/4 and again to 11-6. By that time, one of the guys (6-9 Kenny Miller, formerly of Loyola University) had dropped out. So two of us were left, Antonio Davis (6-9) of Texas El Paso and me.
"We both made 11-6. Then they moved it up to 11-7 and we both missed on our first attempts. Then I made the second, and he just barely missed. He looked like he was a little tired. If he hadn't been that tired, I think he could have made it. There had been a lot of jumping going on by that time," Johnson said.
With the $50,000 in the bank, Johnson's next goal is to impress scouts at the Southern California Summer Pro Basketball League--not just with his leaping but with his overall play, desire and ability to shoot the basketball. He plans to play with a free-agent team in that league at Loyola.
He'd like to land a job in the NBA, but he realizes that playing overseas may be the more realistic possibility.
"(Playing in Europe) is better-suited for me in the sense that it's going to give me the chance to prove I can shoot the basketball," said Johnson.
"There's a standing stigma that I can't shoot the ball. In Europe I would get the chance to show that I can. In high school, I wasn't a good shooter because I didn't have to shoot the ball then. I basically dunked whenever I wanted to. You always play to your strong points. I won't call my jump shot weak, but I have stronger points of my game such as my defense and my ability to go to the basket."
Johnson's collegiate career at Arizona State started on a high note, but ended with a thud.
He came to ASU for the 1987-88 school year after two successful years at the College of Southern Idaho, a perennial basketball power. Southern Idaho made it to the semifinals of the national junior college tournament his freshman year of 1985-86, and won the national junior college title the following season. Johnson averaged 19.5 points, eight rebounds, and three blocked shots a game as Southern Idaho posted a 37-1 record during its championship season of 1986-87.
In track, Johnson won the National JC Athletic Assn. high-jump championship in both 1986 and 1987, the latter with his career best of 7-5 3/4.
His basketball success drew the attention of Arizona State, which had been experiencing a few sub-par years.
He was inserted into the starting lineup at guard by Coach Steve Patterson, a UCLA alumnus and former NBA player, who had become ASU head coach the year before.
With Johnson averaging about 10 points a game in the early going, the Sun Devils recorded 10 wins in their first 13 games and won their first four games in the Pac-10 Conference. Johnson led the way with 20 points in a victory over Washington in Seattle.
"We got to a point where everything was clicking," Johnson said. "We were 5-0 and that was a great start for ASU, being where it had come from the year before. I was getting 25 minutes a game, which is a good amount of playing time. I was starting. It was OK. Then he (Patterson) put me in the background, and I had to learn to handle that. My production dropped, I will admit."