Mark Johnson changed quickly into his practice jersey and ran onto the court at El Camino College for the Warriors' practice. He had finished an interview and was a few minutes late suiting up.
Even in practice the Warriors can't afford to go without Johnson, the only returning player from last season's 13-14 team. The 6-foot-4 guard is El Camino's leading scorer and captain.
"We definitely go to Mark for guidance," said freshman point guard Jason Anthony, a graduate of South Torrance High. "He won't let you slack off in practice or in games."
El Camino (10-11) opens South Coast Conference play Saturday at Mt. San Antonio College. Besides Johnson, the Warriors have only one other sophomore, 6-6 forward Barnabas James.
Johnson and James, a transfer from Delgado Junior College in Louisiana, share the team lead in rebounding at seven.
Johnson, 19, leads the conference in scoring at 22 points.
"Mark is the only guy on this team that's a quality-type basketball player with a chance of going on to the university level next year," El Camino Coach Paul Landreaux said. "He has played a variety of roles for us," including point guard, off-guard and small forward.
In 1991-92, Johnson led the conference in scoring (17.8) and was named to the All-SCC first team. The Warriors finished 3-5 in league play and upset Mt. San Jacinto College in the first round of the playoffs before losing to powerful Rancho Santiago College in the second round.
"His strength is his ability to score," Landreaux said. "Mark is a good shooter, but not great. The thing is he can score. He can cut a move to get a bucket.
"Unfortunately, we don't have enough Mark Johnsons. He's the kind of guy you definitely want on your team. Mark tends to ignite and excite other players of the same talent."
Landreaux says Purdue, Arizona State and New Mexico State have shown interest in Johnson.
At St. Monica High, Johnson was a starter as a sophomore and junior, but lost his starting job as a senior because of a knee injury.
As a junior, Johnson averaged 14 points and was an All-Camino Real selection. Three weeks before his senior season in 1989-90, Johnson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a practice.
He postponed surgery until after the season and played sporadically.
"I thought my injury was the worst thing in the world," Johnson said. "It was a terrible time for me. I also had to play with this big brace on my leg and it slowed me down."
Said St. Monica Coach Leo Klemm: "I felt really bad for him. Not having him healthy made a big difference because he was undoubtedly our best shooter. It really hurt us. Many coaches remarked that we could possibly have had a state championship if he was healthy."
Johnson had surgery on July 25, 1990, and needed a year to rehabilitate.
"It was terrible to have to watch friends play, but it also created a lot of hunger for the game," he said.
Johnson's rehabilitation involved weight training for two hours a day and two hours of one-on-one basketball drills at Loyola Marymount. Then he'd practice shooting for another hour.
"It seemed like I was starting over from scratch," Johnson said. "It was like I had to learn how to play again. When I picked up a basketball for the first time in a game, my coordination was off and I was slow and out of shape."
He struggled early last season, but has become one of the steadiest players in the powerful SCC, which includes highly regarded Cerritos and Long Beach City colleges.
"The thing about Mark is that he's very consistent," Anthony said. "He plays the same every day. There are no ups and downs with him. He's always at the same level."
Besides the fact that he's expected to lead the inexperienced Warriors in every game, he is looked upon to help motivate them. Does Johnson feel the pressure of all the expectations put upon him?
"There's no extra pressure," he said. "Yeah, the expectations are great, but no one has more expectations of me than I have of myself. I like it. It pushes me."