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Mavericks' Miracle Man

Onetime Dallas player faces cancer with `attaboy' spirit he showed on court

June 17, 2007|From the Associated Press

DALLAS — Sitting courtside with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in New Jersey, Ray Johnston watches his buddies play and tries getting lost in the action.

He can't do it. Instead, Johnston imagines the ball back in his hands, spotting Josh Howard, throwing a lob for a dunk and getting a nod of appreciation.

Oh, how he loved those "attaboy" moments.

Johnston never lets the memories linger for long. It's been a couple of years and way too many doses of arsenic and chemotherapy since everything happened, all of it so fast:

The scout at the Hoop-it-Up tournament. The tryout. Going from a 25-year-old loan officer with season tickets to having Steve Nash's locker, a No. 2 jersey and being teammates with Howard and Devin Harris on the Mavericks' summer league team.

Then a bump in a pickup game led to surgery -- and a coma. All because of the leukemia no one knew he had.

Two brushes with death later, he awoke with a tube coming out of his neck and seven toes blackened by poor circulation, soon to be amputated. Eighteen months after his cancer was gone, Dallas was playing Miami in the NBA Finals and Johnston was facing cancer again. The Mavs lost; Johnston won.

Now it's late on Dec. 5, 2006. The Mavericks have beaten the Nets and are settling in for the flight home. Johnston heads toward his seat, practically giving out high-fives and slaps on the back.

"Good win, man, good win," he says in his Southern drawl.

He passes poker foe Jason Terry, text-messaging pal Dirk Nowitzki and all the coaches. Then he plops his 6 foot 2, 165-pound body into a comfy black leather chair.

That's when he feels it again. That pain in his tailbone that should've been gone by now.

*

Johnston grew up in Montgomery, Ala., getting into basketball by shooting free throws in his driveway when he was 4. By fifth grade, he was picked first in games with 40-year-olds at the YMCA. In eighth grade, he made the high school varsity.

Before his senior year, Johnston went to the same all-star camp as Stephon Marbury. Knowing he was no NBA prodigy, Johnston went home with the award for being the hardest worker.

"I was a pass-first point guard with an inconsistent shot," he said. "I was a guy that always went after loose balls. I might not get it, but I'd be on the floor and leave a sweat stain."

The work ethic, along with a devotion to faith and family, came from his parents, who divorced when he was 2 but shared in his upbringing.

His mom, Martha, sometimes had several jobs at once, including a long stint leading Auburn athletes in aerobics. Ray often tagged along, especially Sundays after football games; that's how he got to know Bo Jackson.

Ray Sr., a Vietnam vet, sold insurance and raised cattle. He taught his boy how Johnston men handle tough times and how to treat people right. Strangers were a handshake from being friends. Humility and happiness came naturally. That's why he was always smiling, even on the court.

"We had friends who didn't even have children in the game who would come to watch him," Ray Sr. said.

Small colleges were interested, but Johnston wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference. So he walked on at Alabama for two seasons. He graduated in 2001, then moved to Dallas.

Within a few years, he'd built a life to be envied.

He was dating Miss Texas, working in the mortgage business and was the model on a life-sized cardboard cutout in every FedEx Kinko's store in the country. He also had gigs playing guitar and singing tunes by Dave Matthews and Pat Green.

And there was basketball -- leagues at night, weekend tournaments anywhere within a five-hour drive and pickup games from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. nearly every day.

Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders were impressed enough to hand him an agent's business card.

"It's probably a boring thing to hear," Johnston said, "but practice paid off."

*

The 2004 Hoop-it-Up tournament was held right outside the Mavericks' arena. Cuban gave it an "American Idol" flair by sending scouts to look for 20 candidates to battle for spots on Dallas' summer league squad.

Once he made that cut, Johnston taught the others plays he knew the Mavericks used. They listened because he was setting them up for shots. Mavericks President Donnie Nelson noticed that no matter what combination of players Johnston was with, his teams always won.

When the few who made it moved into the locker room, Johnston settled in under Nash's nameplate. Then Nash showed up to clean out his locker. He'd just agreed to sign with Phoenix.

"Sorry, I'm in your way," Johnston said.

"You're fine," Nash said, smiling and shaking his hand.

Playing behind two draft picks, Johnston's per-minute averages were decent, but he didn't get many minutes.

Still, everyone hated to see him go when the summer league ended. Nelson even offered to find him a roster spot in Lithuania or Croatia.

Johnston had six weeks to decide. Meanwhile, he kept playing pickup ball.

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