GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alta. – When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Sometimes, when times get tough, people pack up their stuff and move onto a new situation, often taking an easier route to their destination. Others will rise up, elevate their game, and meet the challenges that are staring them in the eyes.
For Kenny Johnson, the first scenario almost came to fruition. During his time with the GPRC Wolves, Johnson came oh-so-close to transferring to a new program ahead of his final season. When he looked back on what the school and the community had given him, he couldn’t bring himself to give up on a program that didn’t give up on him.
Johnson ended his career with a laundry list of accomplishments to his name, but none of those would have been fulfilled if he hadn’t stuck around for his final season.
Out of high school, Johnson was recruited by a handful of Division I programs across the NCAA, but poor SAT scores dried up any interest.
“Going into my Grade 12 year, I wasn’t heavily recruited,” said Johnson. “Due to myself not doing well on my SAT scores, all of the schools backed off.”
Johnson’s list of schools that had interest included the likes of the Wagner Seahawks, Bucknell Bison, Yale Bulldogs, and Penn Quakers.
After the interest dried up surrounding Johnson from Division I institutions, the Junior College route became an option for Johnson. When the dust settled, Johnson found himself at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.
It was a decision that was tough for Johnson to swallow from an internal perspective.
“I felt embarrassed that I was going to Junior College because I never thought that would happen,” continued Johnson. “I blamed so many people when it happened, but it was nobody’s fault but mine.”
“Going into my freshman year at Monroe C.C. as an 18-year old, I had the cocky attitude that I was going to go in, average 25 points per game, and then go play Division 1.”
To say Johnson’s experience at Monroe was a humbling one would be an understatement.
“I had a rude awakening,” said Johnson. “I averaged 2 points per game that season, and was close to being kicked off the team for not following the team rules.”
“Coach gave me a second chance.”
In his second season at Monroe, Johnson seemed to have turned a corner, both with his play on the court and his attitude. After coming off the bench for the first eight games, Johnson cracked the starting lineup and managed to become a mainstay in the starting five.
Division I schools came knocking once again. Interest was building, and there was a buzz around Johnson for the next level once more.
Just when things started to go well, the goings got tough once again for Johnson.
“Two games before the Junior College National Tournament, I tore my ACL,” continued Johnson. “Of course, I lost all interest from Division I schools.”
After earning himself a spot in the starting lineup, Johnson found himself back at the beginning. The injury ultimately ended his career at Monroe C.C., and he was one step closer to coming north of the border.
After spending the 2015 season as a redshirt at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, Johnson’s career brought him to Canada. Johnson took a visit at Thompson Rivers University, but questions surrounding his attitude didn’t land him a roster spot.
From there, Johnson went to MacEwan University. While he enrolled at MacEwan, he was ruled ineligible for the first semester. A failed class in the second term ruled him out for the second term, resulting in another season in which Johnson didn’t see the court.
That summer, Johnson’s time at MacEwan came to an end. The times got tough once more for Johnson, largely due to his past.
“That August, I was living out of a hotel for weeks with no school,” said Johnson. “I messaged different ACAC schools, but all said no because of my past.”
One school gave him a shot.
Grande Prairie Regional College.
“The only school that would give me a chance was GPRC,” continued Johnson. “It just so happened that my Assistant Coach at MacEwan, Thomas Slifka, landed the Head Coaching job at GPRC.”
After some convincing from Coach Slifka, Johnson ultimately committed to GPRC and the Wolves men’s basketball program for the next chapter of his basketball career.
Moving to a new country is a process. When you move to a community that’s more remote than you’re used to, that poses its own set of challenges. Located four and a half hours Northwest of Edmonton, year one was a tough one for Johnson in Grande Prairie.
“Going into my first year at GPRC, it was a bit rough to start,” said Johnson. “The school was different and I didn’t want to be here.”
Once he got on the court and started to play, things got better for Johnson.
“Things changed,” continued Johnson. “I was tied for the scoring lead in the ACAC North Division, and I led my team in scoring with 20 points per game.”
Johnson was named to the All-ACAC First Team at year’s end.
From there, things kept getting better for Johnson, at least from a playing perspective. He led the ACAC in scoring, averaging more than 24 points per contest, en route to earning himself another All-ACAC First Team selection.
Johnson also led the Wolves in points, rebounds, and assists that season.
After two and a half years of not playing basketball, Johnson was given a chance to shine with the Wolves and he made the most of his opportunity. Still, even with two strong seasons under his belt with the Wolves, there was some doubt in the back of the mind for Johnson as to whether or not GPRC was the place he wanted to finish his career.
“Going into my last year, I was close to transferring,” added Johnson. “Real close.”
Given everything that he’d been through and had to overcome to get to where he was, how could Johnson give up on the one school that gave him a chance when nobody else would? That was a realization that Johnson came to himself.
“I just couldn’t do it,” continued Johnson. “I told myself, how can I leave the school that changed my life?”
Johnson returned to GPRC for the 2017-18 season, his last year of eligibility, and he made it count. He led the country in scoring, averaging a hair under 32 points per game for the year (31.9). He had five 40-point games to his name, and he set a new career-high with 58 points in a 112-105 loss to the NAIT Ooks on November 5th, 2017.
As a result of his on-court production, Johnson was named the ACAC Player of the Year and a CCAA All-Canadian. He recorded 701 points over 22 games, setting a new ACAC single-season scoring record. Johnson also set a new GRPC scoring record, having amassed 1,771 points over his three-year career with the Wolves.
After nearly giving up ahead of his fifth and final year of eligibility, Johnson made sure to leave it all on the court for the program that gave him a chance when nobody else would.
“Thank you, GPRC!”
Those were Johnson’s closing words when looking back on his collegiate basketball career, one that was filled with is share of obstacles to overcome. Every hurdle and obstacle led Johnson to the Wolves, and he left as arguably the best player to ever wear a GPRC jersey.
“I might get a bad reputation of being cocky at GPRC, but I gave my all to the school,” said Johnson. “All I wanted to do was leave a legacy, and my legacy will be forever at GPRC.”
Johnson also wouldn’t have ended up in the position he did if it wasn’t for the one person that stuck by him through thick and thin.
“I wouldn’t be here without my best friend who I met in Canada four years ago,” concluded Johnson. “He’s been my motivation, the only person who never gave up on me and always had my back when I was going through rough times.”
“He’s been everything to me.”
Johnson’s career started out with its share of twists and turns. Some of them were caused by internal barriers, while other external factors also played a part in shaping his career path. A humbling experience at Monroe C.C. was followed up by a knee injury, one that kick-started a period of two-plus years away from basketball.
After everything he had to overcome, it was a town of 63,000 people, one that was more than four hours away from Edmonton that allowed Johnson to showcase his full potential on the court.
His career started with more downs than ups, but it ended with Johnson having a laundry list of achievements to his name.
Now, he’s pursuing professional opportunities, which pose new challenges for Johnson to overcome.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
The goings got tough for Johnson on several occasions, but he showcased his toughness and ultimately persevered through it all.
– T. Bennett