Aaron Acquilla Johnson Sr., a longtime educator and basketball coach, died Feb. 14 of lung cancer. Mr. Johnson, of Baltimore, was 79.
The son of Daniel and Harriett Johnson was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Sandtown Winchester neighborhood. He was the 12th of 13 children. He graduated in 1952 from Frederick Douglass High School, where he played basketball and football. According to a high school yearbook, his lifelong ambition was "To play professional basketball." He was the first member of the family to graduate from college, after receiving his degree from then-Morgan State College in 1962 in physical education.
"Once he learned to play basketball, there was no stopping him. He was the first of the family to graduate from college. That achievement, in his mind, and to the family in general, was very important," said his younger brother Seth Johnson.
Mr. Johnson played basketball at Morgan after receiving an athletic scholarship when he was just 16, according to relatives and a 1977 Baltimore Sun article. But shortly after stepping onto Morgan's campus, he left school to serve in the Air Force for four years. During that time, he continued to play basketball, said his son, Aaron Johnson Jr.
Mr. Johnson was named Most Valuable Player while stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Itazuke, Japan, and made the all-Southeast Air Force Command team, according to multiple Sun articles.
Mr. Johnson returned to Morgan to finish school and continued to play basketball. In the 1961-1962 season, he was one of the leading scorers — at 18.4 points per game — and rebounders for the Bears, according to the Sun article. During that time, he married his first wife, Carlethea Johnson.
His skills landed him in tryouts for the New York Knicks, but his family said a knee injury prevented him from continuing. Mr. Johnson returned to Baltimore, where he worked at the Patuxent Institute for seven years before teaching science at Clifton Park Junior High School and Pimlico Junior High.
Mr. Johnson returned to Morgan in 1971, this time as an assistant coach to Nat Frazier for six years. "We hit it off right away because our philosophies are the same. We both stress defense and a controlled offense," Mr. Johnson said in the 1977 article. The same article described him as having a less confrontational style than Mr. Frazier. "That doesn't mean I'm a pushover," he said.
When Mr. Frazier left for an assistant coaching job for the Knicks, Mr. Johnson was named head coach for the 1977-1978 season, when the team finished 15-12, making it to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament final. One player at the time said, "Coach Johnson did not inherit the respect we had for Coach Frazier, but he has it now."
Mr. Johnson continued teaching science at Booker T. Washington and Pimlico junior high schools while coaching basketball at Morgan. "At the end of the day, he was more of a teacher, an educator," his son said.
"I think his ability to bond with young people favored him," he said, adding that his father could always find a way to relate to his students. "He was always very patient. I think that helped him quite a bit. He was able to use his character, charisma, his sense of humor to grab kids attention."
In the summers, Mr. Johnson also coached in an international league in Venezuela, where he traveled to other countries in South America for games, said his son, who accompanied him.
"It was a great experience. The games were ridiculously competitive," he said.
After leaving Morgan, Mr. Johnson worked as correctional officer, a landlord and with his brother Phillip, who had his own masonry business, his family said.
Throughout his life, Mr. Johnson loved music, especially jazz, and collected records and eight-track tapes, which he would play in his 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible on the way to Morgan games out of state, his son said. He loved Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder.
He also continued to play basketball, even playing in the Senior Olympics in the 1990s, family said. He also enjoyed watching his favorite player, Michael Jordan.
His daughter, Alana Martin, said family pickup games were common growing up.
"It's rare to beat him. Even at an older age he was quite exceptional," she said. She said that growing up in such a large family made basketball a passion for her father because it was "something for him. Sports in general was something that he excelled in and found a true passion for at an early age."
In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Johnson is survived by his daughter-in-law, Janelle Johnson of Poolesville; son-in-law Julian Martin of Harrisburg, Pa; his former wives, Carlethea Johnson of Columbia and Carlene Johnson of Harrisburg; sisters, Rebecca Gilliam of Baltimore and Lucy Peebles of Delaware; brother, Seth Johnson of Baltimore; and five grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Monday at First Tabernacle, 1606 Ashland Ave. in Baltimore.