NEW ORLEANS -- He had not played basketball for nearly five years, ever since he quit the Block High team as a 10th grader, and after he graduated from that tiny Louisiana school, he spurned college and went to work stocking shelves at a Baton Rouge A&P.; But now, on this November night in 1988, he walked unannounced into Tim Floyd's office.
It was 9:30 p.m. on the last day colleges could corral basketball recruits in this early signing period, and Floyd -- about to begin his first year as the head coach of the University of New Orleans -- was busy phoning prospects he hoped would take one of the six scholarships he still had available. Now, a call just completed, looked up and spotted his visitor. "Our team that year," he recalls, "had a 6-foot-4 post man, a 6-foot-3 power forward and a 6-foot-3 small forward. We had a desperate need for anyone with size."
"Coach, I'd like to play for you," announced his visitor, who stood a quite-sizable 6-foot-11.
"Yeah. Right," Floyd muttered aloud.
"This has got to be a damn joke," he thought silently.
He himself is a noted practical joker who now was struck with one thought, the thought this was payback time, and so he pushed himself up from his chair, brushed past his visitor and walked into the hallway. He looked to his left, looked to his right, looked for some sign his friends were pulling a scam, and only after seeing no one around did he return to his seat.
"OK. I'll buy into this," he thought as he resettled himself.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Ervin Johnson Junior," his visitor replied.
Now Floyd was just certain this was some joke, and this time he jumped up and looked out his office window, looked out into the parking lot in search of a friend's car. But again he could spot nothing, and so now he twirled on his visitor and demanded, "OK. Tell me what's up."
"Coach, I want to play," he insisted.
"OK. Where did you play?"
"Coach, I didn't play high school basketball. I didn't really like the game then, and I've grown some since I got out."
"How much have you grown?"
Now, at last, Floyd's interest was piqued fully, but rules prohibited him from working out his visitor and so he did all that was available to him. He took Johnson outside, and told him to run to his car and back again.
"Well, I'll tell you what," he said after Johnson had made this journey without falling down. "I'll go ahead and give you a scholarship, but obviously you have a lot of work to do. What I'd like for you to do is get over here tomorrow, on your own, and start working out. You can start school the second semester, but you have to start getting after it now."
"Coach, I can't do that," Johnson said.
"Here we go," Floyd thought. "I've committed myself to a scholarship, and here this guy's telling me he won't work hard."
"I've been with this A&P; store 2 1/2 years," Johnson said, "and I have to give them two weeks' notice."
"This young man," Floyd thought, "has to be a pretty good guy."
"Now," says Floyd, "I feel like the luckiest guy alive."
Last season, as a still-raw 24-year-old sophomore, Ervin Johnson averaged 12.7 points, 12.2 rebounds (seventh in the nation) and 2.5 blocks as New Orleans went 23-8 and lost by only six to national runner-up Kansas in the opening round of the NCAA tourney. He later was invited to the Pan Am tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo., and though he would not make that team, he would play for the U.S. group that won the gold at last summer's World University Games. Now, as he prepares to add another chapter to his remarkable saga, Ervin Johnson is saying: "Being with the best players in the country let me measure myself, and I know now I can play with them. Thinking two years ahead, I can see myself in the NBA. My hunger is much more now than ever before."
It is the same hunger he very clearly lacked in high school, and again later as he grew into a most-distinctive stock boy. You should go to college and play basketball, that is what he started hearing then from countless A&P; customers, and when he visited his parents back home in Jonesville, La., they too filled his mind with this theme.
But he is the grandson of a Baptist preacher, the son of a religious family who often sprinkles his answers with references to God, and here he demurred, kept at his job, and awaited a moment he knew he would recognize. It finally arrived as he was filling a shelf with cans, and right then, he remembers: "It dawned on me that I was going back to school. No certain thing happened that made me change my mind. Everything was going good for me and all. But that day I guess you'd say God laid His hand on my heart."
That crucible passed, he first presented himself to LSU coach Dale Brown, but there was obviously no room for such a rank neophyte in his established program. A liquor salesman once had mentioned New Orleans to him, and so that is where he traveled next, why he made the two-hour trip to that fateful meeting with a first-year coach in need of height.
He would redshirt a year, that also was decided on that night, and after fulfilling his obligations back at the A&P;, Ervin Johnson went to work with uncommon diligence. He could not identify his pivot foot, could not define the meaning of a chest-high pass, but each day he ran and lifted weights, did drills and carried on a close-and-personal relationship with a throwback machine. Still, remembers Floyd: "He was brutal. His namesake is Magic. We called him Tragic in coaches' meetings. We didn't know if he'd ever get there."
His greatest success over these first months would come, in fact, in the classroom, where he raised his reading skills from third-grade to 11th-grade level. ("He came here for the right reasons," says Floyd.) But on the court, he continued to struggle fitfully, and as his redshirt year drew toward its close, Floyd was certain he would need game experience at some junior college if he ever were to improve.
He arranged for Johnson to attend Southwest Mississippi and called him into his office to give him the news.
"Coach. Coach. You told me you'd hang with me for five years," the player pleaded after hearing this plan.
"I thought," remembers Floyd, "that he was going to start crying right there in my office. He made me feel so guilty, I decided to keep him."
"I felt kinda down about it, but I wasn't going to do it," remembers Johnson. "I didn't care what anyone said. I knew I would work harder than the next person. I had it in my heart, and what's in your heart comes out."
Johnson rededicated himself then, rededicated himself with even more diligence, and finally -- in the fourth game of his freshman year -- he started seeing some rewards. That night, on the road against Florida State, he grabbed eight rebounds, and a week later at Memphis State, his total was 13. He would do little more than guard and rebound during this season, but always he was improving, developing into something resembling a complete player.
Last year, as a sophomore, he doubled his scoring average while still remaining a force on the boards, getting 22 of them against Lamar, 21 against Nicholls State, 18 against Columbia and 17 against tourney-bound Louisiana Tech. Against Kansas, in the tourney, he was the game's leading scorer with 13 and rebounder with 14, and after coaching him in the University Games, Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo called Floyd and said: "Do you understand how lucky you are? He loves to compete. He's a joy to coach."