Johnson's journey home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOWIE - Bowie State's men's basketball team is reaching for the sky again, and coach Luke D'Alessio has turned to a familiar source to help it get aloft.

An NCAA Division II semifinalist two seasons ago, Bowie (14-2) has been as high as fourth in the national rankings and was No. 12 in last week's poll.

And a newcomer from Baltimore, one of D'Alessio's favorite recruiting areas, has contributed a large hand to the success.

The coach held transfer Isaiah "Zeke" Johnson in such esteem he used a scholarship to retain him last season although Johnson was ineligible to play after leaving the College of Charleston.

"I usually don't do that," D'Alessio said, "but I had one and otherwise I wouldn't get him. I think it was worth it. He was one of the better players there is from Baltimore, and I know they are tough, hard-nosed kids who love the game."

When the Bulldogs visit the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va., tonight to encounter their primary antagonist from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Virginia Union, for the first time this season, Johnson will be in the starting lineup at small forward, a one-season wonder to match fellow Baltimorean Anton Jenifer, who led Bowie in scoring in 2003-04.

Like Jenifer, Johnson has been on a basketball odyssey since departing Southern High in 1999 after an All-Metro junior season. He graduated from Maine Central Institute, then, recruited by assistant coach Troy Wheeler, Johnson went to New Mexico.

He played extensively as a freshman and enjoyed the experience, but Wheeler left New Mexico to join Syracuse's staff and the stay ended after one year.

"There was a lot of hospitality, but it was the first time I had been that far away from home, and I was going through a lot of things," said Johnson, who went on to Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College, where he was a junior college All-American.

Later, he landed at Charleston, where he averaged 8.1 points and 3.5 rebounds over 23 games, but when the team underwent a coaching change from John Kresse to Tom Herrion, the relationship soured.

"I had a chance to go to UMES when I came back home," said Johnson, who picked up his nickname as a youth, after Isiah Thomas' nickname. "But it's hard for a Division I team to only give a scholarship for one year, and a lot of Division I's didn't want to take me."

D'Alessio had no such reservations. At 6 feet 7, Johnson fit in perfectly at small forward with a front line that includes 6-10 center Attila Cosby and 6-10 power forward Lee Cook, who averages 20 points and nearly 13 rebounds.

"Our success has always been inside out," D'Alessio said. "Unless we're in transition, we want the ball inside. Zeke had made the transition to small forward in college, and he would be going against guys 6-4 and 6-5. That gives us an advantage."

Johnson averages 12 points and nearly six rebounds and is one of the top feeders.

"He has to do a little bit of everything to be successful," said the coach. "He can do a lot more offensively if he needs to, like when some guys are hurt and we have to have 20 points out of him. Right now, he's our defensive stopper because most of the opponents' big scorers are on the wing."

Johnson often plays in pain, the result of an enlarged kidney that has bothered him since he was a youth. He underwent surgery for the problem at age 10, and recently the ailment has flared anew and he needs to go for testing.

"It hurts in my lower back real bad and I get cramped a lot," Johnson said. "It never bothered me for a long time until recently. It's not bad to the point I can't play and when it does hurt, I don't tell the coach."

Said D'Alessio: "If he gets hit, it can get serious, but he wants to play, not sit." Johnson credits former Southern coach Meredith Smith as "the reason I'm in college. I'll always remember my years there. If I had stayed at Lake Clifton [he transferred away after three weeks by changing addresses], I wouldn't have made it. Smitty was like a father to me."

"Melvin Scott [now at North Carolina] was one of his best buddies, and that's another reason he came to Southern," said Smith, now working at UMES. "Zeke's most redeeming quality is honesty. He had some anger issues that surfaced at times because of the tough environment he came from, but his determination is incredible. He's faced some obstacles in his life, but he's extremely persistent.

"I like to think I helped him along, but he's definitely D-I material in terms of ability. With me, he played at least four positions and played them all well. He's extremely quick and very versatile."

If the Bulldogs get by Virginia Union, they will clear a big hurdle en route to D'Alessio's goal of bringing the Division II regionals to Bowie.

"I think the sky's the limit," Johnson said. "We can go as far as we want."

Johnson already has traveled a long way.

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