Only three words were necessary: “Respect the neighborhood.”
Coach Herman Johnson ended every session at the Bentalou Recreation Center gym with an encouraging message, followed by that calm but stern order.
As a result, the corner of North Bentalou and West Saratoga streets in West Baltimore was always hush and in fine order at nighttime. Johnson told all his basketball players there would be no knocking over trash cans, no ramming into cars and not a single candy wrapper left behind.
“I told them these are your neighbors,” Johnson said. “You know somebody’s gonna mess up once in a while, but the majority — I would say 99% — did what I told ’em.”
From 1970, when the rec center opened, to when he retired in 2007 and still today as a five-days-a-week volunteer at age 74, Johnson has taught more than just basketball to the thousands of players that have come through the program.
And now Baltimore City and an appreciative community is giving back. At noon Saturday, City Councilman John T. Bullock and the Bentalou Rec Council will honor Johnson with a street-naming ceremony. Fittingly, that corner will be Herman Johnson Way.
“It’s a great honor for people to think enough of you to name a street after you,” Johnson said. “But one of the things people don’t realize is Bentalou Rec Center has a long reputation. A lot of people have come through that little gym and I had a lot of help. A lot of help. You can’t build a program like that without volunteers, parents and cooperation from everybody.”
That’s the kind of response those close to Johnson have come to expect.
Selfless and humble, he is a mountain of a kind man who stands 6 feet 5, having long won the community’s heart with his unwavering dedication to its youth, often running up to five teams per season back in the day. No matter the soft tone and few choice words, they have spoken volumes.
“Coach Johnson is Bentalou Recreation Center,” said former player Paul Franklin, now 52, a Forest Park graduate who has 30 years of federal government service that started with time in the Navy. “I would say he’s reached tens of thousands of kids that have come through the recreation center and he’s been an inspiration to all of us and it’s mainly because of his consistency. You know what you get with Coach Herman and it’s always the right thing. And he always does the right thing simply for the sake of doing the right thing — no other reason.”
In the 1970s and the decades that followed, the Madison and Lafayette basketball programs shared the talk on the east side, but the west side was all Bentalou.
Johnson said basketball was the calling card. Winning games and having fun kept the players in the gym, which enabled him to spread his ultimate message about the importance of education.
“They came in there at first not even thinking about going to school,” said Jimmy Conyers, Johnson’s longtime assistant coach and close friend. “And then when he got them, he’d tell them this round ball can put you through school. They didn’t know that.”
Johnson is quick to say the heart of the program is with the younger age groups. The earlier he gets them, the more time to mold them.
“I tell kids about the light bill, the rent, the mortgage,” he said. “I’ll ask a 7-year-old: ‘How old are you?’ They say 7. Then I’ll say, ‘I want to ask you a question and I want you to think about it before you answer.’ I say, ‘Who is going to take care of you when you’re 21?’ The little kid, 7 years old, says, ‘Mommy.’ I don’t say anything, I just shake my head, ‘No.’ Then you see his face light up and he says, ‘Myself.’ You’ve got to bring that home early. That’s what makes me feel so good — when I see that light bulb go on.”
It was long ago that Johnson and Conyers lost count of all the kids they helped put through college in that little gym.
Asked to pass along some of the bigger names that came through and went on to do big things on the basketball court and life itself, Johnson declines.
“I don’t like to do that because there’s so many, and then when you start naming names, you fear you leave names out,” he said.
For Johnson, there’s nothing better than sitting down on a Saturday afternoon to watch college basketball and having to flip channels, recalling times when he found three games that featured his Bentalou players.
In the past, Johnson got paid for working five days a week, but the gym was always open for all seven. The weekends also were a chance for his players to spend time away from the neighborhood.
There were trips to Florida and Tennessee through Amateur Athletic Union ball that came with a handful of firsts for the kids: plane rides, nice hotels, restaurants with a waiter, salad forks, fancy cloth napkins and leaving a tip for good service.
“I’d have kids that would be afraid to get on a plane, and then the next thing you know, their eyes are wide open and they’re peeping out the window,” Johnson said.
Damien Ross, now 44 and behavioral support team leader at Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia, was 3 years old when he first walked into the Bentalou gym, and he spent the majority of his youth there. Now, he is spreading Johnson’s message to thousands more students far from Baltimore.
Talk about respect: Johnson didn’t even have to be in the gym for a noisy bunch to quickly settle down.
“Coach Herman always wore his keys around his neck with his whistle, so we could always hear him coming because they would be jingling on his chest when he walked,” Ross said. “If you ever wanted to see a gym full of mischievous kids behave, just listen to that sound getting closer and closer.”
The respect reached outside the gym as well, an area where drugs and violence were rampant.
“Crime around that gym? Zero,” Conyers said. “That’s because everybody understood what it meant to the neighborhood. Everybody knew, from the guys on the corner, it just wasn’t going to happen because he didn’t tolerate it.”
Johnson says with the good also comes some bad, and that provides another life lesson for him to present.
“We’ve had kids that wound up on drugs. Some kids in jail now, enough to have a Bentalou team over there right now. And others who passed away young,” he said. “I talk to the kids about that. The people that passed away and people that are locked up, all because of making the wrong choice.”
Fortunately, there’s been much more of the good than bad, and Johnson, and the many others who have followed his lead, are making sure it stays that way.
As a volunteer, he no longer coaches teams, instead opting to train coaches and players. He tells the kids he’s retired, but is still putting in the time for a reason.
“I expect you to graduate from high school and go to college — that’s why I’m here,” he tells them.