Shared from the 2/10/2016 San Antonio Express eEdition

Homelessness drove Brack’s Johnson to collegiate success

Courtesy photo / Montana State-Billings Athletics

Emmanuel Johnson, who along with his father was homeless for a time as a teenager, is averaging 10.4 points and 4.2 rebounds this season as a senior at Division II Montana State-Billings.

Courtesy photo / Montana State-Billings Athletics

Emmanuel Johnson, shooting during a recent game, is working toward a psychology degree. “I saw that there are a lot of people in my community that can use the help, clinically,” he said, referring to S.A.’s homeless.

A bible phrase in Isaiah 45:3 best summarizes the turning point in Emmanuel Johnson’s life, doing so in a way that would be ham-handed and trite if a newspaper columnist came up with it:

“Treasure out of darkness.”

For Johnson, a former Brackenridge basketball player, the treasure has been a circuitous route which has taken him to a Texas Panhandle junior college and then to a four-year college in Montana.

The darkness was the year or so he and his dad spent homeless.

“Being homeless may have been the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-7 forward for the Montana State-Billings Yellowjackets.

“It gave me a different focus. It took me to a different place. It motivated me to get out of that situation.”

It changed Johnson and that, in turn, left an indelible mark on Chris Hackett, head men’s basketball coach at Frank Phillips College in Borger. Hackett recruited Johnson after seeing him play at an AAU tournament in Florida.

“I don’t accept excuses from anyone else after seeing EJ,” Hackett said. “It’s hard to imagine how he turned out as well as he did. High GPA. Lots of character. Overachiever.”

In his senior season at Billings, Johnson is averaging 10.4 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing 27 minutes per game. The Yellowjackets, an NCAA Division II team playing in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, stood 8-14 prior to Tuesday’s late game against Alaska-Anchorage.

Johnson’s story begins on the city’s East Side, where he was raised by his father, Glenert Brown, in a single-parent household. It was the definition of the working poor, where any disruption — regardless of how minor

— causes everything else to unravel.

When Brown lost his job, he and Johnson lost their apartment. They couch-surfed at the homes of friends for a while, but ultimately ended up in a downtown homeless shelter.

Brown had always seen basketball as a way out for his son, so he made sure the boy played club ball, starting in third grade and even while homeless

Johnson, however, says he never took the game that seriously. As a result, he was behind other kids his age with his size and experience.

Like most teenagers, it took others at the shelter, echoing the words of his dad, to get Johnson’s attention. Shelter staff also told Ray Briggs about Johnson, who immediately put Johnson on his AAU team.

Briggs drove Johnson to practice. Johnson got serious about the game and got better.

After Hackett’s offer, Johnson landed in Borger, a town of 13,021. It was culture shock for an inner-city kid.

“(Borger) was a good place because there wasn’t anything there to distract me,” Johnson said. “One long street, a McDonald’s, a Sonic and a few other places.”

Hackett liked Johnson’s size and athleticism, but most of all, his attitude.

“He’s super under control,” Hackett said. “He never got high, never got low. There were times when he was a freshman when I’d just rip him. He’d just say ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir.’ ”

Yellowjackets coach Jamie Stevens says Johnson has grown as a student — he sported the highest GPA on the team last semester — and as a player — he’s an 80 percent free throw shooter.

“He’s got the drive and desire that you wish you could get out of every student-athlete,” Stevens said.

Johnson would like to play professionally, but he’s also OK with putting his eventual psychology degree to work back in San Antonio.

“I saw that there are a lot of people in my community that can use the help, clinically,” he said, referring to the homeless people he met at the shelter.

Being homeless helped Johnson turned his life around.

If he comes back to help others homeless people in his hometown, that would truly be a treasure out of darkness. Twitter: @roybragg

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