Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Adidas Next Generation Tournament
Jerry Johnson, Spirou Basket
Feb 23, 2009
by Frank Lawlor, Eurocupbasketball.com
Halfway through the Last 16, one player having big impact is largely unknown to fans around the continent. With third-best scoring average in the Last 16 so far, 18.7 points per game, Jerry Johnson has helped Spirou Basket of Belgium go 2-1 and tie for first place in killer Group L. In the regular season, Johnson scored fewer points but ranked third among Eurocup players with 4.8 assists per game. A year ago, not even Johnson might have expected such success. His first three seasons in Europe were spent with mid-table teams in Poland, Turkey and France. Then, last spring, Spirou signed him for a playoff run to its first Belgian League trophy in four seasons. Since then, it's been all good for Johnson and Spirou as they try to crash the 2009 Final Eight in Turin this spring. "Being the point guard, you set the tone for everything," Johnson says. "So my style has to be good for the team first, and then second, good for me."
Jerry, even few people thought of you as a player to watch in the Eurocup this year. What has your path to this competition been like?
"I went to small college in the States, Rider University, where I had a good, successful career and played well. Then I started my pro career in Poland with a good year for Polpharma. Then I tried to make a move up a level to Greece, but I went through a few things there that set me back. It's not that I wasn't playing well, just that I had things go wrong like they do sometimes, depending on the situation. All clubs and situations are different. So I went to Turkey instead, to Buyuksehir Belediyesi, to finish out that year. I ended up in France for my third year, at Clermont. I played well there, and then last spring when our season ended got the call for this opportunity in Charleroi. I spoke to Coach Anzulovic and he wanted me to come, but I wasn't so sure, because I was ready then to go home for the summer with my family and I didn't want to start a new situation and have our return home drag on a lot for my kids. But I decided to come anyway, we became Belgium champions and they signed me back for this season. So I am very happy it worked out."
So this is your first European competition. How did you adjust so well and so quickly?
"Yes, I am playing in a European competition for the first time in my career, but to me, basketball is basketball. If you can play basketball well, you can play at any level. The level matters, but not so much as whether you are in the right situation, as far as the people and coaches around you. Then you can make things happen. That's my thing: if you can play to your best, you can play anywhere."
What did all your travels until now, playing for teams that were really underdogs, teach you?
"It taught me a lot. I know what it's like to come from the bottom. Some guys have always been on top, their whole lives. If you work your way up to a situation like the one I am in now, you're more thankful. It was harder to make it happen, and you look at things different. For me, I feel better about myself than if something have been given to me. I had to work my way to where I am now, and coming from low to top in Europe is definitely hard. You just learn to work hard and not take things for granted, do your best and hope someone give you an opportunity to make something more of your career."
So you felt ready for the opportunity coming to Spirou for the Belgian League playoffs last spring?
"It was kid of weird when I got here, because it felt almost like I had been here already. Even though it was April, I felt like I had been part of the team for a long time. It was an immediate impact. Coach started slow with my minutes, but the longer they got, the better and better I played. My team was winning, so it was that much better. Things just came together so well, you couldn't ask for more."
What were your expectations going into the Eurocup season?
"Obviously, I wanted to play well. Anyone trying to make his career better wants to play well in such a high-level competition. But in saying that, I just wanted to run the team well, try the best I can and win, which is most important. That's how European basketball is: when you're winning, things are better. So my first mission is to help the team win as much as possible. Being the point guard, you set the tone for everything. So my style has to be good for the team first, and then second, good for me."
Did you guys surprise yourselves at all winning your regular season group against a historic team like Crvena Zvezda and a Final Eight team from last year, PGE Turow?
"Well, we had a lot of guys back from last year, give or take couple, and from what my teammates were telling me, when you look at successful teams at this level, most have guys who played together before. Andre Riddick, who has a lot of experience, was pointing that out and saying we can do something. When someone like that says you have opportunities, and also Justin Hamilton, who has played for some major teams, it means something because they are speaking from experience. And obviously Coach Anzulovic has been at places like Cibona and Ural Great and he knew what he was doing as far as building the roster, because he has plenty experience at this level. It also helps having a lot of Americans on the team because it makes it easier for us to jell faster. But basically, we ended last season on a good note, too, so getting back together to try again makes it interesting for all of us."
You mentioned Andre Riddick, who is a record-holder this decade in the ULEB Cup, after so many years with Charleroi. How has he influenced your transition to this level?
"He helps me out a lot. His experience first, and also knowing the team. There are times when coaches are hardest on the point guard, which is me. Andre is the guy who comes up and tells me to relax, calm down. He's always in your ear and trying to get the best out of the team. He's a player who cares most about winning, a defensive-minded player who doesn't worry about scoring. A person like that is good for any team in Europe. And he brings things to the table from a non-basketball standpoint. He helps me out a lot. Especially being in the Eurocup, you need guys like that on a team."
Spirou has been competing hard in this competition for years. What's the talk there now that the team is in contention for the Final Eight?
"Well, the last loss was tough, not so much the fact of it, but rather how we lost, by 20 home, which was not good. Bilbao was a good team and deserved to win, but now we have tough games coming up, starting in Bilbao on Tuesday. We know we need to win a game or two on road, and win our last home game. If we can get two wins, we'll have a pretty good chance of making it. We know that losing by 20 might hurt us if tiebreakers come into play, but we still thing we can control our own destiny."
You're one of the top scorers this season in Europe's second-best competition. If you think back a year ago, would you ever have believed it?
"I always thought that if I could get in a good situation like the one I am in now, I would have my chances to succeed. In my career always, I have always put up pretty good numbers, always played well. Only in my second year trying to go to Greece, I kind of fell off-track, but that was more of a learning experience, less a question of me not playing so well or my ability than me not relating to a different style, and not expecting what happened. Now, in my fourth year, I can say I play my style successfully, so when I got into this situation, in the Eurocup, yes, I thought I could do something."