The love between Nick and Chris Johnson is palpable. You can hear it in their voices, see it in their smiles, feel it in their words.
The hate between Nick and Chris Johnson is also palpable. You can hear it in their voices, see it in their frowns, feel it in their words.
But like any good brothers, they relegate their hate to the paint.
In fact, both Arizona basketball players can recall the exact moment they were most frustrated with each other, said between nods and shaken heads, between grins and grimaces. They laugh and then they get angry and then they laugh at their anger.
“The moment I hated him most in my life, I’ll tell you this, my sophomore year he came to Grand Canyon University with a bunch of college guys from all over the country, and an open gym,” said Chris, 23, who will be a UA walk-on this season. “He came down, game point, told me, ‘I’m gonna steal the ball, go between my legs, and I’m gonna end it.’ Yeah right. Well, point guard comes down, Nick steals the ball, goes through his legs, dunks it. This is as a freshman here, playing against grown men. I was just like, ‘I hate you.’”
Nick remembers, too.
“Oh, I definitely remember — he was 15 years old and I was 12, and I remember he dunked from the free-throw line. I had just started dunking, but I was so mad because I could only jump off two feet, but he could go off one and two. He could jump from the free-throw line, and that’s always been my biggest thing. He has both feet. That’s my thing.”
Both love and hate, however, are fueled by passion, and so are the Johnsons. Passion for basketball, for each other and, now, for Arizona basketball.
Nick has been thrilling Wildcat faithful for two years as Chris toiled, body broken down, opportunities lost. After beginning at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where he averaged 7.5 points and 3.2 rebounds over 11 games in 2011-12, Chris transferred to Cal State-San Bernardino before last season. Ankle injuries plagued him in Phoenix, knee issues in California. Things went south in San Bernardino, so Johnson went east.
All it took were some conversations between his younger brother and Arizona coach Sean Miller.
“I initiated the talk with coach Miller, and he felt it was a good idea,” Nick said. “I thank him for allowing me and my bro the opportunity for that. He’s really fit in well with all of the guys. It means the world.”
For Chris, it was an easy decision.
“I didn’t even think of U of A,” said Chris, who had reconstructive ankle surgery as a sophomore at Grand Canyon. “Nick put it in my mind, and it was like, this is where I need to be at. When we found out it would work, I was all-in. It didn’t take much convincing. He can tell you, my dream school my whole life was to go to U of A. So now, to be here, it’s definitely a dream come true.”
For Nick, it was, too.
While always a grounded person, and described by many as mature beyond his years, Nick welcomed the opportunity to continue to learn from someone who knows him inside and out.
“He knows when I’m mad even before I’m mad,” Nick said. “He knows exactly what I need to hear when something is going wrong or something is going right. It’s something I’m looking to exploit this year.”
Added teammate Gabe York: “Chris has been to every home game and hung out at the houses and was in the locker room after games. He was pretty much a teammate last year so there never really was much of a change. But I think Nick likes it better now. He seems happier that his bro is here.”
That’s one of the things that drew Chris to Arizona. Aside from all the obvious reasons, there was the opportunity to help his younger brother to reach higher aspirations.
“It’s a lot a part of that,” Chris said. “Helping him get to where he needs to be — we all want to play pro, but he has a big-time opportunity to do that — so I’m here to help the team, help motivate people, and it obviously helps that my brother is on the team, because we can relate a lot better. He’s needed someone to push him a little more, so hopefully this year it will all come together.”
Another thing motivated the move, too.
“I haven’t been a part of something this big before,” Chris said.
Maybe one thing. That bond is pretty strong.