Chattanooga basketball has been the defining tradition in Southern Conference basketball since the Mocs joined the SoCon prior to the 1978-79 season under the direction of Murray Arnold, but after a 10-23 season a year ago, many had questions about the future of the program under second-year head coach Lamont Paris.
Paris is rebuilding Chattanooga basketball in his mold. That mold is toughness. Toughness comes in the form of the players that Paris has put in his system to lead the Mocs going forward. Players like Arizona State transfer Ramon Vila, Fairfield transfer Jerry Johnson Jr. and freshman phenom Kevin Easley. It’s something each newcomer is working on each day, as well as becoming leaders.
The Mocs have a winning standard in the SoCon, and the banners certainly back it up. Quite simply, the Mocs are the most-decorated Southern Conference basketball program, having won 11 Southern Conference Tournament titles and having shared or won outright 30 regular-season conference crowns since joining the league. The Mocs joined the SoCon on the heels of a 1977 Division II national title.
Jerry Johnson, Jr. is a unique story. His toughness and heart can’t be questioned. He is a battle-tested guard out of the heart of Tennessee’s best basketball city -- Memphis. Memphis has produced some great players that have become household names for both college basketball fans and NBA hoops fans. Few will soon forget players like Dajuan Wagner and Penny Hardaway.
“Coach Paris has tried to instill toughness in us from day one really. Coming into the season we didn’t really have any guys that could be like enforcers and grab rebounds and stuff like that and we had to try and learn things that wasn’t necessarily our skill set so it took some time to develop that, but now that we have got into conference play we are starting to realize that a lot of the games we have lost so far have come down to toughness plays and we’re a really good defensive team, but we’ve given up way too many offensive rebounds that have come back to hurt us, especially in the Wofford game and they over 20 points off of offensive rebounds,” Johnson Jr. said.
It’s been a tough week and a half for Johnson Jr. and the Mocs, who are currently 10-14 overall and 5-6 in Southern Conference play following a 77-64 loss to East Tennessee State. Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives for the Mocs in 2018-19. After all, they have already tied last season’s total wins mark.
Through his first 24 games in a Mocs uniform, Johnson, Jr. is averaging 10.5 PPG and 3.5 RPG, and is currently one of four Mocs averaging in double figures. He’s become a key piece of the puzzle for second-year head coach Lamont Paris, not only for what he does on the court, but also being a leader off the floor--something instilled in him from an early age.
“It’s funny. On Martin Luther King Day, coach called me up to see what time we were having practice. It was a little hint I think at what he wants me to be, and the cool thing about it is, it’s always nice to have the trust of your coach or teacher or someone in a higher position than you are allowing you to make some decisions. So, it’s those kinds of things that he is wanting us to do to be leaders and to step out and be more vocal.“
Johnson is a strong, smart basketball player with an accurate shot from beyond the arc. When you watch him play, you can tell he is polished. It’s not surprising considering one of the biggest influences in Johnson’s life, his late father, was a highly-successful basketball coach in the Volunteer State.
As far as his shot, it’s a smooth, high-archer with good form and technique. As a perimeter threat this season, Johnson Jr. is connecting on 35.0 percent (43-of-123) of his shots from long range this season. Johnson Jr. really has lived the game, as he has had influences throughout his life.
“My motivational factor to get into basketball growing up was Thaddeus Young of the Indiana Pacers. My dad coached him in high school and I’ve been around him since elementary school and he was one of my biggest influences , and other guys like Clyde Wade who played for Tyler Perry on his way to Memphis and he’s also family-related. He instilled drive into me growing up at a young age.”
“My father put a basketball in my hand at an early age. Anyone that knew my dad and knew me at an early age thought I was born in the gym. Just even being around him and the game at a young age and being in the gym at even one or two years old. It was also a huge motivating factor for me and this game I have fallen in love with for basically my whole life. My father didn’t want me to play for him. He wanted other coaches to coach me until I got to high school so I could learn different styles. Then when I got to high school he took over.”
Sadly, Jerry Johnson Sr. passed away from complications from lung cancer at the age of 72. Johnson Sr. won nearly 400 games as the head basketball coach at Mitchell, Frayser, Melrose, Kingsbury and Wooddale high schools in his coaching career in Memphis, but his influence was far-reaching for many student athletes, with his son being the primary one to benefit from his father’s influence growing up. Johnson Sr. served our military prior to getting into coaching.
Chattanooga wasn’t the first stop along Jerry Johnson Jr.’s college basketball experience. In fact, he actually started his career playing in the MAAC for the Fairfield Stags. During his two seasons as a Stag, Johnson Jr. started 14 times in 55 appearances and posted averages of 9.8 PPG and 3.8 RPG.
Johnson Jr. scored a career-high 26 points in a win over Iona during his sophomore season, and scored 20 or more points three times during his time at Fairfield. A day prior to his father passing away, Johnson Jr. poured in a then career-high 25 points in a 76-73 win over Marist. It was a fitting tribute to a great man, even though Johnson Sr. was too sick to attend the game.
“The MAAC is a lot like the SoCon in terms of competitiveness, and the fact that it’s a real guard-oriented league. They have traditional powers in that league like Iona, which is similar to the SoCon and all the programs that have tradition and success in both leagues. I enjoy playing against the high-level players in this league, like Fletcher Magee [Wofford] and Jordan Lyons [Furman], so I think there are more similarities than differences between the level of competition in both conferences.”
While Johnson Jr. is currently enjoying his first season playing at Chattanooga, he admits the transition, at times, hasn’t always been as seamless as it made look from the outside.
“The transition was a little weird, especially coming off last season. I didn’t expect so many guys to leave and all that turnover, so it was an adjustment with this year’s team because we have so many new guys and I think we had one guy returning from last year that played rotational minutes. It took me a while to adjust.”
Players like Makinde London, Makale Foreman, Nat Dixon, and Rodney Chatman all moved on. Chattanooga joined Samford and Mercer as yet another team that had to replace a majority of their scoring and rebounding from the previous campaign coming into the 2018-19. Those adjustments have seen some inconsistency this season for the Mocs.
Prior to their current four-game skid, the Mocs had posted three-consecutive wins, having defeated Samford (80-75), Mercer (73-70) and The Citadel (73-71). In a recent road loss at Wofford, Johnson Jr. registered his best performance in a Mocs uniform, posting 19 points.
It’s becoming evident that the type of leader and toughness that Paris is looking for to help re-ignite the fire of championship success for Chattanooga basketball can be found in Johnson Jr. His father would be proud, even if he’s still finding his way a bit in his first season for the Mocs.