Elijah Johnson’s basketball career is a good argument against drawing conclusions.
Before he arrived at KU, I was talking to someone who had been around him a fair bit as a high school kid, and I asked what he was like.
“He’s kind of a surly, asshole kid,” the person said.
So I’m a KU beat writer at the time, and I’m dreading this guy. We reporters do wear people down, and turn otherwise cheerful people into surly asshole kids, and it’s not like it really matters, but these players are people you’re going to be dealing with a few times a week for a few years and it’s just nice if they start off friendly.
Then I met Elijah, and he was not surly at all. He seemed introspective and emotionally dynamic, sometimes a little weird. Those traits can make a person seem rather like an a-hole at times, but I didn’t perceive him as generally selfish, condescending, mean or any of the common symptoms of an a-hole. I could be wrong, obviously — it’s not like we were friends. But that’s the way it seemed to me.
I don’t mean to imply Elijah was some kind of darling. He could get … dark … sometimes. He either can’t fake it, or has no interest in doing so. And he’s one of those people who is often either giddy or brooding. At one point early in his career he made it pretty clear he thought he was better than Tyshawn Taylor (and he might not have been wrong), and yet other times he was Mr. Team Player. One time, after a game at Oklahoma, he came out for postgame interviews and seemed downright loopy. Those of us who were there talked about it. Had he gotten a concussion? Was he on some kind of medication? We never found out and, again, it’s not like it really matters. It’s just that right when you think you’re ready to draw a conclusion about Elijah Johnson, you find out you’re not.
Straight out of the capital of Nowhere, he scored 39 points Monday night in an overtime win at Iowa State, which was the most anybody at KU had scored since Paul Pierce. His performance was heroic and historic and yet the first thing he had to do after it was all over was apologize for doing a pointless uncontested dunk as time expired.
“I shouldn’t have dunked that ball,” he said. “I got caught up in the moment.”
This is a guy who in a blowout loss at Kansas State dunked on somebody and then got tech’ed up for taunting on the way up the floor. And Monday wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of using the dunk shot as a weapon of mass insult, either. So I don’t know, maybe this guy is an a-hole after all. Or maybe he’s not because he does seem genuinely contrite when he apologizes for this stuff. This stuff he keeps having to apologize for.
His play has been no easier to define. As a recruit he was described as a ball-dominating slasher who’d go chucking at a moment’s notice. His first two years at KU he was a ball-mover and a defender and for quite a while he had this confusingly great assist-to-turnover ratio and an equally surprising percentage on 3-pointers. It looked like one of the coaches had told him “If you want to play, you have to not turn it over and shoot only when you’re wide open and in rhythm” and he followed those orders to within the strictest possible tolerance.
He often explains things with that kind of simplicity, anyway. He did it again Monday, when he attributed his performance to a conversation between himself and coach Bill Self. He did not reveal any details of this conversation, nor did he even bother to characterize its nature, but he assured the audience that he and Self had shared some 39-point words with each other.
Beyond the simplicity of that story, I don’t have any reason to doubt it. It does sound plausible, especially for a guy who seems to be so emotionally absorbent. And I’m sure he and Self did have a conversation and I’m sure Self’s goal was to coax his player into the proper mindspace. I think most of us can identify with just needing to hear somebody say something, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you believe they’re being sincere.
But there are other times. It wasn’t three weeks ago that Johnson looked like he was done — doner than a diner steak, doner than Dane Cook, doner than the dishes in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. There’s no point in getting into the statistics, but Johnson could not make a shot and seemed to have blown a gasket in whatever mechanism controls dribbling too. It looked sad, not because a basketball player wasn’t playing well, but because a person appeared to have lost his confidence, which is one of the most heartbreaking disasters of the human mind.
We call these things “slumps” or “funks” and those are terms that say, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” I did not think Johnson was in a funk; I thought he was broken.
But, no, he was just in a funk.
What he did Monday in Ames was technically legendary. Years from now, KU fans will still sometimes talk about the time Elijah Johnson scored 39 at Iowa State. But this one feels different, because most legendary performances are made by legendary players and I feel quite strongly that Elijah Johnson is not a legendary player.
But you don’t want to speak too soon.