Tough break won't stop Stevenson's tough-minded Johnson

  • Matt Johnson, here driving to the basket against Lake Forest's Jack Traynor, is showing toughness as he adapts to the loss of his mother and fits in with his new basketball family at Stevenson.

      Matt Johnson, here driving to the basket against Lake Forest's Jack Traynor, is showing toughness as he adapts to the loss of his mother and fits in with his new basketball family at Stevenson. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Updated 2/7/2014 5:55 AM

It makes Matthew Johnson happy to know that his basketball coach repeatedly uses the word "tough" to describe him.

"Matt is just a tough-nosed kid and he gets after it," Stevenson basketball coach Pat Ambrose said of his 5-foot-11 junior guard and third-leading scorer. "He gets the tough rebounds, he makes the tough shots, he's all over the tough loose balls.


"Whatever we ask him to do, whatever we need, he does it. His toughness is what I like most about him."

What Johnson likes most about being called "tough" is that it reminds him of his Mom. He sees it as a nod to her.

He says he never knew real toughness until he watched his mother Toni bravely fight cancer every day. She was a dean at a high school in the Batavia area and never missed a day of work as she battled through her illness and a variety of grueling treatments.

"My mom was a very strong lady, the toughest person I've known, and I think that kind of rubbed off on me," Johnson said. "We'd call her superwoman. She did everything for everybody, and she was my rock.

"The only time I ever saw her cry was the day she found out she had cancer."

Eight months later, Toni died of pancreatic cancer, which set into motion Johnson's journey to Stevenson, where he is now an important piece of the puzzle for the 19-1 defending Class 4A state runner-up.

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Before his mother died, Johnson, a 3-point gunner and defensive stopper who scored 14 points in Stevenson's win over Lake Zurich on Tuesday and will play a big role in Friday's mega-tilt against visiting Zion-Benton, was turning heads as a freshman at Batavia. He was pushed up to the sophomore team for both football and basketball, featured as the star running back and the go-to guard, respectively. The summer before his sophomore year, he was starting summer league basketball games with the varsity.

But, in a cruel twist of fate, Johnson had his own setback as his mom continued to get sicker and sicker. He tore the meniscus in his knee during summer football camp and sports came to a grinding halt.

Johnson then lost the one person he could always turn to for comfort. His mother Toni died just before the start of football season, on Aug. 6, 2012.

"It was definitely so tough. My mom was my best friend, and she would have helped me get through my injury," Johnson said. "But I'm a religious person, just like my mom, and the one thing she always taught me was that when the going gets tough, you stick to your faith and you pray. When my mom got sick, the two of us prayed a lot together.

"Praying has gotten me through a lot of tough times, especially when she first died. It helped to have my friends and family around, too."

Reluctantly, Johnson had to say goodbye to his friends in Batavia just weeks into the school year last fall. He was moving to Lincolnshire to live with his father, Kirk.


"I had known some of my friends in Batavia since second grade," Johnson said. "It was really tough to leave them. Plus, I was coming from a good situation at school. Before I got hurt, I was doing really well at football and basketball and I liked my teams. I wasn't sure about what it would be like at Stevenson."

Johnson didn't come in completely blind, though.

He had certainly heard of Stevenson star guard Jalen Brunson, who is being recruited by major Division I schools all across the country. And he had run into Cameron Green and Connor Cashaw multiple times on the AAU circuit.

"Our teams were always two of the best teams and we'd always see each other in the playoff rounds of tournaments and my team would always beat their team. You can print that," Johnson said with a laugh. "Even though I didn't really know Cameron and Connor, I guess it did ease my anxiety to know that I had a couple people I could talk to at Stevenson."

The personable Johnson made friends quickly at Stevenson, but everything else felt like it came slowly.

Still recovering from his knee injury, Johnson was limited in what he could do on the basketball court.

"He really didn't settle in with us until late November last year, so he was late on the scene," Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose said of Johnson. "Plus, he was still banged up, he was out of shape and he didn't know our system. He was really behind.

"He dressed every varsity game and he was able to eventually play, but he didn't really get extended minutes."

Now, Ambrose feels like he can't afford to take Johnson off the floor.

He averages 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals per game. And Ambrose always makes sure to stick him on the opposing team's best perimeter player.

"Matt did a lot of work in the summer to become a much more complete player," Ambrose said. "I knew he would be someone we could count on for defense, but he's also that kind of player on offense for us now, too.

"He's just a winner, and someone who is really special. The fact that he's been able to do so well (at Stevenson) and adjust and contribute given what he's been through, that's something to admire."

Johnson, who has also proudly kept his grade point average at Stevenson above a 3.0, is looking for the admiration of only one person. He's hoping that his toughness and resiliency is something that his mom would be (and is) proud of.

"This situation I've been in, it hasn't been easy," Johnson said. "It's been a learning experience and I've had to bring out a lot of strength just to get through everyday life.

"I think the way everything has turned out for me is something my mom would be really proud of."

• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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