There are times when Ron Johnson, a junior at the University of Minnesota, becomes so tense he wants to jump out of bed. This impulse to leap into nowhere in the middle of the night always strikes between December and March, when the basketball season is on. "The more I look forward to and worry about a game, the better I'll play," Johnson says, earnestly trying to explain the cause of his tension. "If I have trouble falling asleep the night before a game, I usually play better. The game is sort of ingrained in you. I worry when I don't worry."
Last season Johnson, a typically good college basketball player, was Minnesota's center. He averaged 17.5 points a game and won honorable mention on the All Big Ten team. This season, playing forward, he should make the conference first team, and next year he could, with a little luck and some publicity, be an All-America. Johnson, who is a math major, also has a good chance to make Phi Beta Kappa, but if he had to choose between making Phi Beta or All-America, he'd choose All-America. "Anyone can be a Phi Bete," he says. "Not everyone can be an All-America."
Of Swedish and German descent, Johnson has blue eyes and light brown hair. He is 6 feet 7 inches tall, wears a size 17 shoe and weighs 215 pounds. He was born Ronald Fredolph Johnson on July 20, 1938 in Hallock, Minnesota, the first of three children of Fredolph Anders Waaldimere Johnson, a creamery manager who prefers to be called Fritz, and Ida Frey Johnson. Until Ron was 10, the family lived in the northern part of the state. Fritz Johnson says his son could skate almost before he walked, while his mother says, "He was interested in all kinds of sports. He's always been connected with competition." In 1948 the Johnsons moved to New Prague, a small town of 2,000 some 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis. New Prague, which is pronounced as though it rhymed with egg, is mainly a Bohemian Catholic town, and Swedes are comparatively rare. "New Prague," says Johnson, "is probably the only town of its size in the state with only one family of Johnsons." At New Prague High School, he began concentrating on basketball, and he became a regular on the varsity in his sophomore year. He had been growing steadily at the rate of two or three inches a year, and by this time he was 6 feet 6. In his last two years, New Prague made the state high school tournament in Minneapolis, the high point coming in Johnson's senior year when the team finished third, and he set a single tournament game record of 48 points. "I've never heard such acclaim for a player," says Ozzie Cowles, the Minnesota coach, who had been eying Johnson for some time. "When he left the floor 20,000 people just stood up and cheered."
Halfway through his senior year, Johnson announced he had decided to go to Minnesota, an announcement that gave not only Cowles but his own family peace of mind. Until then the Johnsons had been kept more or less under a state of siege by interested colleges, and earlier several Minnesota high schools had even tried to lure the boy away by offering his father a job. "Silliness," Fritz Johnson says.
December 8, 1958
At Minnesota, Johnson has a scholarship covering $800 of his $1,300 expenses. "My scholarship is making it easier for my dad to put my sister through college," he says. "Frankly, I don't see the argument against athletic scholarships. The guys are out there putting in their time and bringing money into the school." To supplement his scholarship, Johnson works several hours a week as a stock clerk in a Minneapolis bank and sells football programs on Saturdays. Last summer he worked in New York in a life insurance company's actuarial training program. He lived in the Y, read The New York Times and was impressed by Greenwich Village.
Johnson is a member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity, and he shares a second-floor room in the house with Alan Gustafson, a senior and president of the chapter. Early this fall, the two of them spent a hectic night extending their double-decker bed to accommodate Johnson's length. The upper bunk now has a mattress long enough to allow Johnson to rest comfortably, but he still sleeps with his feet hanging over the end. He's gotten so used to sleeping in smaller beds that he just can't go off to sleep unless his feet are out in mid-air.
On a typical day Johnson has breakfast at 7:30. At 8:30 he has a class in conversational German, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 he has a class in advanced calculus. An hour later, he has a class in bio-statistics. Johnson plans to carry only three courses each quarter for the rest of his time at Minnesota. He overloaded himself deliberately in his first two years, reasoning that this would give him more free time later for basketball. "It's sort of my philosophy to get the hard things done first, and the rest later on," he says. "I try to do all things that way."
Johnson eats lunch at 11:45, then either works at the bank or studies in his room. "It's my best study time because I'm not tired out because of basketball," he says. Practice, which is held in the Williams Arena, the largest indoor basketball stadium in the world, is at 2:30, and he looks forward to it eagerly. "To me, basketball is almost a godsend," he says, his voice becoming nearly lyrical. "I can go out on the floor, and I can forget anything. It's a release. A separate world. I'm speaking of practice. The games are only a minor part of the total time you put in. The games are what you are gunning for, but most of your life in basketball isn't games. It's practice. Games are a kind of dessert.
"Basketball is not like, say, football, where practice seems to be batting your head against dummies. In basketball practice, so much of the time is spent under actual game conditions. I've talked to some people who've played both, and they say a football game is great, but practice is getting your nose dirty, doing calisthenics, blocking dummies."
On the floor Johnson likes to keep an open mind. "The ideal thing is to adjust yourself to the situation," he says. "You can see a lot of guys make up their minds beforehand. One time they'll look great, and the next time they'll look bad. If you can go at full speed and still make up your mind in that split second, you can capitalize on the other fellow's mistake. Of course I can't do that all the time. No one can. But it bothers me to see players who make up their minds before on whether or not to take the next shot or whatever they're going to do. You can't do that. You have to get the ball and then react. You have to react to how the other person is playing you, the situation. The big thing is being able to react. Another thing is position. Basketball is a position game, knowing when to be where, when to break across, when to break for the ball. The negative is almost as important as the positive in basketball. It's almost better not to make a bad play than it is to make a good play. I'd rather have a player who, instead of making two spectacular plays and losing the ball three times, did almost nothing."
THE POINT OF PRACTICE
Constant practice is a must for Johnson. "Some teams use plays that are almost similar to football plays," he says. "Our offense is different. It's almost to the other extreme. We have no set plays but a pattern. You have to play with the fellows a lot though, sense what they're going to do, when they will break. That's why we practice a lot. It's one of those things you have to put your time in on. You can't use a blackboard. It's not theory. It's practicality."
Johnson is given to looking upon basketball as a challenge to him. "Self-pride is a lot of it," he says, and for that reason he prefers to play man-to-man defense instead of the zone. "Man-to-man is more of a personal challenge," he says. "If this guy scores a basket, it's my responsibility. It's my job to stop him. It's more clear-cut than the zone. You know what your duty is."
But whether this, or basketball in general, builds character is questionable as far as Johnson is concerned. "You can build character digging ditches," he says. "I suppose you can learn a lot from basketball, but I can't say it's much better than something else. I have a dim view of a lot of these things like 'character building.' First, you're out to win, and secondly, to have some fun. To me, it's a real good feeling to have everything clicking together. If this is character building or teamwork, fine and good. But how much of this can be applied elsewhere, I don't know. These are things you can't measure."
This year Minnesota has its first road game December 8 at Iowa State. Johnson likes road trips, especially those down South. "It's warm down there," he says. Despite his fondness for travel, he finds playing away from home a disadvantage. "On the officiating, I think the home team has the advantage," he says. "It must be the crowd, but I don't think it's so much the crowd booing. But when the crowd sees a foul to its disadvantage and yells, the official, if he didn't see it, knows he might have missed a call, and he'll be looking for it the next time around. He'll be that much more apt to notice it.
"There's a lot that officials miss. It isn't humanly possible to see everything that's going on. Some officials notice certain types of fouls more than others. One will call traveling all night. Another is probably noticing a guy's arm to see if he's fouled shooting. It's a good trait in a team if it can adjust to the officiating and use it to their advantage. If a referee is not calling fouls under the basket, it's to a team's advantage to be more aggressive under the basket."
THE NOISY CROWDS
Johnson understands that Iowa has about the noisiest crowd in the Big Ten, but he hasn't played there yet. "Indiana and Michigan State are the two I've noticed the most," he says. "Kansas State was that way, and Kentucky was, too. I've heard say that on Indiana's home court, it's 20 points for Indiana, both teams even. The crowd is pretty rabid, and it seems that Indiana boys jump about four inches higher and shoot considerably better. Minnesota? Less than a lot of schools. Probably because our floor is away from the crowd, and there's almost a wall around the court. Indiana's floor is elevated very little, and the crowd comes in close. It's more enclosed, and the noise keeps coming back. Here the crowds are sort of drowned into the walls miles away.
"But the biggest difference is the floors. Some give a lot. They're springier. Wood that springs. The Minnesota floor is real spongy. Others are hard. The boards are laid right over cement. Kentucky and North Carolina play on hard floors. It gives you a faster game. You come down and you hit hard. There's no give. It's like running on cement instead of Jello. You hit bottom quicker, and your next step comes that fraction of a second quicker. On the hard floor the ball bounces higher. On our floor you might think that there was no air in the ball. The first thing we do on a strange floor is just dribble for five minutes to get the feel of the floor."
Johnson finds an "unconscious mental hazard" in some backboards. "Backboards vary some," he says, "but there's nothing definite you can do. Some have the brace under the basket, and it's a psychological disadvantage jumping. You're afraid you're going to hit your head on the brace. But this isn't a big factor. The biggest difference is the floor itself." If there is a difference between Big Ten play and that of the rest of the country, it is that the Big Ten play is rougher. "The game is more wide open in the South," he says. "There's not this conglomeration in the center that you get here. Here, it's much rougher under the boards. Much more contact. Something built up over the years I guess. Now in the Big Ten they look for ruggedness in a player as well as height and agility. I like to see a good, real rough ballplayer who goes up hard and comes down hard as long as there's none of this calculated stuff."
Johnson tries to have a nap after practice. At 6, he has dinner, and then he studies. "I'd like to say I study," he says, "but it isn't as often as I should. Three nights of the week I study hard all night from 7 to 11. I read German here in the armchair, and then I go over to the library to do math problems. I can spread out there. Here I study, get a drink of water, talk to the guys next door." On the evenings when he isn't studying, he may drive over to St. Paul to see his girl friend, Carol Peeke, a junior at Macalester College.
Johnson turns in as soon after 11 as he can. He and Gustafson often lie awake just talking. "We have some tremendous talks," Gustafson says. "We talk about anything in general. The school, fraternity, jobs, what he thinks. He's rather quiet. You have to draw him out, but once he starts, well, he's very intelligent and quick. I knew him when he was a freshman. He was quite an awkward boy from a small town. Now with the luncheons he's attended and what not, he's polished up. I think basketball has done a lot for him."