There’s a tattered photograph B.J. Johnson likes, taken on Christmas, about 20 years ago.
He’s 2 in the photo, standing near a Fisher Price hoop and holding a little basketball, reveling in the fact that he just made his first basket. And, not surprisingly, he’s standing next to his proud father Bob, a former La Salle basketball player.
“He was the first person to put a basketball in my hand,” B.J. says. “And throughout my whole basketball career, he’s always been that guy in my head telling me what I need to do better or what I’m doing well.”
You might think it was inevitable that B.J. would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the same La Salle program his dad once helped take to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1988-90, alongside the great Lionel Simmons.
But B.J. never thought of it that way, instead taking a circuitous route to Gola Arena — which, in a way, makes his first 10 games playing for his dad’s alma mater even more special.
After transferring from Syracuse, and sitting out last season, Johnson has burst onto the scene in 2016-17, averaging 20.2 points per game for La Salle — the second highest scoring average in the city and among the top 50 in the country.
The highlight came when he poured in 35 points against Florida Gulf Coast last weekend, but his coaches believe there’s plenty more to come after the holiday break when conference play opens at Dayton on Dec. 30.
“I think he can be a national star,” La Salle assistant Horace “Pappy” Owens said. “I just think he can do some things which you can’t teach. And I think he has the right temperament. If B.J.’s defense continues to improve, there’s no telling how good he can be.”
A former star player in Philly himself, Owens has been friends with Bob Johnson since they were teenagers and has known B.J. since around the time that old Christmas photo was taken. And he was always impressed by how good the lanky kid was at basketball — and by how much he liked the game.
“The amazing thing about B.J. is I thought he was almost like a giraffe when he was younger,” Owens says with a laugh. “And he got better and better as I saw him.”
The peak for Owens came when he watched B.J. excel at Lower Merion High School and lead the Aces to an improbable win over rival Chester in the 2013 state championship game. B.J. had 22 points and 11 rebounds in that win, wowing everyone watching at Hershey’s Giant Center and capping a terrific high school career in epic fashion.
“When I saw that and some of the things he can do,” Owens said, “I was like, ‘Wow, he could be pretty good.’”
And yet to hear B.J. tell it, that moment nearly never happened. A couple of years earlier, he was “probably a phone call away” from leaving Lower Merion because he wasn’t getting enough playing time under head coach Gregg Downer. But he stuck with it and ended up growing into not only a state champ but a top 100 overall high school prospect and a coveted piece of Syracuse’s 2013 recruiting class.
“I think that was pretty much the point where basketball really started clicking for me,” Johnson said. “Things happen for a reason. There was a reason I didn’t transfer. And there was a reason I did transfer from Syracuse. I really just look at it like everything happens for a reason.”
La Salle head coach John Giannini and his staff were obviously interested in B.J. when they heard he was transferring. They were interested, too, back when he was in high school but didn’t put too much pressure on him then because they knew Syracuse was his top choice, just ahead of Villanova.
This time around, though, returning to Philly was a big draw for B.J., just as it’s been for several other La Salle transfers over the past few years. And, in the end, he ended up choosing La Salle over Temple — though he insists sharing a college team with his dad was never the biggest consideration.
“I took my visit here and saw what I needed to see,” he says. “Most of it had to do with Coach G and how honest he was. Temple has better facilities but, at the end of the day, it’s what you make out of it. And I thought Coach G would give me the best chance to do that.”
Sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules was naturally not the easiest thing to do but was made “less stressful” because he did it alongside two other transfers: Pookie Powell and Demetrius Henry. And, according to Owens, he made the most of the season by doing a “great job academically” and working tirelessly in the gym — sometimes perhaps even too much.
“G had to tell him on numerous occasions, ‘You have to give your body some rest,’” the La Salle assistant said. “He’s hungry like that.”
Much of that hunger stems from his father, who helped instill a fierce competitive streak in the newest La Salle star. One of B.J.’s most vivid basketball memories, aside from the Christmas photo, is a game of one-on-one he played vs. his dad when he was 12. His dad won the game and they haven’t played since.
“We’re both too competitive,” B.J. says. “If we do end up playing, it’s gonna have to turn into a one-on-one. And I just don’t think he wants to lose.”
The competition between the two extends even further than that as Bob has challenged his son to score more than the 870 points he scored for La Salle — a total that both B.J. and Owens believe can easily be reached in just two seasons.
And Bob will be cheering him on with every basket, as will the dozens of other family members and friends who fill up a couple of rows of Gola every game.
At times, B.J. tunes out his huge fan section — he estimates he gives away 18 tickets per game — just so he can focus on the task at hand. But the love and warmth of playing back in his hometown is not lost on him, especially during this time of year.
“Just being able to be around my family for the holidays for a change is nice,” he says.
And it’s bringing out the best in him after a couple of difficult years in upstate New York, both on and off the court.
“Sometimes when you feel lonely, you need a hug,” Owens says. “And you know you can get a hug at home.”