By David Scarnato
“My greatest memories of Paul and I were us just sitting on the bus before away games, just talking. I never thought that would be my memory of him because we have been through so much together. Yea, really just spending times talking about basketball and life. He was my best friend.”
– John Bucci, former head coach of Bishop Hannan High School
At 42 years old, Paul Johnson was on the verge of becoming one of the best basketball coaches in this area. A volunteer assistant for the Pacers’ men’s basketball team, Johnson had an illustrious career as a head coach for the now defunct Bishop Hannan Golden Lancers, posting a 75-28 record in four seasons, as well as a trip to the 2006 State Finals. It seemed that Johnson was on a gravy train with biscuit wheels, and the sky was the limit. He was coaching on the college level, as a volunteer nonetheless, passing on his knowledge of the game to his players. He was surely destined for greatness as an even better basketball coach from this experience at Marywood. Then on January 16, 2010, Johnson passed away unexpectedly. Now, everyone can only ask “what if”?
I did not know Paul Johnson on a personal level. I never got a chance to call him coach. I never even met him. I only knew him through the game of basketball. As a reader with no knowledge of who Paul Johnson was, this article will give anyone a clear image of how important of a person he was to not only Marywood basketball, but also the game of basketball through the words of the people of whose lives he touched.
As a spectator in the stands, I noticed something about Johnson that I did not notice about any other coach in neither high school basketball, nor college. The man walked with respect on his shoulders. There was a respect held by everyone in the community for Johnson, opposing players and all. Shane Ostroski, a Wood Word editor and former Seton Catholic High School basketball player, had the opportunity to play against Paul Johnson in the playoffs when Johnson was at the helm of the Golden Lancers.
“The thing I respected about Paul Johnson was his teams always played hard,” Ostroski mentioned. “But more importantly, he exemplified sportsmanship and always respected his opponent. At the end of each game, Coach Johnson would shake every single player’s hand and pat them on the back, which shows how much of a class act he really was.”
Jon Frye, a graduate of Holy Cross (formerly Bishop Hannan), was a player for Johnson during the last few years of the school’s existence. He remembers Johnson as a great mentor who would “help everyone on and off of the court.”
Eric Grundman, Head Coach for the Pacers, in an interview with Marty Myers of the Scranton Times on January 18, 2010 said:
“Paul was class personified, in the way he lived his life, in everything he did. In the last 12 hours, I’ve gotten over 150 text messages and phone calls, attesting to Paul’s character, his impact, and just the human being that he is and he was.”
Throughout this writing process, I have spoken with many people who knew Johnson on the personal and the professional level. I truly mean this when I say that everyone used the same three adjectives to describe him: professional, respectful, and wonderful. Dr. Mary Jo Gunning, Director of Athletics here at Marywood, had a conversation with me the other evening about Paul. I almost forgot to quote her because I did not pick up my pen. We were engaged in an actual conversation about the kind of person he was. Her tone was exactly what I knew it would be, grateful to have an opportunity to work with Coach Johnson. She said:
“Coach Johnson used basketball as a vehicle for life’s great lessons. He would teach the game to his players in a way that would show them how to handle all of the troubles in life. What a great man he was!”
Like an old sage or a wizard during the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Johnson’s knowledge of the game was a major influence on his players and made them better and smarter. His most recent player, Brent Keyes, said:
“When we would be at practice, Coach never said much, but when he spoke up, there was always a dead silence and all attention was directed towards him.”
Whenever a team played a Johnson coached team, the opposing coaches themselves had trouble keeping up with him. Alan Kiesinger, Head Coach of Pittston Area Boy’s Basketball, coached against Johnson last in 2007, when Johnson’s Golden Lancers defeated Kiesinger’s Seton Catholic High School team, ending his coaching tenure at Seton due to the Catholic School Closings in the Scranton area. Kiesinger released this statement:
“It was always difficult playing against a team coached by Paul. You knew that his team would be well prepared and willing to do all the little things that it takes to win a game.”
As a player, one thing you can ask from a coach is patience. No team is ever perfect in any sport. Especially on the high school and D-III level, mistakes are always noticed. A coach must understand that mistakes will happen. Paul Johnson always kept a low profile on the bench. He spoke up when he needed to and yelled seldom. John Bucci can attest to this. He told me that the best gift Johnson gave him was patience.
“Honestly, he kept me sane,” Bucci stated. “There were times when I felt like losing it on my players and Paul would tell me ‘John, they are just kids, they’ll get it. Just relax. It happens.’”
Paul Johnson may have died on January 16th, but he has touched the hearts of thousands of people in this area. His spirit lives on through his players, family, fans, friends, and of course the game of basketball. Whether a coach, mentor, or colleague, Paul Johnson will be mostly remembered as a friend to all. Writing this article was extremely difficult because what do you say about a person who is practically a stranger to you? Yet, I had to somehow pay homage to a man who truly gave everything he had to the game of basketball. I can add another adjective to describe Paul Johnson: love. Love for his players, fans, family. But most importantly love for the game of basketball. Who knows where Paul Johnson would have been in the next few years? All I know is that heaven really must have needed a basketball coach to take such a great person away from us. We will miss you Paul.