TYREE JOHNSON was tempted to give it all up. The basketball. School. Dreams. A future.
The news was beyond his comprehension. His friend, Kairae Oakes, was dead, another victim of a senseless, random act of violence. Johnson was familiar with hearing about things like that. Only this time, it hit him. It hit home. Violence always has seemed to shadow Johnson, like when his older brother, Sheldon, was beaten to death when Tyree was just 2 years old. He never really knew he had an older brother until his mother told him about Sheldon when he was 10.
Maybe that's why Johnson plays basketball the way he does; an unflappable, pint-sized tiger who rams headfirst into a zone intended to stop him, often coming out the other end with a layup.
The 5-10, 165-pound Penn Wood High junior is probably the best point guard in Delaware County. One thing is for certain, the powerful Patriots wouldn't be so potent without him. As a sophomore, he averaged 14 points and six assists a game. This season, he's scoring 15 and dishing five assists.
He's bold, brash, flamboyant, with a life-of-the-party personality and confidence that borders on arrogance - to those who don't know him. He's the heart and soul of one of the best teams in the area; if any team intends to stop Penn Wood, it has to stop the little captain first. It's no easy task.
He plays for his teammates and himself, in that order. But he also plays in the memory of Kairae, who was shot to death Nov. 11, 2006, in West Philadelphia.
"I won't forget the day I heard it," Johnson recalled. "You hear things all of the time about people getting shot. I knew Kairae since middle school, and one day, when I was a freshman at Communications Tech, in Philly, someone told me Kairae was killed. I couldn't believe it. People who know me see me laughing or joking or singing. What they don't realize is that I have been through a lot. I guess people wouldn't realize that, because I keep a lot of things in. But when I heard about Kairae, that made me really angry."
He didn't want to stay in school. He didn't even want to play basketball, his first love, a sport he picked up when he was 3. He didn't want anything to do with anyone. He shut down.
But Johnson was always drawn to a bouncing ball. Basketball was his outlet, his way of honoring Kairae. So instead of going back to Communications Tech, Johnson returned to Darby, and opted to transfer to Penn Wood, looking for a new start.
Penn Wood coach Clyde Jones knew about Johnson through summer leagues, but was surprised when he came walking into Penn Wood's gym last fall.
"One day we were at practice and all of a sudden this kid comes in the gym. It's Tyree, and he says to me, 'Coach, I transferred into Penn Wood.' This was in September of last year, and it was completely out of the blue," Jones said. "We knew Tyree was really talented, but I really didn't believe it and I wouldn't let him work out with us until I saw the transfer papers a few days later, when it was official."
It's been a lovefest ever since. Jones turned the Pats' offense over to Johnson ("Don't crash the Mercedes," Jones tells him before games). Johnson guided Penn Wood to a 23-9 finish and the state quarterfinals last year. Six of Penn Wood's nine losses came against state champion Chester and state runner-up Norristown.
Penn Wood athletic director Rap Curry was one of the best high school guards that ever played in Delaware County when he was at Penn Wood. He's been instrumental in Johnson's growth, frequently challenging him to raise his ceiling.
"What Tyree can innately do with a basketball and what he sees is beyond special," said Curry, who went on to play at Saint Joseph's. "When Tyree realizes that the simple play can be the best play, everyone will see how high his ceiling is. He likes the special play, and sometimes when you're a special player, you want to make the special play. His leadership will determine how far this team will go. Everything starts with him. You can't face this team without preparing to face Tyree."
This season is the year the Pats could break through. They've never won a Del Val League title, and it's been since 1992 that they last won a District 1, Class AAAA championship.
But they will go as far as Johnson takes them - a responsibility he doesn't mind carrying.
"It's more of a challenge for me," Johnson said. "I like the fact that everyone has to stop me to stop Penn Wood. People think we're getting too much buzz, and we really haven't done anything to deserve it. We know we haven't done anything. But I like center stage. Ask my mom. When I was younger, my mother used to bring me to birthday parties and they'd have these dance contests and I'd win every time. I still play around, but you won't find me dancing in public anymore."
Maybe in Hershey, if Penn Wood wins this March. *
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