By Jeffery Armstrong
Former Clayton State University basketball player Jerry Johnson has done some traveling in his basketball career.
He started playing basketball for Riverdale High until his junior year, finished high school at Master's Christian Academy in Tucker, played college basketball at the University of Louisville for two years and then transferred back home to finish his collegiate career at Clayton State in 2002.
The Atlanta native got his first taste of professional basketball last fall and yes, he traveled again. Johnson played the 2002-03 season on the basketball team in Calais, France. Calais is a small town in the northern part of the country. He said it was an interesting experience playing overseas.
"I was the only American on the team and it was difficult at times," said Johnson, 24. "No one on the team spoke much English, not even the coaches."
The language barrier didn't stop Johnson from doing what knows how to do, which is play basketball.
"Even though everyone didn't speak the same language, it wasn't hard to play ball together," Johnson said. "Any basketball player knows pretty much what to do on the court."
Johnson did have to get adjusted to the way the French fans behaved. The fans acted like they were at a soccer match instead of a basketball game. Johnson said fans go crazy over basketball in France; it's the second-most popular sport behind soccer.
"The fans in France are very different than the ones in the United States. The French fans bring drums and wooden sticks that they clap with all the time during the games," said Johnson. "They even made a lot of noise when we shot free throws at home."
Johnson also said basketball in France got a big shot in the arm with the emergence of young French phenom Tony Parker, who recently won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs.
Johnson did well in Calais, averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game on a team that was in first place for much of the season. Calais struggled down the stretch, finishing in the middle of the pack. The league Calais was in didn't have a playoff format, so once the regular season was over, Johnson's first pro season was in the books.
Johnson wasn't the only American in France, however, and he met several ball players who once starred either in the NBA or in college. He hung out with Andre Woolridge (NBA), Danny Strong (N.C. State), Tony Windless (Georgia Southern) and Frankie King (Murray State, L.A. Lakers).
"All those guys took me under their wing; they looked at me like I was their little brother," said Johnson. "Frankie is from Atlanta as well. He's a good guy and we had a lot to talk about being from the same city and all."
Johnson, who hadn't been to France, said Calais was a bit different than what he expected.
"I was surprised there was a lot of open areas n there was a lot of farm land," he said. "The people there have cows and sheep and they live a simple life."
Johnson was able to do get to bigger cities since Calais is only 20 minutes from Belgium, an hour and a half away from London (via train), three hours from Germany and five hours away from Holland. When he went out to clubs (which opened at 2 a.m.), he got in free since he was an athlete. What he saw in those other European cities surprised him as well.
"In Europe, you can see kids 10 and 11 smoking and drinking. Also, the people are more open there than they are in the states," said Johnson. "Europeans talk openly about anything and everything n I was shocked at first."
Johnson made a decent salary in France; he needed it, as expensive as the cost of living was in Calais. People used Euros there, which was paper money that was a bit higher than the American dollar. He said a typical combo meal in McDonald's that would cost $2.99 here would cost about six or seven Euros there.
The team supplied him with a car for the season and players had to pay for their food, gas and phone bill.
Johnson said that former University of Georgia women's basketball player Teresa Edwards helped him get the opportunity to play ball in France. Edwards, who played in France herself, saw him play at a local gym, liked his game and made a few calls for him. Through word of mouth and Edwards' contacts, Johnson was able to join Calais just after the season started in August.
"In this game, it's who you know and what you do," he said.
Johnson plans to work on getting his degree from Clayton State this summer and then sign with another pro team.
He said that anyone who gets a chance to sign with a professional team overseas needs to have an open mind , embrace the atmosphere and most importantly, work extremely hard because you're really being watched.
"Many people overseas think American players are the best in the world," he said. "They also think that we don't like to work for what we get. You've got to prove them wrong on that aspect."