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Former Morrow assistant took 'calling' home

y Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

With hands clasped and heads bowed, the two coaches prayed, because Thomas Johnson had questions that needed answers. Should I go back? Is there even anything left of my city, my former life, to go back to? What is my call? He came to the office of Morrow boys basketball coach Jay Livingston often for counsel, for conversation, for prayer, for stories, for brotherhood, everything he'd lost with one storm.

When the threat of Hurricane Katrina appeared imminent in 2005, Johnson took his family and joined the exodus from his native New Orleans. When he hit Atlanta with his fiancé, daughter and granddaughter, Johnson became just a twig on a branch, displaced from his home like hundreds of thousands, separated from his New Orleans roots by highway and the eventual desolation. He was an unwilling refugee, not like those from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Haiti and Cuba that had fled morass, derision and oppression, that hit the shores of New Orleans at various moments in history and melded into one of the world's most excessive, complicated and vibrant cities.

In that office, in that school, in that community, Johnson had found parts of his old life again. He found a new extended family as an assistant coach to Livingston in 2006 and 2007, a man he once shared the sideline with, though today he will be on the other side coaching George Washington Carver High School from Louisiana in the 19th annual Arrowhead Classic Thanksgiving Tournament sponsored by Arrowhead Clinics in Jonesboro. He found friends in the players' parents that invited his family into their homes, bonding over late-night card games and homemade jambalaya. And he found sons in the players, the ones he watched at AAU tournaments and gave fresh nicknames.

But now Johnson was beset with ambivalence, torn between his desire to stay in this new city that had embraced him and this whisper. It was a quiet command he heard telling him to go back to his home in New Orleans, back to a city that's infrastructure and conscience had been ravaged, back to where he'd been a college professor and won high school boys and girls basketball championships and sent a granddaughter to Louisiana State University on the Bill Gates Scholarship.

Johnson mulled over his dilemma with Livingston, who is also a reverend. Weeks of conversations passed. "Some of those times we talked about it," Livingston said, "but we really didn't want to talk about it. You know what I mean? We would just change the subject, where as before it was this deep meaningful thing. We didn't want the hurt and the pain and that kind of thing."

Johnson eventually succumbed to the voice, his calling, as Livingston refers to it, and resigned from his position as chemistry and physics teacher and varsity assistant coach at Morrow in June.

"I knew the struggle they was having in New Orleans," Johnson said, "so I said I'm going to go back and give something back."

The months that followed brought severe changes to Johnson and his family, some he anticipated and some he never could have imagined.

After resigning from Morrow, he was quickly hired by Carver to teach chemistry and physics and rebuild the boys basketball program. Before the storm, Carver held an elite place in the sports hierarchy of New Orleans. It teemed with stunning athletes amongst the school's 3,000 students, pulling from its place within the state's largest projects community. Marshall Faulk is its most notable alumni.

The storm reduced the school to just five temporary trailers and approximately 500 students after shutting down for two years. Many of those students attend Carver as a last resort when they did not get accepted to the larger public schools, coming from as far away as 80 miles west in Baton Rouge, La. Carver is a reflection of the inordinate destruction the community endured.

"There's no jobs down here," Johnson said. "No facilities for anybody to really talk about like it used to. Not in this area. This is the area where the water was 10-, 15-, 20-feet high. So this was wiped out."

Seven boys showed up to the first basketball meeting. With no gymnasium, Johnson took his team to a nearby Christian organization, Desire Street Ministry, practicing outside until dark, then moving indoors for study hall and more drills. He had to wait until football and marching band ended to grab the 6-foot-4 boys and convince them to join him on this mission. "I said, 'Wow boy, what have I got myself into?'" Johnson remembers.

He's three months into a reclamation project unlike the one he went through at Morrow. Part of his two years coaching with the Mustangs was spent helping Livingston as a tactician build Morrow back into the state power it had once been. But with Johnson it was never just about basketball on the basketball court, just like it was never just about chemistry or physics in the classroom.

That was one of the things that drew Johnson and Livingston to each other. They talked about basketball incessantly. Sometimes Johnson called Livingston late at night with ideas boiling in his mind, other times Livingston found himself phoning Johnson. As they let their guards down, they began to talk about matters closer to the heart, about Johnson outrunning Katrina, about his daughter with cancer, about the New Orleans culture that framed everything he felt and thought.

Livingston found this man so synched with his own ideals. It had always been his goal to do more than teach his players the game of basketball. His teams were to always think of each other, of the world. College first taught him about brotherhood as an Omega fraternity member. Johnson had been a Kappa. Faith opened broader lenses to show Livingston the world. Johnson attended Livingston's church.

They began to confide in each other about the deepest of subjects, about weaknesses they were too scared to show, about trials they were too proud to reveal.

"Those kinds of things makes it more than just coaching," Livingston said. "That's a relationship. He's my brother. And when he was here, he used to say all the time, 'I don't have any other family here. So, you know, you guys are like my family.'"

So what do families do? They go to Bostons after games to get pizza and celebrate. They spend evenings at each other's homes watching television and cooking. They travel to coaches meetings and clinics. They spin tales, each trying to top the last. They badger each other about their game apparel, eventually elevating their fashion to three-piece suits and alligator shoes.

Johnson integrated with players and parents with similar ease. Sure, at first those parents saw his New Orleans gusto as pomp and arrogance. During Johnson's first week at practice with Morrow, parents walked in to scenes of Johnson berating players, using language they'd never heard from a docile preacher like Livingston. Johnson attended a booster club meeting later, and when he heard parents challenge Livingston on decisions, Johnson hammered the tension, standing up and saying, "No, this is the way we're doing it. This is what Coach Jay wants."

"A lot of parents were (sceptical) initially toward him," said Michele Dukes, mother of Morrow point guard Tony Dukes and president of Morrow's booster club. "We didn't know him, and he didn't know us."

But that soon changed. Soon Johnson had given Tony his first nickname, 'Quiet Storm', telling his father, "Man, all we got to do is get the ball to Quiet Storm. Before you know it he got 30 points." Soon Johnson was going to Atlanta Hawks games with Tony and meeting former Hawks player Boris Diaw. Soon Johnson was there at every AAU game, watching Quiet Storm lead his father's ATL Explosion team.

Each player got something different from Johnson. Sophomore guard Ty'Ron Davis relished taking Johnson's pristine blazers and fancy hats, sauntering up and down the hallways posing as the venerable professor. Former guard Eric Jackson earned the nickname 'Hot Dog'.

"His impact was not only just on me but on all of the kids," Livingston said. "I mean, literally, all of them. He had contact with each and every one of them."

"They respected him," Michele said. "They knew when he was playing and when he was serious."

But how serious was this news? Coach Johnson was leaving? Tony's father felt the same dread when he saw the look in his mother's eyes 10 years ago, telling her he was moving his family away from Chicago to Atlanta. Livingston dealt with his heartbreak by trying to understand. "Morrow just couldn't hold him," Livingston said.

It invites him back today, though, with those anxious arms that families have, ready to squeeze and hold tight. They know he'll be the best dressed coach in the gym throughout the tournament, with the gleen of his alligator shoes suffused throughout the building. And they know when this tournament's over Johnson will go back to his home, to his calling. But they also know he'll be back some day. And Johnson knows, too.

"I know the Lord understands I'm down here," Johnson said, "but my house in Morrow is still up there, and someday I hope to come back. It'll probably take about two years to get this program here off the ground effectively, and then I'll just turn it over and just return back. I've been blessed."