Every year in March the NCAA Tournament rules the basketball world. And each year during March Madness there are Cinderella stories about teams that make magical runs well beyond what anyone would have expected of them. On each of these teams there is a folk hero, one player who defines the team’s magical run. In 2011 that folk hero was Butler’s Matt Howard. With his shaggy hair and long socks, Howard dominated the boards against any opponent who dared come his way and helped lead eighth-seeded Butler to their second consecutive national championship game. In 2008 there was Stephen Curry and his silky-smooth jumper leading Davidson to the Elite Eight. Last year, one that stood out to me was Montana’s Anthony Johnson.
When most basketball fans hear the name Anthony Johnson they think of the journeyman point guard who most recently played for the Orlando Magic; but for some, images of former University of Montana shooting guard Anthony Johnson come to mind. Last March, as a senior at Montana, Johnson led the Grizzlies to one of the most improbable NCAA Tournament appearances ever. In the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game, the Grizzlies went into halftime down by 20 points to Weber State. Their season and Johnson’s Montana career appeared to be over – that was until Johnson went unconscious in the second half. He scored 34 of his team’s 46 second-half points, including the last 21 to lead his team to a 66-65 victory and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Johnson’s epic performance led to national media outlets like ESPN and The New York Times giving him a platform to tell the story of his incredible basketball journey.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Johnson says when describing the attention he got afterward. “It felt pretty good because you know going to Montana you kind of go from being small-time where you are only known in Washington and Montana to now being known nationally a little bit. It felt great to get that type of attention a little bit. I was definitely riding in the clouds for sometime afterwards. And to be nationally recognized for what you do or a performance you had, if you are a basketball player or an athlete there is no greater feeling.”
Johnson’s basketball voyage began in Tacoma, Wash., as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. After graduating high school, he worked that job while playing basketball at the local YMCA in his free time. His girlfriend at the time (now his wife), Shaunte Nance, was off in Idaho playing Division II basketball at Northwest Nazarene University. After she finished her freshman year she came back to Tacoma and lit a fire under Anthony, inspiring him to pursue his dream of playing professional basketball.
“I was pretty much what you would call a dreamer at that time,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to put in the work but I kind of just wanted to go straight to the end. I had all these dreams, for example I’ll be watching an NBA game and thinking to myself ‘I can do that,’ but for whatever reason then I just didn’t put the actions toward it and I didn’t have the belief in myself to push myself toward that and go get it.
“When my wife, then she was my girlfriend, came back from her first year in college, and she really pushed me and told me ‘I played at the college level and you’re way better than the guys I’ve seen and you’re just playing at the YMCA.’ So with her having that exposure and that type of knowledge I was like, ‘Okay, maybe she knows what she’s talking about.’ She really gave me that belief in myself that I have something special and I can really take my skillset and be successful with it.”
When I first talked to Shaunte on the telephone I could immediately see why she was able to convince Anthony to pursue his dreams. Her voice was loud, booming almost. It projected through the phone with an enthusiasm and joy that was infectious. Every question I asked, Shaunte was so excited to answer it that she almost seemed to have too much to say at times and didn’t know where to start. Her answers were so convincing and each one recited with such passion, that she could have told me her mother was an Eskimo and I would have believed her. According to Shaunte, this enthusiasm, not her words, was what really convinced Anthony to follow his dreams.
“I don’t think it was anything said actually but just my demeanor,” she says. “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh you’re good’ and kind of just leave it at that and at that point it is just words. It is rare though that you find someone who will grab you and pick you up and take you the places that you need to be and really help you like physically help you. I think it was more of my demeanor and physical actions that showed him there was someone actually backing him up and kind of living up to the words that they say.”
That following school year Anthony enrolled at Yakima Valley Community College in Yakima, Wash., and Shaunte enrolled with him, officially transferring from Northwest Nazarene. The plan was to stay at Yakima for one year before they both moved on to a Division I institute, but that plan was scrapped when Anthony’s coach came to him with the news that he had not been cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse. He would have to stay at Yakima for two years, which wasn’t a problem for him, but Shaunte had only one year of junior college eligibility so if she stayed at Yakima she would have to sit out her second year there. And that is just what she did; staying true to her word that she would be with Anthony every step of the way.
During that second year in Yakima, Anthony tore up the competition averaging over 24 points per game and helping lead Yakima to a regional championship, garnering the interest of Division I programs across the region. While Anthony was dominating on the court, Shaunte was dominating the sidelines as the varsity girls basketball coach at Riverside Christian School. Shaunte took her team within one win of the state tournament. Following their second year at Yakima, the two were recruited as a package deal to the University of Montana: Anthony to the men’s team, Shaunte to the women’s.
One thing that really stood out about Anthony and Shaunte while talking to them was their drive and the incredible focus they had about achieving their goals. They are very determined to accomplish everything they set out to do in this world, and no matter what they will do it together. So when Shaunte told me the pair had made a vision board upon arriving at Montana I can’t say I was that surprised.
“One night, around two o’clock in the morning when we first arrived at Montana we went to Walmart and bought this huge board and a ton of magazines and we just started clipping out a ton of things that we wanted to experience,” Shaunte explains. “Then we started putting them on the vision board and writing them out on our computer, and it was funny because we were thinking what do we want to accomplish here at Montana and what do we want our legacy to be. One of things we put on there was that we both wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament, and it’s funny because the first year at Montana I went to the Tournament but he didn’t. The second year he went to the Tournament but I didn’t. Then we thought about it and realized that we both did exactly what we wanted to do and even though it wasn’t done at the same time, it was still amazing.”
As Shaunte mentioned, her Lady Grizzlies reached the Tournament in 2009 as she played a key role as a reserve guard. Then in 2010, thanks to Anthony’s otherworldly performance, he accomplished the feat. Somehow the pair was going to fulfill one of their visions, no matter what it took. Even if it meant having to score 21-straight points, Anthony was not going to let anything get in the way of seeing his “vision” come to fruition. After his incredible performance, Montana moved on to play New Mexico in the Big Dance and unfortunately for him the season ended, but his name had been etched unquestionably into the minds of NBA scouts so Johnson began preparing for the NBA Draft.
He flew to New York to train with renowned trainer Jerry Powell. He participated in draft workouts, most notably in Boston and New Jersey. Competing against guys from bigger schools he more than held his own. Everything appeared to be aligning for him. He was about to make his dream a reality, from dishwashing to the NBA in four years. He had put in the work, and the results were remarkable. So on June 24, 2010, Johnson was glued to the TV fully expecting to hear his name called. He waited, then he waited some more, then boom it was over. His name had not been one of the 60 called.
“Oh man, honestly it hurt like you wouldn’t believe,” Anthony says with a hint of disappointment still in his voice. “Considering that I had a couple of pre-draft workouts with a few teams, I’m right there, I’m so close. From a talent perspective, I’m working out with these guys, and there’s not a lot of difference in the level of talent between playing at Montana and these guys playing at big schools like Texas and UCLA. I mean, I’m keeping up with them, and in some instances I’m doing my thing against these guys. So not getting drafted, to tell you the truth it put me into a depression. Even when I went overseas I was still depressed for eight months after it happened. After seeing where my game measured up with these guys and seeing them get drafted, I’m thinking ‘How come I’m not there? I’m just as good.’ But I guess it just wasn’t in the cards at the time.”
After the draft, Johnson experienced disappointment yet again as no summer league or training camp invites came his way. He was left stumped. What next? How can I best get myself to the NBA having gone undrafted? He and Shaunte both got invites to join the Harlem Globetrotters but he felt playing there would be essentially giving up on his NBA dream just based on the different style of basketball the Globetrotters play. The D-League came calling, but he didn’t want to go that route. So after receiving an offer from Peristeri, a Greek League team, Johnson decided to take his talents to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Shaunte had hung up her basketball shoes. She was done playing, and went to Greece with Anthony to be there for him and help him with the transition, which Anthony admitted was anything but easy.
“It was very, very competitive basketball, but it’s way different than American style basketball,” he says talking about the competition in Europe. “American style basketball is up and down and really quick, and way more athletic than European-style basketball. While the players there aren’t as athletic, they are way smarter than I’m used to. It was kind of a struggle to adjust especially at first but I definitely made the adjustment. I then got released from Greece, and played over in Cyprus and it was much the same thing. The players weren’t as athletic but the basketball IQ of these guys was just off the charts so it was a great experience overall.”
Anthony played for Peristeri for two months before moving to a team in Cyprus called Achilleas Kaimakliou where he completed his season. At first he was playing out of position at shooting guard, and was really frustrated that he wasn’t playing at the level he came to expect of himself. Around mid-season he was moved to point guard, and his play improved enormously. Upon the move to Cyprus, Shaunte would occasionally go outside to play three-on-three with some local kids. One day while she was playing, one of the coaches from Achilleas saw her doing well. Afterwards he approached her and asked if she wanted to play basketball upon which she told him she wasn’t interested.
“While we were playing one of the women’s coaches passed by and they came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to play basketball?’ and I was like ‘No, not really, I’m just having a good time and doing it for fun,'” she says. “Then he started saying that he really needed me and I asked what he meant and he said ‘I need you to meet someone’. So later that day, one of the other guys with the women’s team came over and he was this huge Serbian guy with a really strong accent but he spoke really good English, and he says, ‘Do you want to play? We need a point guard.’ So I don’t want to be rude so I told him I’d try it out.
“I ended up going to one of their practices and trying it out and I did so well even though I was really out of shape. So the coach told me not to worry that he could get me in shape, but I said, ‘I really don’t want to play. I’m not in shape; I don’t want to embarrass myself or the Americans or anything.’ But they kept saying how much they wanted me to play. Then I told them I would come to practices and if I felt comfortable by game time then I would play. I end up practicing, then I ended up playing, and I met some great girls on the team and I had a really, really good time.”
Despite having a great time with her team, illnesses to her grandmother and younger brother forced Shaunte home during the middle of the season. Anthony stayed back and finished out his season before returning to Washington to be with Shaunte. The two are staying home for the summer, and plotting their next move. Anthony plans on heading back overseas this year to play in either Italy or Spain, while Shaunte has officially retired and will now focus on starting a career in college coaching. While their basketball aspirations underlie everything they do, they also have a pet project they are working on off the court. The two are currently in the midst of pitching ESPN on a docudrama based on their life together.
“We want the message to be just the idea that you really can go out and make something from nothing even if it takes years to do it you really can be successful,” Anthony says with pride. “The idea that you can be in love and still go after all of your dreams is the one I really want to convey to the audience the most because a lot of people go off into marriages, a lot of women especially, and they get buried in their relationship. By that I mean the relationship discourages the woman from actually going out and making something of herself because she kind of plays the mommy role and the wife role and forgets about her career. So I really want this show to encourage women and encourage people to really go out there and make something of yourself and if you find someone along the way you two can accomplish your dreams together.”
In a day and age when 16-year-old pregnant girls and bronzed guys with abs become huge stars, there is no reason for Anthony and Shaunte’s show not to be on the air. The conviction the two of them have about their dreams and their aspirations is truly inspiring. They know what they want and they will do whatever it takes to get there and lend a helping hand to each other along the way. The amount of support and encouragement they give one another, even throughout the interview, was astonishing – it truly seems like they have not missed a beat since the day Shaunte convinced Anthony to pursue his dreams. They have such a belief in themselves that you can’t help but believe in yourself after talking to them, and in a society that finds itself in two wars, a recession, and an enormous debt, seeing something on TV that makes you smile would be welcome. However, Shaunte’s reasoning behind the show is not 100 percent altruistic as she hopes the show will allow her to meet one of her idols: Khloe Kardashian.
“I know for a fact that one day her and I are going to have a conversation, and we are just going to hit off, I don’t know why but we are,” she says about Khloe, barely able to contain her excitement. “I’m kind of crazy like she is, and I’m really big on friends and family, I don’t have too many of them that I’m really close with, but those that I am close with Anthony and I pretty much pull all the same stunts she and Lamar [Odom] do and our family loves us for it. We just have so many similarities that I think are going to lead us to being good friends one day. So hopefully through this docudrama or this movie that will come out one day, we will be on the red carpet and I’ll say something really goofy and she will see it and then it will be “Keeping Up with the Johnsons and Kardashians”, with me and Khloe just kicking it.”
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