Joshua Corey Johnson revisits the book that archived his high school basketball days and talks about how letting sports put his true dreams on hold was his biggest mistake.
In 1991 Darcy Frey spent the better part of a year in Coney Island following the lives of four Abraham Lincoln High School basketball players—Darryl Flicking, Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson, and Stephon Marbury. What resulted was his 1994 best-selling book, The Last Shot, which in short time was vaulted into legendary status and regarded as one of the most poignant sports books of all-time. Twenty years after Frey’s extended stay I caught up with one of the people that made The Last Shot possible.
Joshua Corey Johnson, referred to by just his middle name in the book, was never a basketball player. Yes, he made the varsity basketball team of a high-profile program as a freshman. Yes, he was a key component of the team that won the New York City PSAL Championship in Madison Square Garden as a junior. Yes, he was sought after by Division I universities to play basketball on a scholarship, but a basketball player was never who he was.
The summer before Johnson’s freshman year of high school, somewhere in between reading books, writing poetry, doing gymnastics, and performing in a hip-hop dance group, he witnessed an older kid bullying a friend on the basketball court. “For some reason I was like ‘I’m gonna play him, embarrass him,’” Johnson recalled. “I knew I couldn’t beat him [then] so I was like ‘I’m not gonna play him now but I’m gonna go practice a little bit.’ So I went to another court … and worked on my game.” Later that summer he got his opportunity and outplayed the older bully in a pickup game. “Everyone was like, ‘man you’re pretty good, where you going to school? You should go to Lincoln.’ That’s when it all started.”
When you’re on the varsity basketball team at Lincoln, then, as it is now, you’re in a different realm than other high school students. Teachers and administrators treat you differently. The community puts its hopes in you. There’s media exposure. Some might even say it’s as close to royalty as there is in Coney Island. And on his first day of varsity basketball practice at Lincoln as a freshman, Johnson wanted to quit.
“I don’t want to be a basketball player. That’s not my dream. I want to be a writer,” he remembers thinking. “All the support I got for playing ball, I got none of it for wanting to be writer. I was looking at all these teachers like, ‘Do you care about me? Or do you care because I’m really good at basketball?’ I love school, I love doing my work, I just wish teachers could have been more supportive of me being a writer and a student, but they were concerned with me playing well on the court.”
Johnson figured out early on that the odds of making a living playing professional basketball were stacked against not only him, but the vast majority of every single prep player there is. He did not have delusions of basketball grandeur, the reason for which many struggling former athletes are written off. He had a strong family. His father owned his own plumbing business. His mother was able to stay at home and focus on the family. There was a dissonance when Johnson realized that basketball could provide an avenue to reach his true aspirations while simultaneously taking away from cultivating them. “The person never gets to develop because so much emphasis is being put on the player … I wanted to be a writer and having to go to all of these things as a basketball player, a lot of times I didn’t want to deal with it. I wanted to walk away.”
Between constantly studying vocabulary flash cards, running up and down flights of stairs, attending study hall during lunch, and practicing shooting drills from a chair, Darryl Flicking was perhaps the most dedicated member of Lincoln’s basketball team both on and off the court. He knew that the possibility of getting a Division I basketball scholarship rested on his ability to meet the NCAA’s Proposition 48, requiring a minimum score of 700 on the SAT. He needed this not so he would have a chance to play professional basketball, but so that he could become a nurse and raise a family.
“He told me was going to quit the team on the way to school,” Johnson remembered. “I was like, ‘You’re really thinking about leaving basketball?’ He said, ‘Yeah man, it’s just taking up too much time, I can’t do the other things I want to do. It’s not making me happy.’” His aspirations of becoming a nurse were not well received by those whose support he needed most. “He told me when he mentioned it to coaches and everybody … a lot of people turned on him. It was a very scary time for him. People he trusted so much who seemed to love him and care about him turned their backs on him.”
After coming up short on the SAT and having his scholarship at Temple University withdrawn, he attended Riverside Community College where he had a stellar basketball career. After being recruited once again by Division I schools, Flicking decided to attend the University of California at Riverside, a Division II school, where he could still play basketball, but also focus on his education. On November 19, 1994, the first game of the season, he scored 35 points in a victory over Cal Baptist. Not long after, he quit the team over disagreements with the coach. He eventually graduated with a degree in sociology in 1996. By this time he had married, he had a daughter, and basketball was behind him—almost.
In the summer of 1997, Spike Lee began filming He Got Game in Coney Island. One of his consultants for the film, Earl Smith, had run a gym in Brooklyn that Johnson and Flicking played in as kids. “[Darryl] was like, ‘Earl got me in the movie, I’m gonna run up down with the guys,’” Johnson recalled. When Johnson was given the same opportunity, however, he was less than excited. “To show you how much I didn’t want to deal with basketball I turned down being in the movie.”
Flicking, meanwhile, could not escape the game. “I stayed a little bit and watched him play and afterwards he told me, ‘Earl is gonna see if he can get me a tryout with the Orlando Magic.’” The possibility being of an NBA player, of making more money than he’d ever seen, of tasting the glory and fame that comes with being a professional athlete, was closer than it had ever been. Yet there was still a discord. “He did tell me before he left to go to Orlando that when he told people he was gonna stop playing ball and pursue being a registered nurse they treated him really bad,” Johnson remembered. “When his wife found out, and his father, they were disappointed … he told me, ‘They’re acting really weird towards me now, they’re telling me don’t come around here, you know how many people’s live you’re ruining?’”
On the cusp of having an opportunity that most kids only dream of, Flicking was battling ambivalence toward basketball. “[Before] he flew down to Orlando, I wished him well, but that was the last I heard of him.” On January 18, 1999 while walking down some train tracks in San Clemente, California, Darryl Flicking was struck from behind by an Amtrak train, flew 75 feet, and died instantly. He was homeless at the time.
There is a common perception that young athletes are tempted by the lavish, celebrity lifestyles of those playing professional sports. That their education gives way to this unrealistic fantasy. That, as a result, they have not refined the skills or the knowledge to do anything else. That when they don’t succeed a struggle follows just to be a contributing member of society. That they should never have put their hope in a fantastical dream of their own heroic abilities.
That doesn’t tell the whole story. Maybe it doesn’t even tell part of the story. This attribution bias puts the onus of failure squarely on the athlete without considering any outside factors. While most high school students are figuring out what interests them, what they’re good at, and what to major in in college, promising young athletes oftentimes get boxed in.
While other high school students are hopefully receiving the support they need to pursue what will satisfy their lives, athletes with great potential are pressured to focus on their sport and leave other interests behind. Be it as innocent as living vicariously or as sinister as latching on to potential fame and money, the people in these athletes’ ears do not always have their best interests at heart. Johnson and Flicking had aspirations apart from basketball, but were pushed off of those paths and forced to chase a dream neither one of them necessarily wanted.
Is it possible that sports actually end up hurting the athletes who at one time were considered elite? Maybe sports simply need to be kept in their proper context. “The one thing I would do, I would have kept it more in perspective. Basketball is a tool I’m utilizing to give me another opportunity to get to college,” Johnson said, when I asked him what he would do differently.
After his time at Lincoln, Johnson headed to Navarro College, a junior college in Texas to play basketball and get an education. He was injured, failed some classes, and lost his eligibility before he ever got a chance to play. “[The injury] actually helped me make the transition … made me feel like, ‘time to pack it up, go home, and be who I’m supposed to be.’”
Johnson still resides in Coney Island today where he does freelance writing, photography, and is involved in film and fashion. “Not a multi-million dollar lifestyle, but I live a pretty nice life—quiet, peaceful, fun … at first it was a struggle of course … but eventually you don’t see it as a struggle because you’re doing what you love to do.”
He still gets up some shots with Tchaka Shipp, who following years of struggling after a life threatening car accident robbed him of playing his best basketball, is now a physical education teacher at a junior high in Brooklyn. “Me and Tchaka, [our relationship] never changed, we don’t get to see each other as much, but when we do see each other it’s like we’re still little teenagers, playing ball, cracking jokes on each other, watching games … it’s still a great bond we have.”
Despite the struggle that ensued when Johnson’s basketball playing days were over he maintains that it wasn’t the sport, in and of itself, that betrayed him. “I’m thankful basketball gave me a lot of opportunities to travel, see a lot of places, see the world. I do love playing ball, it’s just all the extra things that came along with it when I was young were too much for me to handle. I just really wish that I could have paid more attention to doing what I wanted to do as far as writing … that’s who I really was.”
Johnson admitted that even though he enjoyed The Last Shot, there exists a love/hate relationship with the book. There’s a harsh irony that an aspiring writer will always be part of one of the most compelling sports books in existence, yet has struggled to get his own writing career off the ground. “I would like to bring The Last Shot back into focus, go to schools and talk to kids at camps.”
When I asked him what his one message to today’s Lincoln basketball team would be, his initial silence spoke to the significance of what he wanted to convey. “Work hard … and don’t forget about you … who you are.” He expounded on using sports as an avenue to do what fulfills you in life, the importance of a positive support group, and surrounding yourself with people that encourage you to grow as a person, not just an athlete, perhaps foreshadowing what he would tell an entire assembly. His message is genuine, something that is absent in many messages to student-athletes.
Joshua Corey Johnson may not have been able to protect himself from the snares that laid ahead when he chose to lace up his shoes, step on the asphalt, and work on his game. He lived the proverbial tale of the fallen athlete, and even though he eventually landed on his feet he wants to share his experiences so others don’t have to endure the same process. I hope he gets his chance. His message will be a success if even one person can avoid looking back at the glory that was and a life that could have been.
Joshua Corey Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or 646-642-1096. (He gave me permission to include his contact information in the feature.)
—Main photo (Lauren Loricchio); Text photo ( Jason Baston)