first_img Comments When Wesley Johnson needed to talk about the tough decision ahead, assistant coach Rob Murphy was there for his player. They would discuss the prospect of winning a national title next year, or possibly improving his stock for the draft. The usual things that would make a 22-year-old with the prospect of life in the NBA think about sticking around.But there was something else that really stuck out to Johnson as well. Something that would deck itself in orange for every game and chant his name in unison. Or hold up a blown-up photo of his head. Or wear shirts that said ‘Wes We Can.’     ‘He really felt he didn’t want to leave the fans,’ Murphy said in a telephone interview. ‘He said, ‘These fans are great and when I go to the mall or to the movies and when I go out to eat, everybody embraces me when I walk in places and people clap for me.’ He said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, and they love me this much that I want to come back and try and win a national championship.’Then again, when you’re shown the love Johnson received in his two years, who wouldn’t think about sticking around for one more year?Though he ultimately declared early for the draft, the transfer from Iowa State fell in love with the Syracuse community during his two seasons. His personality won over teammates, administrators and coaches alike. He developed a special rapport with fans that had them raving about his unique ability to connect to them. And he cemented himself as one of the top players ever at Syracuse.He helped carry a lightly regarded Orange squad to a No. 1 ranking that the program had not seen in the regular season in 20 years, creating a reinvigorated environment at basketball games. AdvertisementThis is placeholder textAll this in just one playing season. By all accounts, The Wes Johnson Era in Syracuse, albeit brief, is one that many will never forget. ‘I was just going to be me,’ Johnson said in an interview on April 7. ‘I wasn’t going to try to do anything out of the ordinary. Not trying to get out of my character at all, just go out there and be Wes. And I think they fell in love with it a little bit.’The Wall of WesVivian Alexander called it an instant attraction. It was the summer of 2008 when Alexander, the general manager of Cosmos Pizza & Grill on Marshall Street, first met a kind, well-mannered and polite young man named Wes Johnson and began what she called a ‘special friendship.’ It also gave Alexander a new hobby. Starting in 2008, Alexander began cutting out newspaper clippings of Johnson to place on the mirror in the entrance. She put up ones that were the most flattering, or the ones that showed his ‘million-dollar smile.’ She calls it the ‘Wall of Wes.’Currently, there are 18 photos and stories on the mirror. They range from an action shot from SU’s preseason game against Le Moyne on Nov. 3 to an individualized cutout from the team poster to him holding the Big East Player of the Year trophy. Fourteen of the shots are focused on the charismatic Johnson. ‘Wesley was special. Everyone would tease me about him because I have my own little billboard, the Wall of Wes,’ Alexander said. ‘He was proud of it. He would bring his friends in. His parents would see it and he would show it to them, even when he was on the bench. He better remember me when he’s rich and famous.’Alexander’s story is one of many about the way Johnson interacted with the Syracuse community and won over the Salt City. After traveling so much earlier in his basketball career, Johnson finally found a home in Syracuse, and he made sure he gave back to the city.‘They didn’t have to take me in the way they did,’ Johnson said in his press conference announcing his departure on April 12. Alexander remembers how Johnson and many of his other teammates, whom she affectionately calls ‘dolls,’ would stop anything they were doing to sign autographs for little children. She said Johnson never minded making a child’s day, and he seemed to embrace the attention he received. She keeps extra posters in the place to give to the little children just for this purpose. ‘He made each and every one of those kids feel so special, and they were in total awe of him,’ Alexander said.She also proudly talks of the photo she has of her and Wes that she will have framed soon. When Wes’ parents were in town, they stopped by the eatery and Alexander had a photo taken with her friend.Senior Trace Cohen has a similar story. After seeing several big heads made for the games, Cohen decided to create a Johnson big head for the Orange’s game versus Georgetown on Jan. 25. It came in at 4 feet by 3 feet. Why did he choose Johnson? He said he has the best smile on the team, one you saw often after a jaw-dropping dunk or block.After several games, he tried to get Johnson to sign the big head, and finally succeeded. He had a game that night, but Johnson had no problem showing Cohen appreciation for his time and energy creating the big head. Johnson even posed for a picture later in the season with Cohen, validating the encounter.‘It shows that he has real character,’ Cohen said. ‘He’s first-class. He really does care about the fans. And that’s what it all comes down to. If the fans don’t like you, you can be great and be a star, but you won’t go down as a legend.’Otto’s Army President Trenton Gaucher appreciated when Johnson and his teammates took time to thank the fans camping out inside the Carrier Dome before Syracuse’s contest with Villanova on Feb. 27. Johnson would always talk to fans in front rows before the games, trying to pump them up, and Gaucher said students loved that interaction. In previous years, he hadn’t seen a player reach out and mingle with the fans like Johnson had. Seeing how Johnson, and other teammates, were willing to embrace the fans in such a manner, Gaucher approached the athletic department about having the players come shake hands and greet those who had camped out for many long hours before College GameDay invaded Syracuse.‘Wes came out last, kind of by himself, and that was great,’ Gaucher said. ‘He had the spotlight with the students, which is what the students really want, time with Wes. He walked through, asked how everyone was doing, took a look around, and I think he really appreciated what the students were doing to see him play.’‘I wish I had 10 of him’Craig Carroll knows they probably thought he was crazy. Or maybe they didn’t believe him. This was just a case of an older brother praising a younger brother. What a shock. The first time Carroll, Johnson’s brother, talked with SU head coach Jim Boeheim and assistant coach Rob Murphy, he told the coaches they had never met another person like his brother. Never. Cue the crazy people talk.Flash forward a few months.‘Coach Boeheim comes up to me (at practice) and tells me, ‘I wish I had 10 of him. He’s a class act,” Carroll said in a phone interview. ‘Bottom line is I’m sure they will remember him that way.’It certainly seems so. ‘He’s a nice kid. He’s just a genuine nice kid,’ Boeheim said. ‘Everybody likes him. If you didn’t like him, there’s something wrong with you. That’s the way I look at it.’ Spend five minutes with Johnson and you’ll see why his coach would say that. He’s down to earth, and he’ll talk to you about anything. What artists does he primarily listen to? Michael Jackson. And yes, ‘Thriller’ is the best album of all time, and he was scared of the music video as a youngster. Where did teammate Scoop Jardine’s, ‘Ooo yea, that’s hot’ catchphrase on Twitter come from? Not to blow his teammate’s spot, but it’s the ‘Chappelle’s Show’ episode where Charlie Murphy and his crew play Prince in a basketball game. Rising sophomore forward James Southerland laughed while telling stories of Johnson kicking a door and making noise while people were trying to sleep in the hotels. Andy Rautins recollects a dunk early in the season when Johnson stuck out his tongue at the camera before pointing at Rautins, calling it, ‘That’s just Wes being Wes.’  ‘He’s a good kid,’ Rautins said in a phone interview. ‘He carried a smile with him every day to practice. There’s no doubt he had all the talent and abilities in the world, but he should be acknowledged as being a great person, and that took him over the top.’His personality was even more important because of Johnson’s role as a goodwill ambassador for this campus. When he traveled across the country as a finalist for the Naismith Award, a finalist for the Wooden Award or just an appearance on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ with Ohio State’s Evan Turner, he represented Syracuse University. The school’s name was attached to him, and Johnson came with no extra baggage, just a vivid personality that sticks with those who meet him.Chancellor Nancy Cantor said Johnson is a very personable, positive person with an infectious smile.‘I think he really reflects the Syracuse tradition of tremendous athletic ability and personal integrity with the grace, thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit,’ Cantor said. ‘He reminds me so much of Dave Bing. ‘What a terrific representative of the university.’Carmelo-likeJohnson had no doubts the SU men’s basketball team would be good this year. Despite losing its top three offensive stars and being written off by the media, Johnson knew his team could contend in the daunting Big East. But did he ever think it would be that good? Of course not, and that made the 2009-10 season even more special.With Johnson leading the charge, Syracuse had one of the best seasons in program history. It won a regular-season record 28 games, captured the Big East regular-season championship outright for the first time (non-division) since 1991 and secured just its second No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And, oh yeah, the team was ranked No. 1 in the polls during the regular season for the first time since 1990. Johnson was just 2 and a half years old the last time that occurred.This led to a festive atmosphere at games that made the Carrier Dome the place to be for college basketball games this season. Look no further than the Villanova game, Johnson’s personal favorite. Sold out, 34,616 fans packing the Dome for a showdown against the Wildcats. It will go down as one of the biggest games in Carrier Dome history and an example of the rediscovered excitement in the Dome.‘That game reminded me of the atmosphere that would’ve been here for a Sugar Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight,’ SU Director of Athletics Daryl Gross said. ‘There was a buzz about it. It wasn’t just the fans showing up, there was an electricity about it, and you could tell something big was about to go down and that you were going to be part of something special. ‘It’s not that other crowds aren’t like that, it’s just this year had a lot of (that) to it and it was fun and it was very tangible.’That’s where Johnson came in. He helped elevate an already potent team over the top, and that led to all the excitement and accompanied the team in its path to a No. 1 ranking. He was the star player that all great teams need. The Associated Press All-America honors validate that. He became a household name whose highlights looped on ESPN every hour. The Big East Player of the Year. The stud that brought the Dome to its feet every game with How-High-Did-He-Just-Jump Dunks. The player opposing teams would have to shut down in order to beat the Orange. He simply made Syracuse a better team by averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. ‘Everybody contributed and everybody did their own part, and (Wes) certainly was a big part of that,’ Rautins said. ‘I think when we beat North Carolina at Madison Square Garden, and he had (25) points that really stood out, and he kind of took a little bit of a leadership responsibility and he blossomed from there.’By taking the program to such heights this season, it puts Johnson up there in the conversation for greatest players in program history. The lack of a national championship will certainly hurt him in that aspect. Other players have also had more prominent numbers in one season, and also played for four years. But does it remove him from the conversation? Not at all. After all, very few before him helped create such a memorable season for Syracuse basketball.‘I think they’ll never forget Wes. I think Wes’ impact in one year playing for Syracuse was almost Carmelo-like because it was special and people went to the game to see what Wes Johnson was going to do,’ Gross said. ‘And when you have that reputation, then you know that you will always be remembered. Probably the two greatest players here were Dave Bing and Carmelo, and when you go through the top 10, you have to feel Wes Johnson’s name is going to surface in that conversation.’The final chapterUnlike last season’s early departures (Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, Eric Devendorf), Johnson held a press conference to announce his decision to enter the NBA Draft in June. As his brother, Carroll, said, Johnson made sure the press conference was done orderly, professionally and with sensitivity. A little after 2 p.m. on Monday, April 12, he let the world know he was going pro.With his ever-present smile and low-spoken voice, he answered questions on all sorts of topics and discussed the tough choice he had between staying for one more year or chasing after his dream. He also made sure to acknowledge the role the Syracuse community played in it all.‘I want to thank Syracuse for embracing me the way they did,’ Johnson said. ‘I love you and I finally have a place I can call home. I really want to thank everybody for that.’He’s still enrolled in school, currently taking a philosophy course, two communication classes and a sociology class, while still working out with his teammates. He might have to take some summer classes, but by June or July at the latest he will have his degree from Syracuse. Coach Murphy sees that as a final sign of Johnson’s love for Syracuse. He says most players in Johnson’s position would declare for the draft three days after the season ends and then bolt. But not Johnson. He waited for 18 days before deciding and is going to stay to finish school. The degree matters. ‘This is his home,’ Murphy said. ‘They treated him well and he’s treated us well.’The big day is 51 days away, on June 24, when Johnson will be selected at Madison Square Garden as some NBA team’s first-round pick. Director of Scouting for the NBA Ryan Blake said Johnson’s versatility stands out and his strengths outweigh any concerns. Playing for a knowledgeable coach like Boeheim is a positive. It will be on that day when he dons a new hat, shakes hands with (or maybe hugs?) David Stern and can officially be called a former SU player. He may have only been on campus for two years, but his effect was profound and in his short time he left people with memories that will last a lifetime. The smile and personality, helping the team to the top of the polls, his character, there is a bountiful amount of stories to remember about Wes Johnson. As usual, he has humble hopes of what people will remember. ‘My smile, my dunking, my shooting, everything,’ Johnson said. ‘Just being a great teammate. I hope they’ll remember that more than anything.Somehow that all seems [email protected]  Published on May 3, 2010 at 12:00 pmcenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more