Late in the fourth quarter of last Friday’s game against Covenant College, Berry’s Caleb Johnson threw down a dunk on a breakaway, then stuck around to punch the goal stand padding in celebration: A statement finish to a 32-point game that earned him Southern Athletic Association player of the week.
Johnson’s performance came off of the bench, where Johnson has found himself spending a lot of time due to a prolonged slump. In fact, prior to his breakout game, he sought out his Dad, assistant coach Thomas Johnson, for advice.
“I was in a stretch where I just played awful. He sat me down and told me what I needed to do to fix it,” Caleb Johnson said. “He told me what I needed to focus on for the next week.”
Caleb Johnson during warm-ups prior to the game
against Lagrange. Photo courtesy of Berry College
Caleb has not always had this easy access to his father. He grew up in Alabaster, Ala., while his father coached in Tennessee and elsewhere in Alabama. Thomas Johnson coached at Middle Tennessee State and East Tennessee State in Tennessee, and in Alabama at Samford and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“I was a Division I coach while he stayed at home with his Mom, so I wasn’t there to coach him throughout” his career, Thomas Johnson said.
With his dad coaching in different cities, Caleb Johnson had to learn his Dad’s game from others.
“It was different,” said the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard. “Most kids are in the backyard shooting with their Dad, throwing the football and stuff like that. But I learned the game from different people, so I got other people’s perspectives,” Caleb Johnson said.
One benefit of growing up in a basketball family is proximity, because it was Caleb Johnson’s Mom who coached him first, from childhood in city league competition all the way up to high school.
And while Dad was often physically absent, his influence could still be felt. For example, Caleb played at Thompson High School in Alabaster where Thomas Johnson had been coach for 17 years, only Caleb played there 11 years after Dad had moved on.
“I grew up being coached by a lot of people that were coached by him, so people always told me stories about him and the player he was,” Caleb Johnson said.
After high school, Caleb went to Jackson State College in Jackson, Miss., where he ran track. This experience convinced him that he’d rather play basketball, and it came at about the same time Dad was tapped to coach at Berry.
“When he decided that he wanted to play basketball again, I told him, ‘Well, you’re coming up here with me,’” Thomas Johnson said.
The next semester, Caleb suited up for Berry, finally getting to play for his father.
“It’s different because I’ve learned the game from other coaches and my brother and now I am learning it (Dad’s) way,” said Caleb, a math major at Berry.
He says that he’s not being transformed into a different style of player, but instead, under his Dad’s tutelage, he’s becoming a well-rounded player. The results include averaging 17 points per game in only an average of 17 minutes played per game through five games this season.
But the benefits extend far off the court. At time when most kids go off to college and away from home, Caleb can spend more time around his Dad then ever before. For example, the team recently watched the movie “Woodlawn,” a film set in Birmingham with football as its focus. This gave father and son a chance to talk about Thomas’s time spent in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era, when the movie is set.
“There are a lot of stories we don’t know about each other, but we’re getting closer, spending more time together, learning what we like and don’t like about each other,” Caleb said. “It has been great being around him so much in college (because) most people don’t get this kind of opportunity.”