CHEYENNE – Music blared throughout the packed parking lot at Cheyenne East on Saturday afternoon. The thumping of the bass from the sound system could be felt from the other side of East Pershing Boulevard.
Yet inside the doors of East High, basket- balls bounced and swooshed all around the Thunderdome.
There was no official high school game to be played. Just fun, smiles and pickup games.
A familiar, popular and coveted hometown hero stood just beyond the 3-point line. Sweat dripped from James Johnson’s face as he called for the ball.
He’s still got that same touch that transformed him from one of the best athletes to come through East to the National Basketball Association.
“It’s always the best thing I can do in my offseason,” the 6-foot-8 Miami Heat forward said while taking a quick break from playing in a 3-on-3 tournament as part of the Juneteenth celebration.
Johnson hopes this offseason will be less stressful than the last year.
The former Thunderbirds standout suffered a sports hernia during the 2017-18 season and had surgery last May when Miami was playing Philadelphia during the playoffs. His offseason was cut short because of rehab and he missed the first 15 games of this season to make sure he was completely healthy.
“I didn’t really have an offseason,” he said. “By the time I could really start running and things like that, we (were) already in training camp.”
Johnson isn’t one to make excuses. He holds himself to a high standard, both physically and mentally. But, he admitted, recovering from hernia surgery tested him.
“I was ready to play, but at the same time wasn’t ready to play,” he said. “It was rocky, but you’ve got to love all the ups and downs that come with being in the league, and there’s always another opportunity to bounce back.”
Johnson finally returned to the lineup Nov. 18, 2018, against the Los Angeles Lakers and finished with eight points. He went on to tie his season high with 18 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 8, 2018.
He felt good physically for the first time in a while. His confidence grew each minute he was on the court.
Then, in February, he suffered a slight acromioclavicular sprain in his left shoulder, according to The Miami Herald, that sidelined him for 11
games. (He was inactive for four and did not play in seven others during that stretch.)
His mental toughness was tested yet again.
“It’s one of those things where it’s not supposed to happen (because) you worked hard,” Johnson said. “It’s things that do happen, and you don’t baby yourself or anything like that because in this league there’s already somebody else coming next year for sure in the draft and you don’t know who they’re going to bring up.
“In the back of your head, you just want to get back healthy and get out there, but in Miami it’s not like that. Our coach (Erik Spoelstra) is different, our guys (are) different, and I just wanted to be out there for them. For me to go out with that shoulder (injury), it just hurt because I couldn’t be out there for them.”
Despite suffering two injuries, Johnson played in 55 games and made 33 starts this past season. He averaged 7.8 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game for the Heat, who finished 39-43. His .714 free-throw percentage was his best since his 2009-10 rookie season with the Chicago Bulls.
“Towards the end of the year, I felt like I was playing back to my normal (expectations) for what I could do for that role for that year,” he said.
Back in the Capital City, Johnson caught up with friends and family. He ran into former T-Birds standout Erik Oliver, who broke Johnson’s all-time career scoring record Feb. 12 during a 75-47 win over Cheyenne South.
“I just got done threatening him a little bit,” Johnson said laughing. “He deserved it. The kid plays hard. He’s very talented and I’m very excited to see where he goes after this, after his LCCC career and things like that.
“The sky’s the limit for us Wyoming guys. I’ve been around the well, and we’re really tough as (heck).”
Johnson walked outside the gym for a moment and stared at the record boards hanging along the walls. His name was plastered all over them.
He smiled before wiping away a bullet of sweat from his face.
“The only thing that’s always going to bother me is the altitude,” he said while catching his breath. “I still can’t breathe out here, man.
“(There are) so many memories around here you can’t put into words. I’m just happy my sons get to stomp on these same grounds and be a part of this and know what Cheyenne is.”