“Johnny B. Good drives in for two points against Washington and Lee,” the Lehigh College school newspaper read. “The Washington and Lee Generals fell to the Lehigh Mountain Eagles by a score of 81–75 Saturday night at Grace Hall.”
Number eleven—Johnny B. Good—was a business student at Lehigh College on basketball scholarship. He really didn’t know much other than basketball. It was his first love, his only love.
“Johnny, it was a great game,” Nancy Jones called to him. Her father Robert Jones, the President of the Lehigh College Board of Trustees, ran the school.
An intellectual pursuing a graduate degree in education, Nancy had had a crush on Johnny since their freshman year and always tried to get his attention. She even tried out as a cheerleader, but didn’t make the team, because she had no coordination.
Behind the scenes, Nancy asked her father to be supportive of Johnny. Trying to be supportive of his adored only child, he arranged for a full basketball scholarship to Lehigh College. When people weren’t looking, her father made sure Johnny passed the tougher courses, like Calculus. A bit on the unethical side, Nancy had even been trying to get her father to give Johnny a new car from the college’s sponsors.
“I just wish Johnny would notice me,” Nancy sighed, sitting in the bleachers at a game. From a distance, she could see his mother, waving pom-poms. Much like he did Nancy, Johnny took his mom for granted, and he hardly acknowledged her support. Most people were sure that Johnny was angry at his mother for quite some time ago divorcing his now-deceased father.
“Now, we all don’t have to concentrate on rebounding and can get downcourt,” he told the press after the game. “When you are a winner, the spirit is really great. When I came to the varsity, I had to learn to make stronger moves to the basket and shoot over people. With several teammates gone, I have to score more out of necessity. The loss of experience has also caused me to take on more responsibility.”
A loner, Johnny waved and smiled at Nancy and kept talking to the media.
After the game, he spent hours on end strategizing with his teammates and coaches for the next game, watching team videos and drawing out defense plays.
“Delaware, Rider, and Lafayette will be the toughest teams, although everyone will be out to beat us,” he said to the team. “We are ahead so far this season, and the guys want to win.”
Although Johnny liked to travel to away games, he enjoyed the home games the most, because they always had the most fans.
“For example, they scheduled an away game against Rider the day after finals. Everyone was tired and worn out from studying, no one felt like playing, but we had to go,” he said in another interview. “Because our court is so different, we have a distinct home court advantage. In a few years, it will be almost impossible to beat Lehigh at home.”
Nancy was always the first one to show up at the away games, taking pictures and waving the orange and blue team flag. Even when Johnny’s mother didn’t show up for the away games—rain, sleet, hail, or snow—Nancy drove her dilapidated Toyota to every game and made sure Johnny knew it.
“Go, Johnny, go! Johnny, you better be good!” she cheered, waving her orange and blue pom-poms.
On February 4, 1970, as the team captain and center player, Johnny earned the free throw record for nineteen foul shots in one game while playing Muhlenberg University. He was also one of Lehigh College’s 1,000-point scorers, scoring 1,099 points from 1969 to 1971. On February 13, 1971, he scored his 1,000th point.
“I didn’t realize I was nearing the 1,000-point mark until late December when Coach Heckman informed me,” he said to the media on the court after the game. “It was nice to reach such a plateau but it is no big thing for me.”
“He was tremendous out there on defense during the Muhlenberg game,” Coach Heckman told the press. “John is the first one on the court at practice and one of the last to leave. He gives it 100 percent all the time.”
“Congratulations, Johnny! 1,000 points!” Nancy cheered, as she hung the banner for him across the Lehigh College basketball court.
Johnny nodded, unimpressed by Nancy’s generous gesture.
“Maybe I should just give up,” Nancy said, sliding down the concrete gym wall in tears. “He’s so full of himself and not at all interested in me.”
After graduating from college, Johnny went to the Philadelphia Trojans in the National Basketball Association’s first round pick.
“He’s so arrogant,” Nancy said, watching him on the TV news as he sprayed champagne on his new coach. “He never appreciated anything my dad did for him.”
Everything went fine for Johnny in the NBA—or so it seemed until Johnny threw the ball out-of-bounds in overtime during a tie in the playoffs of the first season. As he threw the ball out of bounds, he tore his Achilles heel and had emergency surgery to repair it.
Now an assistant professor at Lehigh College, Nancy cried a bucket of tears from her apartment couch, watching the news report about Johnny.
Despite everything, she still loved him.
When the phone rang, she answered it, hoping it was Johnny.
“Nancy, get over Johnny,” her father said on the phone. “He’s only using you.”
“Dad, I have to go, I’m listening to the news,” Nancy said, hanging up the phone.
“Although the surgery repaired Johnny B. Good’s heel, and he is able to walk, he will never be able to play basketball again,” the TV sports reporter said on the 6 o’clock news. “If he were to run or turn wrong on his heel, he might damage the tendon for good and never be able to repair it. His days as an NBA player are finished in an early retirement.”
At first, Johnny thought he might try to be an on-air sports caster, but he didn’t have a broadcast journalism background and would have to take an unpaid internship to start the different career.
“You want me to work for free as an intern?” Johnny said to the local news station’s manager. “Don’t you know who I am? I have the foul shot record at Lehigh College.”
“This is journalism, Johnny, not basketball,” the station manager said. “Grow up.”
After a failed attempt at working as a sportscaster, Johnny tried teaching business and history classes at a local community college.
“This is so boring,” Johnny said, handing out the graded term papers to his bewildered students. “I probably failed too many of you, but you aren’t taking my class seriously anyhow. Don’t you know who I am? You should be honored to have me as a professor.”
After he erupted at the students, the college fired him without severance pay.
“What am I going to do now?” Johnny said, looking at his collection of trophies and newspaper articles from his days at Lehigh College.
As a last resort, when Johnny was just about to move home with his mother, Robert Jones, the President of the Lehigh College Board of Trustees, called.
“Do you want to coach basketball for Lehigh College, Johnny?” President Jones asked. “Our coach has suddenly become ill with cancer, and many of the players have already quit for the season as well. Due to lack of experience, the assistant coach is not up for the job. This was Nancy’s idea. Even if it’s only for a season until we can find a permanent basketball coach, it might work out for both of us.”
“Well, I might have to think about it for a while,” Johnny said, looking at his old jersey.
“Johnny, I’m sorry for your sports injury and wish you had a long career in the NBA, but coaching the Lehigh College team seems to be a perfect fit.”
After a moment of silence, Johnny agreed to take the job.
“Yes, President Jones, I believe you’re right,” Johnny said, grabbing his stopwatch and starting to sketch out defense plays for the team.
As Johnny arrived to practice on the first day, he stared at the trophies and plaques in the glass case outside the Lehigh College basketball gym, wondering who would break his records.
“How am I supposed to train a team to break my own records?” he said, kicking the wall. “I worked so hard . . .”
When the team showed up late in their old sneakers and suits, he threw his clipboard against the wall and left for the local bar.
“This isn’t worth my time,” he yelled at the freshmen that had never even heard of him.
The next morning, when he dragged himself into the gym for practice, he found Nancy standing in the corner of the gym, shaking her head. In spite of all her efforts to get him a job, Johnny was about to blow it again. In front of Nancy, he lectured the team on the rigorous training they would have to endure to become champions.
“I am not training losers,” he yelled. “If you are going to play for me, you are going to win, or I am not coaching the team. I dare anyone to try to break my foul shot record, as though any of you are good enough. I had an NBA career and wish I would have it back, but since I ripped my Achilles heel, I am stuck with you. Or you are stuck with me, either way, so you might as well make the best of it.”
The team sat in silence, staring at Nancy, knowing that she was their only hope. Since she was trusted and liked by the college staff, Johnny would surely listen to her.
“Before class in the morning, you will run sprints,” he chided. “Then, after class in the evening, you will practice dribbling, passing, shooting, and dunking. You will spend hours studying offensive and defensive strategies. I am recruiting other college students for the missing positions that the team needs. No one is immune from being cut.”
Nancy rolled her eyes and headed off to her father’s office, asking for mercy for Johnny again. If she could only find a way to explain to Johnny that he wasn’t God—not even a basketball god—then maybe Johnny could succeed for the first time in his life.
“Dad, try to give him another chance,” Nancy said. “Sooner or later, the goodness in him is going to surface. He’s a champion on the court. He just has to be a champion in real life.”
When Lehigh College basketball team faced their first season game, Johnny boarded the students on the bus, listening to his old team, the NBA Philadelphia Trojans’ game, on the radio.
“Turn off the radio,” he said to the bus driver. “I just don’t want to hear it.”
After yelling at his half-rate college team through the entire basketball game, Johnny finally gave up. In the last minutes of the game, he got himself thrown out on a technical foul for cursing at the referee. “This team stinks!” Johnny said. “I don’t want to be their coach.”
The team lost by 25 points and missed almost every foul shot.
“Maybe Johnny could just realize that he could have made them better,” Nancy said to herself as the buzzer rang. “I think he made them even worse . . .”
Despite all his stupid behavior, Nancy still loved Johnny.
The next night after practice, she stopped by Johnny’s home to boost his confidence.
“I asked my father to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Nancy said to Johnny, as he sighed. “The season is just starting, and the team can only get better. If you could only believe that you and your team are good enough, then you just might be. Championship awaits you, and all of Lehigh wants you to win, especially me.”
“There is no way Lehigh can develop a good team if the current academic and financial trends continue,” he said to Nancy. “Grace Hall with its handful of fans does not psyche me at all; if anything, I get depsyched. It was just not built for basketball. After last year’s winning streak with the old coach, people began to expect too much from Lehigh. Now since we started to lose, people will stop coming to games. It’s hard to play without support.”
“But Johnny, I’ve been supportive,” Nancy said. “I’ve been supportive of you for years. You’re going to have to fight to be a real champion—on and off the court. This is what brings meaning to winning any basketball game. Why don’t you try being friends with the players on the team instead of bullying them? Maybe then, they’ll start winning.”
“Maybe you should try coaching the team,” he said to Nancy.
Nancy cried walking to her car, thinking that Johnny would never change.
As the autumn rolled into the winter and Johnny grew into his role as coach, Johnny started to realize that Nancy was right. He began to treat the team with more respect, trained them harder, and consulted them on decisions. Nancy’s advice kept rolling through his head: “If you could only believe that you and your team are good enough, then you just might be . . . If you could only believe that you and your team are good enough, then you just might be . . . If you could only believe that you and your team are good enough, then you just might be.”
“I guess I got a second chance,” Johnny said to Nancy one day after practice, grabbing her and kissing her. “And it was all because of you . . .”
Little by little, the team got better, and so did Johnny at coaching.
By the spring, Lehigh College had its most successful basketball team ever. Even though no one on the team broke Johnny’s foul shot record, it became the goal of his players during each game. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats during the basketball games, to see who would finally break Johnny’s record.
“I would have never been able to do any of this without you, Nancy,” Johnny said to her.
Of course, many months later, even though President Jones protested, Johnny won big when Nancy agreed to marry him. He became a winner for the rest of his life, knowing that the game was not just about him, but he had to be a team player, and he and Nancy made a good team.
Copyright 2020 Jennifer Waters
Dedicated to my father, John Waters, who holds the individual record at Lehigh University for free throws made in a single game: 19 free throws, John Waters vs. Muhlenberg (19-20), February 4, 1970.