Coach C.J. Johnson’s friends gather to tell stories ... and to say thanks

They came to tell stories, and to show compassion.

But more than anything else, the 2,000-plus people who packed the sanctuary at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte on Friday morning came to say thanks to a man who many said saved their lives.

“He was a father figure to a lot of guys who didn’t have a father in their lives,” Michael Smith said of Clarence “C.J.” Johnson, a legendary Charlotte basketball coach who died Sunday.

Johnson, 68, died five days after suffering a stroke at his home.

Johnson, a native of Queens, N.Y., came to Charlotte in 1976 to play football at Johnson C. Smith. After college, he decided to stay in Charlotte — a decision which benefited hundreds, maybe thousands, of young boys and girls.

He worked at area Boys Clubs and for other organizations that helped people learn life skills and escape poverty.

But Johnson also launched a youth basketball program at the Salvation Army center on Belmont Avenue at Seigle Avenue, in the heart of what at the time (early 1980s) was among Charlotte’s most poverty-stricken areas.

“He formed Charlotte’s first outdoor basketball league,” said Eric Knight, who played in that league more than four decades ago. “But it was more than basketball. Coach Johnson cared about how we were living our lives.”

Several people who talked about Johnson on Friday before the memorial service recounted how their coach would require youths to finish their homework before playing basketball.

“He even drove the bus — the big blue Salvation Army bus,” Knight recalled. “He’d go and pick up anybody who didn’t have transportation.”

After a few years, Johnson helped launch the AAU basketball program in the Charlotte area.

In an episode of the Both Sides of the Game podcast recorded just two months ago, Johnson recalled how he coached the younger boys’ team, while AAU Hall of Famer Rod Seaford coached the older squad.

In 1992, a Johnson-coached Charlotte Sonics team reached the national championship game, with a team that included national top-20 recruits Jeff McInnis (North Carolina), Jerry Stackhouse (North Carolina) and Jeff Capel (Duke).

Regardless of how good his teams were, say his former players, Johnson kept close tabs on everyone who played for him.

“Everyone would tell you that he was part of their family,” said Norwood Walker, another of Johnson’s former players who came to pay his respects Friday.

Many of those players lived in Piedmont Courts, a low-income housing community that came to symbolize the poverty of the neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of Uptown Charlotte.

“I’m from this neighborhood,” said Daryl Boger. “A lot of us didn’t go to college, for one reason or another. But with Coach, we got to experience things we wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.”

“We got to travel, and we got to play in big games,” Boger added. “He loved kids.”

A series of former players and friends came to the podium inside St. Paul Baptist Church during a visitation hour Friday and talked about the impact Johnson had on their lives.

The crowd rose in a standing ovation after it was announced that either Commonwealth or Sugar Creek charter schools will be named for Johnson.

Last Sunday morning, more than 500 of Johnson’s former players, friends and fraternity brothers gathered at Novant Hospital in Uptown Charlotte. They lined the sixth floor, the lobby and the outside grounds. Hospital employees wheeled an unconscious Johnson past the gathered crowd, so they could say goodbye.

Johnson also coached at Central Piedmont Community College, Johnson C. Smith and Boston University.

He spent the last 13 years of his coaching career, from 2009-22, heading the girls’ basketball program at Mallard Creek High. He was named the Charlotte Observer’s Coach of the Year three times. His teams won eight conference tournament championships, and Johnson compiled a 248-66 record before retiring two years ago.

One of his players at Mallard Creek was Aryn Tarver.

“I played one year at Mallard Creek and then transferred to Oak Hill Academy,” Tarver said Friday. “I came back after one year, and Coach welcomed me back with open arms. He was always willing to give one of us an extra chance.”

Tarver, who later played collegiately at Texas Southern, said Johnson “made a huge impact on all of us.”

“I saw him about three weeks ago,” Boger said. “Another guy from our neighborhood had died, and Coach came for the service. We all talked about the old days. Coach loved all of us.”

During his podcast two months ago, Johnson was asked about the state of women’s basketball and the game in general.

“Women’s basketball has really come on,” he said. “The game is played below the rim, so the fundamentals are much more important.”

And as for the game at large?

“The game is in good hands,” Johnson said.