Frank Haith told me shortly after UM's season ended last month that I was going to love Reggie Johnson, the 6-8, 290-pound center he recruited from the same Winston-Salem neighborhood he grew up in. He said everyone would eventually fall in love Johnson's big personality. After spending 20 minutes this afternoon chatting with big Reggie, I'd say this is another prediction Haith is going to nail.
Johnson, who is scheduled to graduate from Winston-Salem Prep soon and arrive in Miami on June 8th, was about as fun an interview I've had with an athlete in quite some time. He's not shy about much and he's even a big fan of the Eye on The U blog. Johnson, whose coach compares to Clippers forward Elton Brand, told me he is currently working hard to get in shape for his UM arrival. He's come a long way for someone who didn't even start playing basketball until the 10th grade. After doing what he says was the hardest thing he's ever had to do "leave McDonald's alone and leave my mother's fried chicken alone," Johnson has developed into one of the best big young men in the country.
Scout.com rates him a three-star recruit. But he played much better than that. As a senior, he set the state record for rebounds in the state championship, averaged 24.1 points, 17.3 rebounds and 7.1 blocks a game and had an impressive 25-point, 21-rebound effort against Oak Hill Academy, consistently one of the best high school programs in the country. Now, he says, his goal is to take Miami to the next level. As he was busy curling 50-pound weights, I caught up with Reggie Thursday. And this is what he had to say...
Q: You've come a long way from being that big guy who was on the sidelines doing nothing. You remember the old Reggie and what made him become the new Reggie?
A: What made me start playing basketball was the competition. I'm competitive for every competition. I didn't take it very seriously at first. But then I found out I could go to school for free and that got me working hard. My mom. I know her background financially. I knew I could help my mother out and that got me on the ship. It all started when one of my close friends introduced me to Coach [Andre] Gould. He said to me 'God, you aren't playing ball?' And I said 'No sir.' He said 'Come to my school, I'll get you in shape and get you into someone's college for free.' I said, 'I'm there.'
Q: Talk about your visit to Miami back in October before the start of the season. I know Jack McClinton instilled a new work ethic in his teammates, pushed them to the limit. DId you pick up on that?
A: I was very impressed. It wasn't just a visit. It was the first day of actual practice. The first day of practice, it wasn't lazy. They were going at it hard. They were willing to work. Coach was digging at them, telling them what they need to do. I was like 'Yeah. This is what I need right here. A coach that is going to make me work for something, not going to hand me anything, shortcutting me and my career. It was great. They work hard. They work extremely hard and they got me right there.'
Q: How much more excited are you about coming to Miami now that they're coming off a great season?
A: It was a very dramatic turnaround. They finished 12-20 the previous season. When coach Haith and his staff started recruiting me the following week, I started looking at the record they had and the people they had coming in. DeQuan Jones had already committed to Miami. The pieces were coming together. So, it felt great at the time.
Q: I spoke to '09 recruit Donnovan Kirk about this earlier this week and he said seeing Miami have that dramatic turnaround really helped him in choosing UM. Had the Canes not gone 23-11 and made a run to the NCAA Tournament are you a Hurricane right now?
A: I'm a Hurricane. I'm a Hurricane until I die. Actually, it wasn't even a factor. Coach Haith, he's young and upcoming. I believe he knows what it takes to get it done. I think either way I was going to become a Hurricane. And plus, I look at it like this -- me coming in can be a very good contribution to the team, along with DeQuan Jones and Malcolm [Grant] coming in. I believe the best is yet to come for the Hurricanes.
Q: UM had a great season, but so did you. You averaged 24.1 points, 17.3 rebounds and 7.1 blocked shots a game and set a state record for rebounds in winning the state championship. How do you feel the year went?
A: I feel it went great. I got a state championship so I can't complain. That's what I was striving for. Getting MVP was a great feeling. I can't picture it better. Coach tells me rebounding and defense are going to win the game. I'm a person who knows rebounds win the game. So, I go after them. I'm a Ben Wallace type.
Q: Being from North Carolina, I'm sure you get to know a lot of guys going to other ACC schools. Any rivalries we can look forward to?
A: Anytime I'm around Ty Walker (Wake Forest) or CJ Wiiliams (North Carolina State), we just kind of joke around about what who is going to do what next year. It's going to be fun. We had an all-star game not too long ago. Me and CJ Williams just talked about N.C. State and Miami. And we just kicked back and talked about that. If you don't get up for that, something is wrong. You got to love that.
Q: What are your strengths?
A: My post play. My post play alone. I just believe I'm going to be heck down in the paint to guard. I got a counter move for every move. I just believe that I'm going to dazzle.
Q: The Canes are losing Anthony King and Ray Hicks, two veterans in its frontcourt. They'll have Jimmy Graham and Dwayne Collins back. But after that it's all new guys with Julian Gamble, Cyrus McGowan and yourself. How do you see yourself fitting in next season?
A: Coach just told me to come in and bust tail. Coach also told me who knows what can happen. I've never set foot on Miami's campus and actually practiced with them. So, who knows what can happen. They're going to be throwing so many things at me, this play, that play, what kind of set is this? It's all going to depend on how I come down and adjust to it and catch on to it. The post play is a big part of Miami's offense. That's really what got me to come to Miami because I know we're going to play inside-out regardless.
Q: Tell me about the recruiting process with you. VCU was really after you. But you ended up going with coach Haith, who grew up in the same neighborhood as you. How much did that play into you choosing Miami?
A: Coach Anthony Grant. He and I were close. He's a heck of a coach. When I first met with coach Grant, I clicked with him. He was kind of a father figure to me even in a short period of time. He's a great, up-and-coming coach. But with VCU, I just believe coach Grant is such a great coach, he's not going to be there as long. I believe Coach Grant could end up going to some place like Florida. He's a great coach. Coach Haith, I didn't even know he was from the same neighborhood as me until after I committed. That got me even more closer to Coach Haith. I love him. I love coach Haith.
Q: What kind of characteristics make up a guy from Winston-Salem?
A: We're going to work for anything we want and we're going to go through anything. Look at Chris Paul, Josh Howard. Those guys are from Winston-Salem and them guys are making names for themselves in the biggest league. Those guys just work. And that's what we want -- a championship at the end of the day.
Q: I talked to coach at the end of the season and he talked about what he wanted to see out of his guys this offseason. He said the No. 1 thing for you was cutting some weight, get that body in shape. How much weight have you lost and how big are you now?
A: In the state championship game I was around the 300 mark. Now, I'm down to 290, 288. I've just been busting tail to make sure I'm ready for college. I'm working out from 3:05 to 6 p.m. every day, conditioning and then basketball. I'm participating in track too, throwing the discus and the shot put. In college you got to be in shape. So, I'm in the gym everyday. It's a routine I pretty much picked up from when I went on my visit and watched what they did in practice and everything. My coach kind of took note of that and I'm starting to do things they did in practice in too. I'm doing the ladder. We got a strength and conditioning coach here. He's busting my tail too. He's getting my feet right, building stamina. All the pieces are here. I just got to take advantage of it.
Q: When you envision the future of this UM team what do you see? Are you already talking to the younger guys, game-planning what is going to happen?
A: Me, Malcolm and DeQuan have gotten real close. We talk at least once every two weeks. DeQuan is a gym rat also, so I don't bother him too much. Be we talk often. I talk to Malcolm Grant and I welcome him to the family. I just talked to DeQuan like two days ago and Malcolm. We've just been talking about winning the championship, just showing the world Miami is not just a football school. I mean that's what was on my mind. Miami -- that's a football school. Then, DeQuan talked to me and helped recruit me also. I believe in the system. I believe we can show the world Miami is a basketball school as well as a football school.