The Mavericks Give Thanks for the Kid Who Keeps Bouncing Back
Ray Johnston got out of the hospital in Dallas last weekend.
Don't bother with the cards or flowers or well wishes, because he's gone. Just like that. By the time you read this, Johnston will be back on the road with his band, back planning his next series of motivational speeches, back keeping in touch with his Dallas Mavericks friends and back filming a docu-series for Mark Cuban's HDNet.
By the time you start to comprehend how frivolous it is to pity his plight, he's already living a fuller, faster life than you and I combined.
Just imagine if Johnston didn't have leukemia.
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"He is the ultimate warrior," says Cuban, who considers Johnston one of his few heroes in life. "He never is afraid of the fight, and no matter how difficult, he finds the bright side."
Five relapses, two resurrections and countless hours of chemotherapy will make you tough. But, somehow, through it all, Johnston will find a way to make you smile.
I talked to Johnston last week from his room at Zale-Lipshy Hospital, where he was recovering from his latest round of cancer treatment. I ask him—delicately as I can—about the three-month coma in 2004 that started all this.
"Being in a coma," he says slowly and thoughtfully, "is way overrated."
Atta boy, Ray!
Johnston grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, a basketball prodigy who made free throws on a 10-foot goal at age 4 and who made the varsity high school team as an eighth-grader. During his senior season he attended the same all-star camp as Stephon Marbury and was awarded the hardest worker trophy.
Small colleges be damned, Johnston wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference. So he walked on at the University of Alabama, carved out a pedestrian career as a backup point guard and graduated in '01 before moving to Dallas. Before you know it, he was dating Miss Texas, working in the mortgage business, earning money as a life-sized cut-out model for Kinko's and playing his guitar and singing Dave Matthews cover tunes.
Discovered during Dallas' Hoop-It-Up tournament early in the summer of 2004, he was invited to play for the Mavs' Summer League team. He had talent, but general manager Donnie Nelson suggested playing overseas to gain experience.
He had six weeks to decide. Meanwhile he played pickup games with Cuban at the old Signature Athletic Club. He hung around American Airlines Center, working out with Mavericks. He shared Steve Nash's locker, lunched with Josh Howard and bonded with Dirk Nowitzki.
Then, just like that, the decision—the life-changing alteration—was made for him.
During a lunchtime game in late August at the Signature Athletic Club, he got hit on the right shin by another player's foot. Just a tap. But it bruised. Kept swelling.
The next morning he underwent a 20-minute surgical procedure from the Mavs' team orthopedist. But hours later the area just below Johnston's right knee filled with blood like a balloon. He was rushed to Presbyterian Hospital, where doctors scratched their heads over what could be happening to a healthy, hearty 25-year-old with no medical history outside a childhood hernia.
The culprit: A leukemia no one knew he had—acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a cancer that attacks and weakens white blood cells.
Next thing Johnston knew, it was November. The Boston Red Sox had won the World Series, and President George W. Bush had earned a second term and...
"I just thought it was the next day," he says. "It took me about a month to really understand and believe what had happened to me."
During the coma, Johnston had to be shocked back to life. Twice. His lungs collapsed five days apart. His kidneys failed. Blood clots in his brain prompted seizures. Poor circulation cost him two amputated toes.
Johnston's regret: "My parents had to endure some really tough things."
But just two weeks after his coma, the cancer was declared in remission, and after 132 days he was released from the hospital.
During his stay he became a focal point of inspiration—not to mention visitation—for the Mavericks. Howard still texts Johnston weekly. Nowitzki keeps in touch. And Cuban thinks enough of Johnston to follow him around and film his triumphant struggles as a cancer victim and aspiring musician for next spring's Ray Johnston Band: Road Diaries.
"The music is good," Cuban says, "and the Ray Johnston story is amazing. The show will let people follow Ray and be amazed and benefit from his strength and courage. Ray is truly unique. We hope our show allows as many people as possible to find out why so many people love him and are inspired by him."
By the spring of 2006, however, Johnston's strength deteriorated. The cancer was back. He endured excruciating arsenic treatments and dwindled to 120 pounds.
"A cheerful heart is good medicine," Johnston tells me, reciting his favorite scripture, "a downcast spirit dries the bones."
In the ensuing relapses he received a bone marrow transplant and now must undergo monthly chemo. Still, during a 30-minute interview he only grimaced when the subject turned to his Mavs' '06 Finals collapse or the inconsistent Dallas Cowboys.
"Seriously, Roy Williams," Johnston scolds the receiver, "can you not catch just one pass!"
Says Nowitzki, who posed with Johnston and his '07 NBA MVP trophy, "Ray's definitely one of the toughest guys I've ever met."
His basketball career over and his health in constant jeopardy, Johnston these days finds hope in music. His band—from Matthews to Pat Green—is a grassroots operation with no label or agent but a desire to spread its good ol' boy country, playing frat parties and even—last week—the flatbed of a truck out in Palo Pinto County. In the first week of September, the band was iTunes' top downloaded group without an agent.
"It's hard what I'm trying to do," admits Johnston, who says he finds motivation in his "two favorite words: You can't."
Nothing about his spirit, his substance or his energy says sympathy. Go into an interview with Johnston prepared to feel sorry for him and leave feeling guilty that he generally, consistently does more with less. You're tying up loose ends; he's beating leukemia.
"The most adult moment of my life was the day about four years ago when I was complaining about some real estate deal," close Johnston friend and Dallas real-estate broker Rogers Healy says. "I told him I'd lost some money. He told me his cancer was back. There he was, actually consoling me. The way Ray continues to spread positivity is remarkable."
It was a classic "atta boy" moment, the kind Johnston's dad always christened with the signature line from My Cousin Vinny. Ray's out of the hospital again? Atta boy. Ray's band got another gig? Atta boy. Ray's happier in sickness than most of us in health? Atta boy.
This year the Mavs bolted to a 10-3 start. But they'll never stray too far from Johnston, who, these days, makes about 20 games a year. He's busy. Or, as he likes to joke, he's got a doctor's excuse: two tumors, one under his right armpit, the other on his right thigh.
"The Mavs keep me going. Life. Music. Everything," Johnston says, his voice straining to remain audible, much less strong. "I don't like cancer, but I really hate needles. It's not a good combination. But really, I have so much to be thankful for."
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