In its purest essence, basketball is a simple sport. With a ball, hoop and pair of shoes, you’re set to step into the game that James Naismith crafted.
Working on fundamentals far from a Southeastern Conference basketball court, Trent Johnson was reminded that the game was even simpler.
During a trip that he repeatedly described as “humbling,” the children under Johnson’s watch proved that they didn’t need any of the aforementioned to find a passion for the game – at least not the shoes.
See, most the youth of the Nkomazi region, where Johnson worked as part of the TRIAD (Training to Reduce the Incidence of Aids-Related Deaths) Trust program from June 4-14, wouldn’t know Naismith from Kobe Bryant.
“We were basically starting from scratch,” said Johnson of the group’s skill level and knowledge of the game.
The mission that Johnson visited was established in 2009, dedicated to educating children, young adults and adults with comprehensive understanding of HIV/AIDS, while empowering them with the necessary life-skills to make healthy lifestyle choices. The TRIAD Nkomazi Rush is also dedicated to developing facilities suitable to the organization and conduct of the games.
Johnson, a veteran college coach with over 20 years of experience, was brought on by Sarah Kate Noftsinger, the Director of Sport and Professional Programs for TRIAD, to teach the sport to coaches and players. Noftsinger, a former soccer coach, met Johnson when they were both at Stanford.
After a 15-hour flight to Johannesburg, followed up by an additional flight that took him into the Nkomazi region, Johnson jumped in headfirst.
“They saw me living in their conditions, staying in the hut, and they looked at me like I wasn’t supposed to do that,” he said.
Over the next 10 days, Johnson, who had previously shipped basketballs to help the organization and instructed his coaching staff to wear red ribbons on World AIDS Day this past season, worked on the ground with TRIAD for the first time.
“I guess the easiest way to articulate what I was doing was to have a classroom setting, if you can call it a classroom setting, with 15 area coaches and guys who aspire to be coaches from ages 19 through basically one, who was a 34-year-old teacher,” Johnson said. “We talked about the game of basketball and the tradition of the game of basketball, and they were like sponges.
“Then, in the afternoon we would go to an outdoor court with baskets that we had purchased. On any given day, 80 to 150 kids from the ages six through 13 would come. We had a passing station, a shooting station, a dribbling station, a footwork station and a defensive station.”
One particular camper, a six-year old boy, made one of the trip’s lasting impressions on Johnson.
“He was hard for me to say goodbye to,” Johnson said. “On the outdoor courts nobody had shoes, but none of them are sweating shoes. And here’s a kid going from station to station, and he’s step-sliding and closing out and listening, from 12 to 4-o’clock. Then he just walks somewhere and is going home. It’s not like mom and dad are coming to pick him up.
“You come back here and I have a guy that complains if I yell at him. The thing that was so impressive was the kids in general. Some had no shoes and no shirt, but just the joy and energy they had to play the game and to learn the game.”
While Johnson was in Africa, LSU’s most recent basketball signing class reported to campus. During his first meeting with a squad that went 11-20 last season, Johnson made certain that his trip’s message resonated with the group.
“When I talked to the team (Tuesday), I said, ‘Boy oh boy, don’t any of you guys breathe hard or complain about anything after where I just came from,” he said. “But, it was refreshing.
“I reminded them that the most important time to get better is what we’re doing right now. It’s going to take them taking a lot of ownership on themselves as a team and work extremely hard and challenge each other. Being able to show them a video of these kids and the things they don’t have, it gives them an appreciation and hopefully sticks with them.”