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Friday December 3rd

Brice Johnson remembers his momma’s love every time he puts on his jersey

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This isn’t for you. It’s for him. Maybe her? Them.

This starts with a boy and ends with a man. There is youth and homemade chicken wings and loss and a silver heart and peace and “Mud.” And two loving mothers.

Maybe this is for them.

But first the boy.

Call him Brice, or Easy B or Jon Johnson. That’s his real name, Jonathan Brice Johnson.

Let’s go with Brice. Now he’s a senior on the North Carolina men’s basketball team, prepping for his last home matchup against Duke. UNC’s misunderstood leader. The subject of so much criticism ... but there’s a lot of his story left to tell. Maybe we should judge him after.

“You see me on the court, you see me walking around, but you still don’t know me,” Brice Johnson says.

He’s shaking his head.

“You know me from what people say and put on TV, but at the end of the day, you don’t know who I am exactly. You just don’t know what I’ve been through.”

‘Remember the love’

Herman Johnson’s son was a pain in the ass.

The Edisto High varsity men’s basketball team thought so. Always showing up to practice in Orangeburg, S.C., getting in the way.

He watches his dad coach with boyish excitement. Big Herm in action. This is where Brice starts to fall in love with the game.

Go back. He already knows love. Renee Johnson made sure of it.

“He was our first, and that’s all we had,” Herman says. “He was our priority, and I know she was his.”

She loved Brice, that smothering only-momma-can-do kind of love that wraps around you like a blanket fresh out of the dryer. It warms you, makes you feel safe. Because no matter what, you’ve always got your momma. Even when she passes — cancer — she’s always in your heart.

“She never put herself first,” Brice says. “She would do anything for me.”

Just remember the love, between a mother and a son. Brice does.

‘Damn, I really need her’

Brice can’t sleep.

He’s awake in his bed. His mind is racing. It happens at night sometimes. After the crowds in the Smith Center disappear, after classes and practice and homework. When he’s alone, with his thoughts and his memories.

He gets up and leaves his room.

He doesn’t want to think anymore — not about that night. The night Herman and Giovanna, Renee’s sister, come into then-13-year-old Brice’s bedroom, and they see him sleeping. They don’t want to wake him up, but they have to.

So they do. She’s gone, they say. Eighteen months fighting colon cancer, all the chemo and secret trips to the doctor — now Renee is at peace.

That’s when Brice shuts down. He stops speaking, eating — everything. A mother’s love for her son never dies, but now things are different. She was gone. It was Oct. 11, 2008.

Brice would immortalize the day with his jersey number.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how much that really hurts to lose your momma,” Brice says. “I miss her every day, and then the other days, it’s like, ‘Damn, I really need her here right now.’”

This is one of those times when your mind wanders. Cancer. Death. I miss my mom.

Brice heads to the common area. Past the vintage Sports Illustrated covers hanging on the walls and onto the black leather sofa.

He’s thinking about her and love and what the hell anyone expects of him. The woman who made the best chicken wings he’s ever had on Super Bowl Sundays. She’s stuck in his head.

And then Brice starts to think about Taylor Sharp.

He’s in the common room too. Brice’s roommate and friend, confidant and empathizer can’t sleep either. His emotions are getting the best of him. Love, sadness, empathy — how should he feel?

Neither of them speaks. They don’t have to. Taylor picks up the remote control. Do you wanna watch “Mud”? Matthew McConaughey is so good in it, and it’s been a while. And man, a Cook-Out milkshake sure sounds good right about now. Help me find a new pair of Columbia 11’s on eBay.

After the movie, though — it’s a part of finding peace.

‘In their children’s hearts’

It’s Dec. 11, 2010, in Morganton.

Amy Sharp goes to First Presbyterian Church, or at least she used to. Now the church comes to her. She’s lying in her bed on the second floor at her home when she sees her congregation through the window. They’re holding ornaments and cards, leaving luminaries in the driveway.

Amy can’t get up to greet them — after five years, ovarian cancer takes its toll. But she isn’t ready to give up.

The churchgoers come to show support. They leave three silver hearts, hanging from the branches of the tree out front. Then they leave, too.

Amy wakes up the next morning and looks out the very same window. There’s snow everywhere. Taylor, her youngest son, pulls down the hearts and brushes off the snow. Feels the cold metal. Then he reads the engraving: Mothers remain in their children’s hearts forever.

Amy Sharp passed away the day after next.

‘The sons of our mothers’

Brice is getting ready to leave for the 2015 NCAA Tournament. UNC is headed to Jacksonville, Fla., far, far away from Chapel Hill or Orangeburg or Morganton.

Brice and Taylor start talking before he leaves. About sneakers, a game of HORSE on the Nerf basketball hoop in their living room. Then moms.

Brice might’ve been upset or just nervous about the weekend, Taylor can’t remember now. It doesn’t matter. Brice never asks him for anything specifically. They’re just talking. But Taylor knows by this point when his friend needs something.

So Taylor pulls a silver heart out of his back pocket, the one he’s kept close to him since the day his mom died. The original was worn down — that happens after five years stuck in a wallet — so he’d ordered new ones. He hands it to Brice.

Take it, Taylor says. She’s looking down on you, and she’s proud. I want you to have it.

This is before Brice Johnson becomes who he is today. Not yet UNC’s leading scorer, or the ACC Player of the Year frontrunner. He’s just a friend who needs some help, and Taylor gives it to him.

Brice takes the heart, but he grabs onto more. He reaches for their brotherhood. It’s been growing since their first year, when they discovered their tragic bond. And now, that bond goes beyond words or heartfelt texts on Mother’s Day.

It comes to peace. So does it exist?

“There’s no getting loved ones back,” Taylor says. “That’s the first reality you have to swallow in the quest to find peace.”

It’s hard to cope with, but it’s true. Herman, try as he may to fill in the gaps, can never replace Brice’s mom. His teammates, and Coach Roy Williams, can go out to eat with him, but they’ll never be able to whip up chicken wings like Renee could. And basketball, the game he’s grown to love? Brice can be whoever he wants inside the white lines on the court, but his mom will never watch him play again.

Maybe that is peace. Something as simple as wearing the No. 11 to honor the day his mother died, something to remind him that she’s always there in spirit.

Maybe that’s not eloquent or easy or even attainable. Maybe peace is what you make of it, whatever you need to keep going. Say, a silver heart.

“Brice and I know that we will always be the sons of our mothers,” Taylor says. “We know that our moms walk with us each day in all that we do, and I cannot envision anything more peaceful than that.”

It’s what Brice thinks about every time he puts on his jersey.

“I’m sure she would love to be here now,” Brice says.

No, this was never for you. It was for Brice, and it was for Taylor. For Big Herm, back home in the Edisto gym.

But mostly it was for them: for Renee and for Amy.

And it always will be.

@BrendanRMarks

sports@dailytarheel.com

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