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Saturday December 3rd

'He is where he’s supposed to be': Cameron Johnson's journey to North Carolina

<p>Guard Cam Johnson addresses the media after the Disaster Relief Jamboree on Nov. 5.</p>
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Guard Cam Johnson addresses the media after the Disaster Relief Jamboree on Nov. 5.

When Cameron Johnson was 2 years old, his parents bought him his first pair of Jordans.

One afternoon, the toddler walked in from outside his Pennsylvania home. The new sneakers were on his feet. He immediately grabbed a paper towel.

“Cameron,” his mother Amy asked, “what are you doing?”

“I’m cleaning the bottom of my shoes,” Cameron replied, then happily went about his business.

When Cameron’s father Gilbert watched a Chicago Bulls or UNC game in the late '90s, his son sat on his lap and watched with him. And when the games ran late and Amy took Cameron away from the TV for bed, he would cry.

Cameron’s first North Carolina jersey came when he was 4. It was a custom: No. 23 with his first name printed across the back. Once he got older, he watched Michael Jordan’s final years with the Washington Wizards and collected games on VHS. If someone were to joke Cameron’s middle name was Jordan, they’d be spot on — it is. Gilbert, who occasionally caught games while on business trips to his Chicago office, gave his son the name with the NBA legend in mind.

“I never pushed the game on him,” Gilbert said. “He had a little basketball before he could even walk or crawl. He was sitting up, dunking it.”

Nineteen years after he so carefully cleaned his new kicks, Cameron is hours away from debuting for the college of his childhood idol. His journey from Moon Township, Pa., to Chapel Hill has been an unorthodox one.

But, in a strange way, it all makes sense.

***

Be it in go-kart racing, paintball or just about anything else, the Johnsons lived to compete.

Having two Division I basketball players as parents will do that to a family. After all, it was sports that brought Gilbert and Amy together in the first place. Gilbert played two years at Pittsburgh, and Amy played four at Kent State, where she was a 1,000-point scorer. They met when Gilbert coached Amy’s team in a now-defunct attempt at a pro women’s basketball league.

Cameron grew up the second oldest of four brothers. Above him was Aaron, below him Donovan — everyone called him Puff — and Braylon.

“I cannot remember one single time when I was young that we weren't going to a practice, a game or a tournament or anything like that,” Cameron said. “It was just what life was. I didn't know any other way. We didn't know any other way.”

Gilbert recalls one year when, over a two-month span in January and February, he coached one of his sons' games on every day of the stretch but four. Growing up in Conway, S.C., though, Gilbert was taught to live by the three B’s: Bible, books and ball, in that order. He and his wife put basketball and academics on the same level, and Sunday mornings were always reserved for church. Afterward, they’d take a trip to Costco, watch football and cook a dinner of Southern food, complete with Gilbert's family recipes from South Carolina for homemade barbecue sauce, collard greens and mac ‘n’ cheese.

Gilbert had always joked if any of the boys approached his height of 6-foot-6, he’d have to hit them on the head so they wouldn’t get any taller. Aaron was 6-foot-2 when he was 15, and he's stayed at that height since. Cameron kept growing, though — so much that he transitioned from guard to forward at Our Sacred Lady of the Heart High School in Coraopolis, Pa., where he averaged 27.8 points per game as a senior.

Cameron Johnson (13) goes up for a layup during a scrimmage on October 27 against Barton College.

"I didn't realize how tall I was my junior or senior year until I saw myself on tape,” Cameron said. “I remember I'd look, and I'd be like, 'Mom, am I that tall out there?”

The salutatorian of his high school class, he entered Pittsburgh at 6-foot-8 and played in the Panthers’ first eight games. But a lingering right shoulder injury reemerged. Cameron thinks it may have stemmed from too much weightlifting when he was a 5-foot-8, 130-pound eighth grader trying to bulk up for high school football.

"Every time I brought my arm up to shoot, my arm bone slid out the back of my socket just a little bit," he explained. "It messed up all through my neck, into my ear, down into my pinky and ring finger. They'd just go numb."

Cameron opted for surgery and took a medical redshirt. In 2015, he returned to the court healthy with four years of eligibility. Thanks to high school AP credits and a summer session of classes, he and an advisor also figured out a schedule that allowed him to graduate from Pittsburgh in two more years.

Cameron didn’t even consider at the time, but graduating in three years also left him with autonomy in his basketball career — with a degree from Pittsburgh, he could spend his final two years anywhere he wanted.

***

The Johnsons are a tightly knit family, and they talk about everything. So when Cameron finished his redshirt sophomore year at Pittsburgh, he gathered his parents and brothers and broke the news to them: he was thinking about transferring.

“It was an extremely stressful time,” Cameron said. “I remember I was having trouble sleeping. I was all over the place mentally, just trying to figure it out."

After hours of conversations with his family, Cameron decided to go through the transfer process. By this point, he had graduated summa cum laude from Pittsburgh with a 3.9 GPA in communications, averaged 11.9 points, shot 41.5 percent on 3-pointers and set career bests in every statistical category. Teams were taking notice — especially UNC, which Cameron scored a career-high 24 points against in a Jan. 31 loss in the Smith Center.

“I told him to achieve what he wanted to achieve, he needed to be pushed,” Gilbert said. “He needed to go to a bigger program.”

Of all the programs he visited, North Carolina won him over. Pittsburgh tried to restrict Cameron’s transfer to UNC and have him sit out his first year of eligibility since it was an ACC opponent. But Williams told Cameron they would get past it, and they did.

“At times, I was just as in the know as anyone else,” said Cameron, who was granted a full release and signed his UNC scholarship on June 16. “I didn’t really know what Pittsburgh would do or anything, and I really thank them for eventually letting go.”

Now five weeks into practices and exhibitions, the reviews on Cameron are in. Roy Williams says there have been days Cameron hasn’t missed a shot in practice. His teammates have nicknamed him Cameroon. Luke Maye describes him as extremely unselfish. And although Kenny Williams likes to jokingly call him “Little Body,” he adds that Cameron gives off good vibes and that he can hang out with him for hours before realizing how much time has passed.

Guard Cam Johnson runs out of the tunnel during UNC's Late Night With Roy event on Oct. 13.

“Coach had to get on him the second day of practice,” Theo Pinson recalled. “He was like, ‘Cam, you’re one of the best shooters on the team. Why aren’t you shooting the ball?’ He got it. He shoots it all the time now — but he’s hitting it.”

The transition to a new town has been smooth, too. Cameron lives in an off-campus apartment with Kenny Williams and Maye, who is also one of four brothers. Cameron is in two-year master’s program for sports administration, which lines up perfectly with his time in Chapel Hill. Most of his classes are in Woollen 205. He takes classes with nine other grad students, and professors rotate in and out of the room, which has a lounge complete with a mini fridge and a TV.

And, of course, Cameron still keeps in touch with his family. Aaron, a high school valedictorian and four-year basketball player at Clarion University, now works as a researcher in a neuroscience lab at Pittsburgh. He and Cameron play fantasy football together. Puff, 17, and Braylon, 12, prefer getting to their older brother over FaceTime and Snapchat message. Gilbert and Amy talk to their son two or three times a day by text or call.

Back home in Pennsylvania, Cameron’s first UNC jersey stills hangs on his wall. His parents have held onto that first pair of Jordans. And tonight against Northern Iowa, it all culminates for the kid who watched basketball intently when he was 1, competed on a fourth-grade AAU team as a first-grader and played one-on-one games with his brother to 90 or 100 points instead of 15 or 21.

Maybe, it all adds up: the growth spurt, the shoulder, the three-year graduation, the career night in the Smith Center that Roy Williams still remembers. Or maybe it doesn't. Regardless of how Cameron Jordan Johnson found his way to UNC, the important thing is that he did.

“It’s a blessing,” Gilbert said. “He is where he’s supposed to be."

@chapelfowler

sports@dailytarheel.com

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