Nate Johnson and Keasha Cannon just want to play ball. So far, nothing's stopping them.

The Game of Life 

Nate Johnson and Keasha Cannon just want to play ball. So far, nothing's stopping them.

There is nothing romantic about a gym. Oh, maybe the nineteen state-championship banners hanging over Wyandotte High School's court -- in honor of the third-winningest program in the country -- are sexy to basketball purists. Proud alums say: If you don't have game, you won't play here.

Teenage girls don't care about banners. Most of the girls who showed up at the gym in the late '90s were there to watch Nate Johnson. Eighteen years old. Smooth in his baggy, white shorts. They couldn't catch him.

"I didn't really date a lot of girls," Johnson says. "I just hung out with a lot of girls."

Keasha Cannon didn't go to Wyandotte, didn't feel like putting in nearly as much effort or wearing half as much lip gloss to catch a guy's attention. She just played ball. She sat cool in the stands one day when Wyandotte played Washington, her high school. Johnson looked up. She smiled.

Basketballs flew, shots clanged, the girl got into his head. Johnson stopped shooting and tapped his buddy Victor Williams on the shoulder.

"Watch this," Johnson told Williams. "She's going to be my sweetheart before it's all said and done."

By the time it was all said and done, though, Johnson and Cannon had traveled far beyond a high school gym in Wyandotte County.

By early indications, Nate Johnson should've been a gymnast. At eight, he'd do cartwheels and fly around the YMCA on Eighth Street and Armstrong while his stepdad, Darryl Johnson, coached hoops.

Later, though, he'd go home and find anything round, nail it to the house and practice dunking. Bicycle rims, plastic Nerf hoops, trash cans -- Johnson didn't care. He'd spin, like they did on TV, and slam-dunk just like Mike. By the time he was in sixth grade, 6-foot-5-inch men were asking him to play pickup ball. You want Nate? He's way too little, his stepdad would tell them.

"I didn't even know he could play as well as he did," Darryl Johnson says now. But Nate would tell everybody that someday, they'd see him in the NBA.

He would stay outside long after dark, tossing his hopes into the sky.

Though Johnson's biological father lived just blocks away, near Wyandotte High School, he was out of the picture by the time his son was born, Mary Johnson, his mother, says. Nate invited his dad to basketball games, but the old man never showed up.

Nate Johnson grew up near 17th Street and Minnesota Avenue, a place where small businesses went to die. Police cars crawled at a watchful pace past boarded-up houses and apartment buildings with ripped-out doors and giant chunks of roof lying on stairwells. There was a thrift store on every block. Bars lined half the windows.

"We both grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of people didn't have the same aspirations and goals for life as we had," Williams says. "Guys around us always had the best clothes, the best cars. We didn't have any of that, because we weren't selling drugs. We were probably two of the few guys who really wanted to get out of the inner city, to make a means for ourselves. We wanted to play basketball."

Johnson and Williams hung out at the JFK Rec Center on Tenth Street, talking about girls and jump shots. Johnson was the shooting guard, the guy with the smooth touch. Williams was the point guard, the one who dished his buddy the ball. Friends say Johnson and Williams were like Starsky and Hutch. They did everything together. They pledged to earn another banner for Wyandotte's gym.

But by the time they reached high school, Johnson's life had started to get complicated. He had a quick temper. He questioned authority. His life away from the court was about drinking and smoking pot.

Johnson was never a bad kid, his coaches would say. He just hung around the wrong people. A car horn would honk, and he'd fly out the door to meet his friends. There wasn't a lot his mother or stepfather could do to stop him. "We're not like the Huxtables or any TV families," Darryl Johnson tells the Pitch. "We're real."

Trouble found Johnson when he tried to pawn stolen stereo equipment and got caught his junior year. His court case dangled for almost a year, and eventually Johnson was charged as an accessory to burglary. He felt guilty when his mom had to sell her jewelry to pay for the lawyer.

At the same time, though, there was this girl he'd just met. She had shown up one day at the JFK Rec Center. Thought she could hang with the guys. The boys never really talked to Keasha Cannon, other than maybe the occasional blurts of "Foul!" or "Traveling!" But Johnson wanted to be the one who guarded her.

One day after a pickup game, Cannon tracked down a friend who went to Wyandotte High School. Could she get Johnson's phone number?

So when Wyandotte played Washington, Cannon was in the stands, catching Johnson's eye during warmups. Johnson heard she had his number but didn't think she'd call. And when the phone rang after the game that night, he went from cocky to wobbly. "Sparks just flew," Johnson recalls.

Before Cannon, Johnson's mom says, a lot of girls chased him. He'd stay out late and party with the wrong crowd. "When Nate started to really have strong feelings for Keasha, everybody else was just cut off," Mary Johnson says. "He eliminated people out of his life, and Keasha became his life."

Now Johnson's life was simple -- Cannon and basketball. By his senior year, nobody could touch Wyandotte. Johnson averaged 22 points a game and made all-state. Metro coaches gave Victor Williams the DiRenna Award, crowning him the top player in the greater Kansas City area. Johnson and Williams made good on their childhood promise and won the 1998 Class 5A state championship as seniors.

All the college coaches were watching, but there was a problem. Johnson still had his legal issues to deal with. He held off breaking the news to Cannon until his sentencing: six months of boot camp at Labette Correctional Conservation Camp in Oswego, Kansas. He left ten days before Christmas in 1998, wondering if his girl would be there when he got out.

Keasha Cannon doesn¹t get rattled. That's why Big 12 coaches would eventually try to recruit her. It could be the start of the game or 66-65 with three seconds left -- her demeanor never changed.

She wrote a stern letter to Johnson at Labette: Stand up and be a man. Don't blame the system. Don't commit yourself to failure. "I know that you're a good man," she wrote. "You just have to work at it."

She was a senior at Washington in late 1998, nearly 200 miles from Labette and her boyfriend. But Cannon lit up the state of Kansas. She led the team in scoring, rebounds and assists. She took the Wildcats to the Class 5A state tournament, coaches named her Kansas City Metro Player of the Year, and she made the National Honor Society.

"Keasha doesn't let herself get out of control," says Jeff Walz, a former University of Nebraska women's basketball assistant coach. "She was always a winner, no matter who was on the floor."

As a kid, Cannon had dreamed of playing for the University of Kansas. Arkansas State, Tulane, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Nebraska all offered scholarships -- but the Jayhawks never came calling.

Her mom helped her choose the Cornhuskers. Michelle Hall was a single parent with three daughters and two jobs. She just wanted her eldest child to get a college degree. Cannon wanted a little more. She'd go to Nebraska, which had just played in its second straight NCAA tournament (though that year the team had lost to Kentucky in the first round). Cannon would return to Lawrence to play at Allen Fieldhouse as a Cornhusker. And someday, she'd play in the WNBA so her mom would never have to work again.

But in the summer of 1999, Cannon found out that her test scores weren't high enough to play at Nebraska as a freshman. She could go to school as a partial qualifier, taking classes and watching from the sidelines. Cannon couldn't stand the idea of sitting out. She enrolled at Penn Valley Community College to be closer to her mom and to Johnson, who had no idea where to go when boot camp ended in the middle of 1999.

Johnson's buddy Williams was going places. He'd just finished his freshman year at Illinois State and was transferring to Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma State.

Cannon had a clear path, too. At Penn Valley, she would become a two-time All-American and go on to lead the school to the Division II Elite Eight.

Meanwhile, Johnson's game had grown rusty. The college coaches had stopped calling. As he watched Cannon play, he envisioned a life of hard labor and streetball.

Cannon had another plan. She went to her coach, Marcus Harvey, and asked him if he could give her boyfriend a tryout. The best thing Harvey could do was let Johnson play in an alumni game -- where the men's coaches would be there to see him.

Running up and down the court with professors and weekend warriors, Johnson got frustrated when he saw his side losing. He swished shot after shot, and by the time the game was over, the Penn Valley men's team had a new guard.

"I didn't know much about the bad rap that he got, the trouble he was in, because I didn't see it," Harvey recalls. "The only thing I saw was the look in his eyes when you were talking to him."

Soulful. Determined. Johnson hadn't always had it, that look. Cannon changed everything, Mary Johnson explains. "She has a level head. She doesn't back down. Nathan doesn't need a little, weak woman."

Penn Valley has only two sports: men's basketball and women's basketball. The school is known nationally for both of them -- both teams have made it to Division II national championship games; the women are regulars at the division's national tournaments.

Harvey describes the programs as one giant family that stands and cheers when one of its own makes it. Need to lift weights? No problem -- gym's always open. Feeling lovesick? Lay it all on the line here.

Cannon was running down the court at practice her sophomore year when she saw Johnson standing on the other side of the gym's big window. He held up a jewelry box with an engagement ring. He mouthed the words "Will you marry me?"

Cannon was still stunned when she tracked him down after practice. "I just want to make sure I'm clear," she said. "Did you just ask me to marry you?"

It made perfect sense to propose there, Johnson says. "We met on a basketball court."

With a ring on her finger and a Rawlings in her hand, Cannon was in control. Penn Valley's run to the Elite Eight in 2000-01 had Georgia and Kentucky calling -- everybody wanted her now. KU Coach Marian Washington even offered a scholarship. But two years had passed, and the Jayhawks had gone from near the top of the Big 12 to a 5-11 record in the conference. Kansas State, where Coach Deb Patterson had built a program by recruiting in places such as Maryville and Clay Center, was on the rise. Meanwhile, critics carped that Washington had an aversion to signing homegrown talent.

Cannon couldn't help KU. She remembered how comfortable she'd felt with Nebraska's coaches. She packed up her black Honda and headed for Lincoln.

Within a matter of weeks, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. For Cannon the fall of 2001 was a blur of basketball practice and two-and-a-half-hour drives up and down Interstate 29. At home, Cannon would pay the bills, clean the house, take care of her sisters. In Lincoln, Nebraska Coach Paul Sanderford marveled at how Cannon kept it all together. He'd given her the point-guard job, the most demanding spot on the floor, and Cannon managed to lead the team in every major category.

The week before Christmas, Cannon went home on Monday to see her mom at the hospital. On Tuesday, the Big 12 named her Player of the Week. On Wednesday, she called Nebraska to tell Sanderford her mom had died.

When the Huskers opened their conference season with a game against Texas on January 2, Cannon was in Kansas City. Nobody would've blamed her if she'd left the team. But she couldn't quit. Not when she thought of the diploma her mother had dreamed about.

A month later, Cannon made the trip to Allen Fieldhouse on a cold February night when both teams were all but mathematically out of the Big 12 race. With 44 friends and family members watching, she erupted for 15 points and 15 rebounds as the Huskers beat KU.

After the longest season of her life, Cannon was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. "She's a difference-maker," Iowa State Coach Bill Fennelly said at the time.

Back at Penn Valley, it was the Nate Johnson revival tour.

The 6-foot-1-inch guard was pouring in 26.5 points a game. Johnson took the Scouts to the national championship game on March 23, 2002. Just a couple of nights earlier, Penn Valley had played Mott Community College, the division's number one team in the country. Johnson scored 48 points in a 96-92 upset. He said it was one of those games where the rim looked as big as the ocean.

But nobody knew what Johnson was battling off the court this time. Mary Johnson had also been diagnosed with cancer. While coaches were naming him the Division II National Player of the Year, Johnson was racking up enormous phone bills talking to Cannon, who was mourning alone in Lincoln.

Oklahoma State and Nebraska were both interested in Johnson now. His friend Williams was at OSU, but Johnson's heart was in Lincoln. There was one problem: The Huskers were out of scholarships because of an NCAA rule that said a team couldn't have more than eight recruits in a two-year period. There was talk that the rule might be amended, but Nebraska Coach Barry Collier didn't want to get Johnson's hopes up.

On the day Johnson was supposed to sign with Oklahoma State, the NCAA amended the rule. He called Collier, then packed his bags for Lincoln. Collier, who's known in basketball circles for his squeaky-clean image, says he never thought signing Johnson was a risk. "You wonder how things happen sometimes," Collier says. "When you think about all the stuff that has gone on with him ... I mean, I've seen kids with poorer attitudes who have had no trouble in their lives, relatively speaking, compared to what Johnson has been through."

Two of Wyandotte County¹s dreamers were now playing in one of the nation's premier college basketball conferences.

And by the time Nebraska's fall semester started in August 2002, life finally seemed to be falling into place for Johnson. His mom was in remission. His girl was by his side.

Then Cannon told Johnson she was pregnant.

Cannon never saw it as all that dramatic. She'd go to school, have their baby. Basketball could wait. But when one of the Big 12's brightest walked into Coach Connie Yori's office to tell her new coach that she'd be sitting out the 2002-03 season, Yori wondered what was coming next. The Huskers had lost three of their top players to transfers before Yori had even arrived to replace Sanderford, who had resigned because of ill health. Yori wasn't feeling too good herself. Her team was down to six scholarship players after Cannon's news; then she lost her starting center to a torn knee ligament.

Yori put an ad in the student newspaper for tryouts. She lured fraternity boys into practice just so the Huskers could play 5-on-5. She pulled a sorority sister out of the rec center. Lacey Hanson, the pride of Chi Omega, ended up being the Huskers' third person off the bench in December. At least attendance was better. All of her sorority sisters showed up for the games.

"You definitely had to keep your sense of humor," Yori says. "It kept us from doing something drastic."

When the university issued its notice on Cannon's status -- a press release saying she'd miss the season because of an undisclosed medical issue -- the news was so vague that a rumor began circulating: The star of the team had a terminal illness. The real explanation came around February, when Cannon sat on the bench, clearly seven months' pregnant. By that time, the Huskers were buried in the cellar, on their way to finishing last behind Marian Washington's struggling KU team.

Things weren't much better for Johnson and the Nebraska men. They'd opened the season with a trip to Alaska, where they were humbled by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks' Division II team. In January, Johnson made his own nostalgic trek back to Allen Fieldhouse to play the mighty Jayhawk men. Before the crush of 16,300 fans, the Huskers were actually in the game for a while. Then team captain Jake Muhleisen went for a twisting layup and landed in a heap of red, white and blue. Johnson played 37 minutes, took eight shots, had eight turnovers. Muhleisen would be out for the season with a hip injury. Johnson was asked to fill in and lead a team he barely knew in a role he'd never taken.

Welcome to the Big 12, rookie. You drive down the lane with reckless abandon -- then a 7-foot, 300-pounder readjusts your aggression. Johnson's lumps came in bruises, welts and floorburns. And on the scoreboard. The Nebraska men also finished last in the league.

The physicality of the league had swallowed Johnson. But he didn't just have Nick Collison to worry about. Thoughts of Cannon and the baby filled his head. But as Muhleisen watched him from the sidelines, he noticed something about the newbie. He was at his best when he was driven by emotion.

Like the New Year's Eve game with Eastern Washington. After riding the bench for most of the night, Collier called on Johnson with six minutes to play. He pumped his fists, blocked a shot and sliced through the paint, scoring 10 straight points in a 63-60 win.

"When he comes out just fired up, when he's running around, getting loose balls, when he gets up and screams," Muhleisen says, "that's when you know he's ready to play."

You get in trouble, Darryl Johnson used to tell his stepson, and you stand up to it like a man. Darryl's advice on babies had been simple. "Don't make them if you're not going to raise them."

There was no doubt they'd be parents someday, this motherly woman and the kid who missed his real father. They'd talked about a faraway time in 2005, when school would be over and careers would be set. Johnson was happy that he was going to be a father, but he was also frightened. "I didn't know how she'd react," he says of Cannon. "And I was mad because I felt like I messed up her life in a way. To keep her from playing basketball.... She loves playing basketball."

In April, fourteen hours passed in a Lincoln hospital. Cannon -- who'd been dribbling a ball until her contractions began -- was still in labor. Johnson was tired, worn out from the season and from studying for his finals. He was missing class, but he wasn't going anywhere. He rubbed Cannon's feet and fetched her ice chips. He held a video camera with one hand and a cell phone in the other as Nate Jr. arrived.

Johnson and Cannon got married on June 26, standing before a judge in Lincoln. Victor Williams, who was mulling pro options overseas, couldn't make it for the wedding. But they had four friends there -- two guards and a forward on the Nebraska women's team (including Shahidrah Roberts, a former star at Blue Valley North) plus one Nebraska football player.

Always nonchalant, Cannon changed Nate Jr.'s diapers on the Devaney Center floor as she watched her husband play pickup ball this summer. When practice started for both of them in mid-October, it added at least three hours of workouts and weight lifting to each parent's day -- in addition to class.

Still, Cannon scored 19 points in the Huskers' exhibition win over the University of Nebraska-Kearney on November 13. She led the team in rebounds in the exhibition season, and her teammates made her their captain.

"I truly believe we're going to be a lot better," Yori says of this year's squad. "And it's been really neat to watch Nate and Keasha juggle all the balls they have going and keep them in the air."

They'll worry when they send Nate Jr. off to day care. They'll obsess over the kid when he's staying at Mary and Darryl Johnson's house during road trips. Johnson will probably call and call until his mom reminds him that she raised five kids of her own. "I think he's trying to be the dad he never had," Darryl Johnson says. "Nathan just wants to make sure Nate Jr. knows who his father is."

When Williams showed up in Lincoln for the Oklahoma State-Nebraska football game on August 30, he couldn't believe how much Nate Jr. had grown in five months. "He's a very happy baby," Williams says. "The kid already has long arms and legs. He always wants to be jumping around. He's destined for a great career in basketball."

Five and a half years have passed since Johnson saw Cannon up in the stands, and Mr. Smooth looks tired -- worn out from practice, beat from the books. The 5 a.m. wakeup calls are catching up to him. He'll stir out of bed, feed the baby while Cannon is still sleeping, watch a movie or an infomercial until it's time to go to school.

In those moments when he's alone, Johnson thinks about the future. He's playing in the pros, just like he dreamed at the Y in Kansas City. But something's changed. "My family is my motivation, my stability. I'm not out there playing just for me and her anymore," he says. "I've got another mouth to feed, so I've got to push myself harder. I'm not saying basketball is the only way I'm going to feed my family. But it would be an easy way to feed them."

Easy would be a switch.

One day over the summer, during practice at the Devaney Center, somebody asked Johnson where he'd be without Cannon. He spouted mush that would make his teammates razz him for a season. "She molded me," Johnson said. "It ain't embarrassing."

Cannon, who was cleaning up baby vomit, looked at him and smiled, just like that day in the stands at Washington High School. Where would she be without Johnson?

"Hawaii."

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