After watching teammates struggle, Johnson is finally eligible

Thursday, December 13, 2001

Because of circumstances that were basically beyond his control, Southeast Missouri State University junior point guard Kenny Johnson was academically ineligible for the first semester this year, meaning he missed the Indians' opening six games.

But instead of sulking, the junior-college transfer chose to make the most out of a bad situation.

"I felt bad at first, but I just had to deal with it the best way I knew how," said Johnson prior to the Indians' practice Tuesday afternoon. "I just had to have a positive attitude."

And now Johnson can't wait to finally join his teammates -- who he has been practicing with all along -- for a game. He'll make his Southeast debut Saturday afternoon when the Indians play the St. Louis Billikens at Savvis Center in St. Louis.

"I'm excited. I'm just looking forward to playing with my teammates," he said, flashing a big smile.

Johnson's academic problems stemmed from a mixup regarding his transcripts from Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Mo.

Johnson met all transfer eligibility requirements, but since he had spent three years at Penn Valley instead of two -- he missed one entire season as a redshirt with a serious knee injury -- his eligibility requirements were a bit different from a normal two-year junior-college student under the NCAA's satisfactory progress toward a degree rule.

Initially, Southeast officials felt Johnson would be fine regarding his eligibility as long as he successfully completed one three-hour junior-college class over the summer, which he did. But it was later determined that Johnson was still three hours short of being eligible. In November, the NCAA denied an appeal by Southeast and ruled Johnson ineligible for the first semester.

"It was a combination of a lot of different things," said Alicia Scott, an assistant director of athletics at Southeast who serves as the school's compliance director. "Without placing blame on any one area, in this particular case the system did not work and we're going to revise the system so it's not an issue in the future,"

The irony of it is that Johnson, who is making solid grades this semester, could have easily taken the additional three hours over the summer. But all he took was the one three-hour class that he believed he needed to be eligible.

No looking back

But the easy-going Johnson refused to dwell on his misfortune.

"I was disappointed at first because I thought I was fine, and then I found out," he said. "But I thought it was best to look ahead. It was hard at first just practicing and not playing, but I'm kind of used to it from when I hurt my knee two years ago. It was kind of the same process, having to sit out."

It's that kind of attitude that makes Southeast coach Gary Garner beam when he discusses Johnson.

"He's a great kid and we couldn't have asked for his attitude to be any better," Garner said. "He's just handled the situation so well. He's practiced and worked hard and we're anxious to get him in our lineup."

While Garner is happy for Johnson personally, he is also elated for his team, which will finally have the services of its offensive quarterback. The Indians, who have struggled along at 1-5, have basically been playing without a true point guard in the lineup.

"I think Kenny will make a big difference for us," said Garner. "He's a true point guard who has excellent quickness. He has excellent vision on the floor and recognizes how to get us into our offense. He is also a good defensive player who should be able to keep opposing guards from penetrating inside.

"I'm sure he'll have some rust, because there's nothing like a game and he's only been practicing. But we're really anxious to see what having him does for our basketball team."

The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Johnson, a Kansas City native who averaged nearly 10 points and six assists per game at Penn Valley, acknowledged that he might be a bit rusty Saturday, but he is still confident in his ability to run the team.

"I know all the plays. I just want to distribute the ball, concentrate on defense and control the tempo of the game," he said.

Asked to describe for Southeast fans what kind of player he is, Johnson said, "I'm just a true point guard really. I handle the rock and try to make all the right decisions. I can score when I want to, but you don't want your teammates standing around looking at you. You want to get them involved."

And, for the first time all season Saturday, Johnson will finally be involved in a game for the Indians.

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