Sports

MB KFC employee hopes to be taken in draft

Earl Johnson couldn't be much further from his dream when he goes to work in the morning.

Johnson has big plans to put his 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame to work in the NBA, but he's playing for Colonel Sanders' team at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Myrtle Beach as the draft approaches.

"I tell him that when he gets drafted, he should go back there and get an endorsement deal," said his uncle, Chris Brown.

When he gets drafted. Brown says that with confidence even though Johnson is the only one of the nine freshmen in the June 28 draft who did not play Division I basketball.

After averaging a modest 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds for Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, he declared for the draft and stayed in it despite his doubters.

Johnson's lack of high-profile college experience is reminiscent of Taj Red McDavid, the player from Williamston, S.C., who entered the 1996 draft out of Palmetto High and wasn't drafted.

"He has no chance to be drafted," NBA director of scouting Marty Blake said of Johnson.

Though Johnson, 20, said he entered the draft to get exposure so he can play professionally overseas, Brown isn't ready to concede that. Brown, who has raised Johnson since he was in eighth grade, calls him the best shooter in the draft other than Kevin Durant.

Brown said Johnson shoots like J.J. Redick and is physical like Rudy Gay. He said teams that would spend $40 million on another player can get Johnson for half the price.

"He's as good as any of those other guys," Brown said. "The only difference is he went to junior college because of grades."

Grades are one reason Johnson is in the draft. His father, Earl Stukes, said it wasn't easy for Johnson to play basketball and handle his academic work.

Stukes, Brown and Johnson got together and decided entering the draft would be best for Johnson, who is eager to prove the doubters wrong.

"I've been through a lot," he said. "I want people to feel my pain and understand where I'm coming from. There are a lot of people out there who don't realize what I can do."

Turning his life around

Stukes was afraid Johnson was a hopeless case the day the principal showed him an alarming stack of referrals for poor behavior. Johnson was born out of wedlock and soon was hanging out with boys six and seven years older in what Brown described as a drug-infested area.

When Johnson was in eighth grade, his mother, Adrian Singleton, called Stukes and asked him to meet with teachers and the principal. Johnson was disrespectful and disobedient with his teachers, who were afraid of him because he was already 6-foot-3.

Brown, Stukes' younger brother, stepped in and offered to teach Johnson to be a man. Brown played basketball at Sumter High, has coached AAU basketball and was working as a mortgage broker. Johnson's behavioral problems ended when Brown took him in, moved him to a better part of Sumter and started him in organized basketball.

"He's like my second father, my uncle, my trainer, my brother, my agent, everything," Johnson said. "He's stood by me through hard times."

As Brown switched jobs, Johnson played basketball at Sumter High, Lugoff-Elgin and Orangeburg-Wilkinson in South Carolina. He enrolled at Daytona Beach Community College, but his family wanted him closer to home. So he spent one season at Clinton Junior College under coach Travis Garrett.

Friends who saw the early-entry list on ESPN surprised Garrett when they called to tell him Johnson had entered the draft. Garrett said that might have been a bad decision, but said Johnson is strong and athletic and shot 42 percent from 3-point range last season.

"He's a good player," Garrett said. "I don't know what his chances are. I don't think he has a great chance of making it because of the simple fact that a lot of people don't know who he is."

Pursuing the dream

Brown said he has heard from the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers, but no NBA team has invited Johnson to work out.

Teams in Puerto Rico and England have expressed interest, Brown said.

If Johnson doesn't get drafted, he hopes to go to the NBA Development League's pre-draft camp July 28-29 in Arlington, Texas.

"We've received tons of interest from overseas teams as well as the three NBA teams," Brown said. "So he's going to sign with somebody, without a doubt."

Blake doesn't share Brown's optimism. Blake has statistics on Johnson in his files - a member of his office was the only NBA executive to ask Garrett about Johnson.

Though Garrett said Johnson is good enough to play overseas, Blake said teams in other countries are looking for NBA veterans, not players right out of college.

"He needs to go back to school and try to get his academics back up to date," Blake said before Monday's deadline passed to withdraw from the draft. "Don't pursue the dream where there is no dream."

Johnson has lots of dreams. If he gets rich playing in the pros, he would like to open a restaurant for his mother so others can enjoy her fried chicken, corn bread and macaroni.

He enjoys writing poetry and would like to write a book. More immediately, he wants to use the money he makes at KFC to get his driver's license and a car.

Johnson knows people doubt him. He said acquaintances have called him garbage and said he will end up back in the hood.

But he is proud of the way he has turned his life around, and he is determined to make a living playing basketball.

"I've dedicated my life to basketball," he said. "There's no way I'm going to give it up. I'll love basketball until the day I die. And I'm going to keep working, day by day."

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