Former Cumberland star heading to Germany for pro basketball career
By JOHN HENSON
Harlan County Sports.com
Leaving home to find a new basketball challenge is nothing new for Desmond Johnson.
When he was 15, Johnson left North Carolina for Harlan County where he starred for three seasons with the Cumberland Redskins.
Now, after a stellar four-year career at Lincoln Memorial University, Johnson is leaving home again to play professional basketball in Europe. Johnson departed Monday for a new career and new life in Germany as a member of the Crailsheim Merlins.
“I’m excited, as well as emotional. It’s a big step in the right direction,” said Johnson. “I’m leaving my family for an extended period, so it’s a tough time as well as an exciting time.”
“He earned it. Des really worked hard from the time he showed up Cumberland through his LMU days. He worked hard to get where he’s at,” said Harlan Lady Dragons coach Derrick Akal, a former standout Cumberland point guard who coached Johnson in high school.
Johnson helped turn the Redskins into one of the 13th Region’s top teams in their final two years before the merger to form Harlan County High School. He led Cumberland to the All “A” Classic regional title as a junior in 2007. Cumberland fell to Bell County in the 52nd District Tournament finals that season and advanced to the 13th Region Tournament semifinals with a win over Clay County before falling to eventual champ South Laurel in the semifinals.
Cumberland repeated as district runner-up in 2008, defeating Middlesboro in the semifinals before falling to Bell County in a championship rematch.
“I think back to countless learning experiences,” said Johnson of his years in Cumberland. “I was taught the game by Derrick Akal, who is a father figure and mentor to me. He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever had. I also learned a lot from Bull Creech. I think my Cumberland days molded me into the player who went to LMU. That was my foundation, my base, and I gradually progressed from there.”
Johnson said Jerry Edwards, the head coach at Cumberland during that time, also played a big role in his success.
“Coach E always kept us in line and kept us organized,” Johnson said. “We needed that. WIthout him, we would have crumbled.”
Johnson earned statewide respect that summer when he made a loaded Kentucky All-Star team that went on to split with Indiana in the annual summer series. Kentucky won 95-78 in Louisville, then lost 83-82 in Indiana. Kentucky hasn’t won a game in the series since 2008, losing nine straight.
“I used to tell the college recruiters that he was one you couldn’t judge by his numbers,” Akal said. “You couldn’t look and see he had 12 points and 10 rebounds because he got so much better every year. His basketball IQ was high and he worked hard, so you knew when he was young that he would improve. He did every year.
“I remember (former Cumberland assistant) Bull Creech saying when he was a junior at Cumberland that he wanted to see Des four years from now. You could see his improvement and potential.”
Johnson had an immediate impact at LMU, earning South Atlantic Freshman of the Year honors in 2009 after averaging 10.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
He made the South Atlantic Conference all-tournament team as a sophomore, averaging 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting almost 60 percent from the field.
He was the conference player of the year as a junior, averaging just under 15 points a game while pulling down 8.4 rebounds per contest and shooting 63 percent from the field.
Johnson capped his LMU career in 2012 by leading the Railsplitters to a 26-6 record while scoring 10.5 points per game and grabbing a team-high 6.9 rebounds, earning all-conference honors once again.
“I am so happy that Desmond will get a much deserved opportunity to play professional basketball,” LMU coach Josh Schertz said. “We won a lot of games over Desmond’s career here at LMU, and certainly he was a big part of our success. I think Desmond’s versatility will serve him well at the professional level. He is a prototype three and a half where he blends perimeter and post skills with equal proficiency. Because of his combination of skills and intangibles, Desmond is a guy that has a chance to make a living playing basketball and not just collect a check.”
Johnson hopes for an extended career in professional basketball but has plans for his life beyond athletics.
“I want to eventually own my own clothing line,” said Johnson, who graduated from LMU with a business degree in marketing.
He’s in no hurry, however, to move past basketball.
“I want to play as long as God will allow me to play,” he said. “I have no set date on when I want to stop playing. If I could play forever, I would.”
Sitting in a Charlotte airport waiting on the plane that will take him to Germany, Johnson reflected fondly on his three years in Harlan County.
“I was born in Hickory, N.C.,” he said, “but I was made in Lynch, Kentucky.”