Monday, December 17, 2007

Johnson gives Southern commencement

Any chance he gets, Avery Johnson speaks warmly of his alma mater Southern University. Earlier this month, he had the distinct honor and privilege to speak to Southern University.

The experience proved moving for all those involved.

“It was a thrill being invited to be part of the commencement ceremony,” Johnson said. “I’ve never done that type of deal before. I’ve done a lot of other motivation speeches for small groups and big groups, but this was special.

“I just wanted to give the graduates an encouraging and challenging message for this next stage of where they’re going. This is the next level. The next step on the ladder.”

Johnson has climbed many. The New Orleans native made quite an impact on the Southern’s basketball program before graduating in 1988. In two seasons with the Jaguars, Johnson was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and MVP of the conference tournament. He led the NCAA in assists twice, with his 13.3 assists average as a senior still standing as a Division I record.

Southern has asked Johnson to speak to its graduating class since retiring from the NBA in 2004 after 16 seasons, but his schedule with the Mavericks didn’t work out until this season. Johnson happily returned to the Felton G. Clark Activity Center, the same building he starred in two decades ago, on Dec. 7 to deliver the commencement address to 535 graduates and more than 4,000 attendees.

“I wanted to talk from the heart,” he said. “I don’t like really giving speeches, per se. I like to just talk from experience. I mixed in some stories from my time at Southern and even mixed in one NBA story. I wanted to talk to them about something that’s simple yet powerful that they can understand.”

As someone well versed in excelling in the face of long odds, Johnson’s speech had a direct message.

“I talked to them about how to help the ‘inner me’ – i-n-n-e-r-m-e – defeat the ‘enemy’ – e-n-e-m-y,” said Johnson, spelling out both phrases for full effect. “The enemy that’s waiting for them post-graduation, they’re going to need some tools to try to help defeat that enemy. But they’ve got to deal with themselves first. They’ve got to work on themselves first.

“I talked to them about doing what they’ve already done by educating themselves and having high expectations and eliminating some people in their circle that don’t need to be there, and just enjoying the ride.”

Johnson’s ride back to Baton Rouge campus home wasn’t too bad, either. In addition to donning the cap-and-gown for the first time since his own graduation – “That was pretty strange,” he said. “I felt like I was a professor,” – he received an honorary doctorate in Humane Studies. Just call him Dr. General.

“It was just an overall great day,” Johnson said. “To see so many kids that watched me when I played, because I retired so recently, they still wanted to talk about my playing days. They wanted to know about Dirk. They wanted to know about Mark Cuban. How’s the Jet doing? It’s nice that they really follow our team.”

Johnson has never stopped following Southern.

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