Lacing up his high-tops, Johnny Lee Jr. sat silently in front of his locker. The locker room’s buzz built by the minute. Every player, coach, assistant, and equipment manager knew how important this basketball game was.
The soft rumble of their rival’s gym grew as game time got closer. The team bus drove a measly one mile down the street for the game. Johnny Lee’s school, Lipscomb University, had been embroiled in a rivalry with Belmont University since 1953. The stands clanged and clacked under the crowd befitting only a rivalry game. Fans showed up early and would not leave until the scoreboard told them to do so.
This game loomed as a very important moment to every person in the locker room. But for Johnny, this game would change it all. He would lace up, slip into his uniform, and pre-game plan for the last time.
But he didn’t know that. Not yet, at least.
“It was one of those games when you have a lot of emotion because you can feel the energy of the people in the stands,” Johnny remembers.
The trot on to the court looked routine. The team warmup looked routine. The opening handshake amongst the starting players also looked routine. In terms of the start of a basketball game, all appeared normal.
Within the first 30 seconds, Johnny got the ball. Like he had executed countless times before, Johnny would see a gap in the defense, use his sneaky quick feet, weave his way into the lane just in front of the hoop, fly into a jump-stop, and float up to the rim, guiding the ball with a smooth finger roll. For the five-foot-eight Johnny, this would be a routine layup.
But something very un-routine happened right as Johnny initiated lift off. The split second before he made the final leap toward the rim, his left knee shifted a fraction too far. A section of the knee slid out of place and overexposed his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).
overexposed his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).
Johnny’s feet never left the floor. He collapsed chest-first towards the hardwood floor. A look of shock and pain sprang from his face. The team trainer rushed to Johnny’s side and helped him off the court, where he sat on the end of the bench and helplessly watched the rest of the game.
But he didn’t know his beloved basketball playing days were over. Not yet, at least.
Two weeks after Johnny tore his ACL, he had reconstructive surgery. This surgery would end up serving two purposes for Johnny. The first purpose, and the most obvious, was to recover from a serious injury. The second purpose, which became obvious months later, was to help him realize who he actually was.
“Church boy.” Johnny’s school pals could have nicknamed him that without ever being wrong. Johnny, along with his three older sisters, spent many Sundays—sometimes Wednesdays, tons of Fridays, plenty of Saturdays—at church.
“I spent a lot of my youth in the church,” Johnny says. “It wasn’t really apparent to me what that stuff meant, but I was just in that environment for such a long time.”
Johnny spoke the church lingo. He smiled at the older members. And he definitely knew how to wear a Sunday tie. But 12-year-old Johnny also hooligan-ed with his youth group buddies. He didn’t quite pay attention to every moment of the sermon. And perhaps his worst offense consisted of some sleepy Sundays.
“When my dad was not at the pulpit and he would sit with us, if I would ever fall asleep beside him, he would make me stand up,” Johnny remembers. “And this was not stadium seating, it was one level of seating. So when I fell asleep and had to stand up, everyone would be able to see me. It was very scary as a little kid.”
“Sleepy church boy” might be the revised nickname as Johnny got through his middle school years.
But that sleepy phase ended when Johnny moved into being a teenager. When he was 13 years old, he noticed how people walked up to the front of the church at the end of the sermon. Every time the preacher would close the service by saying, “If you would like to receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, come on up to the front,” Johnny would look on with real fascination. Why are they doing that? What does that question even mean? Should I go?
Johnny went up, but he didn't know why. Not right away, at least. He had so many questions still lingering in his head. He waited until he got home and asked his dad what it all meant. Johnny’s dad, Johnny Lee Sr., told his son to sit at the dining table. As Johnny Jr. shuffled over to his seat, his dad walked over to the fridge, opened it, grabbed a piece of cold bread, and walked back.
This scene remains cemented in Johnny Jr.’s mind to this day. A photographic memory of his dad explaining what communion represents (even if using a piece of nondescript sliced bread) for someone who has accepted Jesus as his or her Savior.
Johnny Sr. explains that night this way: “At that time, I wanted him to get a real good sense of what we were doing in church and what it meant for us as believers to participate in communion. I wanted to take my time with it and give him an idea of what the bread and juice symbolized. And I wanted him to be able to ask me because at church you don’t always get the opportunity to ask questions about what you are doing.”
It worked. Johnny Jr. still remembers that moment vividly. “I remember my first communion, which was actually at home. I had made the declaration in church and then when I got home, my dad gave me some unassuming piece of bread out of the fridge and some grape juice and kind of walked me through some of the things that communion represented. It was awesome because that is what I remember of communion. It was a very personal experience.”
That moment at the table with the cold slice of bread still plays in Johnny’s head to this day. He remembers it because he knows just how much it helped guide him through the unexpected turns in life, like the day Johnny’s basketball career ended.
Johnny first picked up a basketball before he could he even spell the word. He always stood a bit smaller than others, but quickness elevated his athletic prowess at a young age. That particular combination of assets never left him. At each level of playing basketball, Johnny’s opponents towered over him, but he just sped past them. Natural athleticism and a very high basketball IQ made him a recruiting target for several lower-tiered basketball programs in Tennessee.
“I played high school basketball against Johnny, and he had the reputation of a legend,” Johnny’s good friend Josh says. “In the Nashville area, he was known as one of the best players, if not the best player in the city.”
But Johnny sought an alternate route to the realm of collegiate basketball. He knew he could make more out of his skill set than recruiters had thought. He had one accomplishment in mind: play for a Division I squad. Sure, naysayers quickly pointed out his height as a disadvantage. But that goal came one step closer when Johnny got accepted to George Washington University (GW) for academics.
“I wanted to know that I was good enough to play at the level I wanted to play at,” Johnny remembers.
After spending a year as a part of the general student population, Johnny scrapped his way into a student athlete role as a walk-on player. He tried out and caught the eye of the coaches. Johnny made the basketball team and got inserted into the Division I lifestyle. The next steps toward his dreams had begun.
Johnny studied Religion at GW and contrary to what he may have intended, this major did not trigger a spike in his church participation. He began an off-and-on approach to Sundays. He rationalized missing church because he studied scriptures for class all the time.
Also, Johnny strutted as a young, smart, noticeable, college athlete. And locker room chatter did not exactly reflect the message coming from the pulpit. And like many people that enter college, the general urge to just live wild seemed to lurk at every turn.
“At GW, I had one foot in the [college] world because I was fascinated by what I could do,” Johnny says. “But everything that my parents had taught was telling me to stay away. And I can laugh about it now, but it is real. You never know what one [thing] could have taken me that one [wrong] way.”
Yet, he never did anything really wild. Sure, he lived it up a little here and there.
there. After a big win, or even a loss, the crew often headed out to a party. These parties were typical college scenes, but Johnny often declined. And if he obliged, and even if he drank with the team, he always stopped early enough in the night, effectively avoiding any huge mistakes. There was no intense pressure put on Johnny while he was on the team. And in the end, he was widely regarded as the “nice guy.”
Johnny simply chuckles while remembering that time. He realizes just how easy it might have been for his life to go in a different direction. But he stayed on the straight and narrow without even realizing it. He simply stopped before any slippery slope got too wide for him to steer it back in the right direction. Like a bowling lane with bumpers, Johnny may have bounced a little from side to side, but he always maintained the path down the lane. And he never landed in the gutter.
His only explanation is that he was “covered” during that time. This term personifies God’s grace like an umbrella deflecting pellets of rain. God’s grace protected Johnny from the storms of college life. A grace that Johnny learned about at home, growing up. He now knows that night at the table with his dad and a slice of cold bread did him in. That lesson of eternal and unbreakable love that his dad explained dove deep into Johnny’s psyche. It all genuinely stuck.
Johnny finished his four-year degree at GW with three years of basketball under his belt. After starting several games, he became a fan favorite because of his size and speed. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allows students to play four years of a sport. Johnny had only spent three years on the team at GW, leaving him with one more season of eligibility. But, he decided to go back to his roots and play for a university five minutes from his parent’s house in Nashville.
parent’s house in Nashville. After graduating from GW, he entered Lipscomb University and pursued a Masters of Divinity degree while playing out his last year of athletic eligibility.
His time at Lipscomb gave Johnny the opportunity to observe faith differently. He saw his faith in a personal way. The comfortable view of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that surrounded his upbringing transitioned into a graphic realization that Jesus fashioned Himself at the foundation of Johnny’s life. Even when, or better yet, especially when things went wrong.
Like the night Johnny fell to the floor with a knee that wiggled out of place. The night it all ended.
That moment became a turning point for Johnny and the way he sees God today.
Johnny felt very little pain the night he tore his ACL. Typically, it is not a physically painful injury in the moment despite how severe it is. Johnny would have tried to keep playing that night if his coach and trainers would have allowed it.
“I didn’t have a chance to try any lateral moves because my trainer was like, ‘Sit down!’” Johnny remembers. “But I thought I was gonna get a chance to get back in the game. And at a certain point, I realized I was not going to play.”
Two weeks after the injury occurred, Johnny went in for surgery. The few weeks following the surgery replicated each other with the same pattern of sleep, food, and painkillers every day.
“I had my leg propped up on pillows and I would just sleep,” Johnny remembers. “And my mom would set out these pills, and I would just pass out for a large part of the day. Eat, and then pass out again.”
Still, his commitment to basketball never wavered. The idea of making a professional career out of it constantly beckoned Johnny. And he ran after that idea. Even with the injury.
After Johnny no longer needed the painkillers, he began his rehabilitation process. The strength-training focused on his left leg that had lost nearly all of its muscle throughout the process. And each day, as he went to those rehab sessions, the plot of getting a sports agent to shop his résumé to teams in America or abroad played out in his head like a Disney after-school special. The undersized point guard that miraculously made it to the top level of the sport would be on his autobiography’s back cover in an ideal world.
Eight months after his surgery, Johnny began hitting the court at full speed. He worked out and scrimmaged with his buddies down the road at Lipscomb. His speed returned. His shot fell through the hoop like before. And his passion for the game remained, if not ballooned with more intensity.
But something began to change in Johnny. After having the game taken away from him, a shift in perspective settled in. He spent eight months of recovery not really being a basketball player. He stopped telling people he played basketball when they asked what he did. And in the midst of trying to gain his physical strength back, he noticed how easy it was for all of it to disappear. Just by taking the wrong step.
“I had defined myself with basketball for as long as I can remember. That was the only thing I wanted to do: play professional basketball,” Johnny admits. “And I think the injury made me look at myself in a completely different way.
different way. For so long you thought your existence was this one thing. But basketball is just a talent I have...it’s not life. It is not the reason I was created. It’s not the most important thing to me anymore.”
Ultimately, Johnny’s commitment to basketball shifted. He took hold of a new perspective on life. A perspective that painted a very real picture. There lies the fragility in putting your hopes and dreams in the things right in front of you. Those things—the tangible stuff a person feels like they can control—may just crumble in the blink of an eye.
So, he decided to look to Jesus. And in doing so, the identity of “basketball player” shed from Johnny. And being a son of God started to nestle into the deepest parts of his heart.
For as long as Johnny could remember, he had a plan: work hard, get noticed, play pro ball. So when he began identifying himself as a son of God rather than a basketball player, his plans simultaneously went out the door. It wasn’t until he completely surrendered that Johnny saw God’s intricate planning come to light.
Johnny didn’t play basketball in any organized or highly competitive league after his recovery. Nonetheless, life changed dramatically. One of his older sisters, Candace, invited him to come live with her in Brooklyn, New York. Johnny obliged and left for New York about a year after he had recovered from his injury.
In that year leading up to his move, Johnny started attending a church in Nashville called Ethos. It was there that he started to see church differently.
He started helping out at services. It started out with the simple stuff like showing up early and setting up chairs. But that blossomed into being involved every week. Johnny started to really enjoy being a part of a community of like-minded people.
He took that momentum with him to New York. Johnny eventually plugged himself in at Hillsong Church’s New York City location. He found himself amongst guys trying to be better men. Johnny liked that. He needed that group to bounce trials and tribulations off of. He joined what is known as the Hillsong Drivers. They assist the staff and guest speakers for every Sunday service or event held by the church. But more importantly, they pray for each other, call each other up in times of crisis, and ride the journey with each other.
“Johnny is just electric. He is a really special person,” Jason, one of the team leaders for the driving crew, says. “And [someone] on a team alongside of you like that is a blessing. He has supernatural joy that comes from God. It is like a super-charge for everyone around him.”
That supercharge was exactly what the athletic director at the Pratt Institute was looking for when he called Johnny. A position as an assistant coach for the men's basketball team at Pratt opened up. Johnny jumped on it. And just like that, he found the collaborative calling for his life. He now cares for people through a game he loves: basketball.
And that is exactly how anyone who has ever known Johnny would expect it to unfold.
Church boy. Baller. Coach. He doesn’t mind any of the nicknames...as long as they know he’s a son of God first.
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