On A Roll
Perimeter College Rec Specialist and wheelchair basketball coach Eric Johnson recently led the Atlanta Junior Hawks to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s title game. But Johnson’s goals for his team go way beyond the hardwood.
written by Kysa Anderson Daniels
As a recreational specialist at Perimeter College, Eric Johnson coordinates intramural sports programs and oversees other activities at the college pool and fitness center.
But on the weekends, Johnson can found on the court of Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, coaching young basketball players who dribble, pass and shoot free throws from their wheelchairs.
“I see my players in the chair,” Johnson said, “but I don’t see the chair. I see athletes.”
About two years ago, Johnson, who played football at UCLA, began training and coaching the Atlanta BlazeSports Junior Wheelchair Hawks of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). This past spring, Johnson led the Junior Hawks to the varsity division NWBA championship game in Louisville, Ky., where they came up just short of the title.
To make it there, Johnson and the athletes practiced hard and spent weekends crisscrossing the nation, playing tournaments in Chicago, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Sam Armas, 17, has spina bifida and has played basketball since the sixth grade. He said his experience playing under Johnson transcends sports.
“He takes what we do here and relates it back to life,” Armas said.
One of those life moments occurred when a player from an opposing team spewed a racist remark toward a Junior Hawks player. Johnson stopped the game and took the opportunity to talk about the need for civility and respect, not only with the athletes, but their parents as well.
“My passion is helping kids to get better in life, and it doesn’t matter if you’re able or disabled, black, white, green or orange,” he said.
Johnson developed a reputation for connecting with athletes with disabilities while working as a health educator, trainer and wellness coach at the Decatur YMCA.
He says his coaching assignment with the Junior Hawks is a natural progression of something that has always brought him fulfillment and a sense of purpose.
“We all need to nurture them so that the world turns out to be a better place,” he said.
Johnson is working to organize a wheelchair basketball clinic for Georgia State and Atlanta area students this summer on the Decatur Campus. For Johnson, it’s yet another opportunity to connect with athletes like the ones he coaches with the Junior Hawks.
“The relationships that I’ve built with some of these kids — they’re way beyond basketball,” he said.