Before the 2018-19 high school basketball season began just a few weeks ago, veteran Union City head boys’ coach Drew Morano had a little chat with returning senior do-everything guard Gabe Johnson.
“I told him that I was counting on him to be one of the best guards in Hudson County,” Morano said.
That was asking a lot of the 5-foot-11 Johnson, who was more of a pure point guard for the Soaring Eagles a year ago, after transferring to Union City from St. Anthony, after the perennial basketball powerhouse closed its doors forever in June of 2017.
After coming to Union City from St. Anthony, Johnson averaged 12 points and six assists per game for the Soaring Eagles, fitting in nicely and helping the Soaring Eagles to a 20-win season.
But before the current season tipped off, Morano simply wanted more out of Johnson.
“I knew he was already a great shooter,” Morano said. “I just wanted him to elevate his game a little. I knew that he could take on a bigger role in terms of scoring. He knew that he was going to have a little more on his plate this year. I knew he could handle it.”
Last year, Johnson was still trying to feel his way around his new team after the demise of the glorious program headed by Naismith Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley.
“I was kind of stunned when they announced the school was closing,” Johnson said. “I thought I was going to finally get my chance to play at St. Anthony and then they closed the school. I really thought I was going to finish out at St. Anthony. The whole thing kind of blindsided me. I wasn’t ready for it.”
With nowhere to go, Johnson looked around briefly, then decided to come back home.
Johnson’s father, Gabriel Johnson, Sr. played basketball for Emerson, graduating in 1990. So the younger Gabe Johnson had a little bit of history playing basketball in Union City.
“He had a different type of game than I have,” Gabe Johnson said of his father. “He was more of a slasher.”
The younger Johnson earned a reputation for being a point guard with tremendous shooting skills.
“I knew most of the players already,” Johnson said. “I played AAU basketball [in the summer months] with the Hilltopper Heat [a Union City-based AAU squad] and Elijah Sparkman [a current member of the Soaring Eagles] was on the team. So I knew I could fit in.”
Morano knew last year that he had a keeper.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” Morano said. “He loves the game of basketball. He lives, eats, sleeps, does everything basketball. From the minute he entered the gym, I knew that we had a kid who was willing to work real hard and was going to make us a better team.”
So Johnson settled into the role of being the starting point guard last year and did a phenomenal job.
But the coach wanted more.
“The kid works so hard all the time,” Morano said. “He does everything right. He’s so polite and knows how to treat people. It’s so refreshing to see. He’s so respectful of everyone and just works all the time. It’s a credit to his parents.”
Gabriel Johnson Sr. worked religiously with his son in making him become a better player.
“He did help to teach me how to shoot the ball,” Johnson said of his father. “Coming into this year, Coach Morano told me that I had to take a bigger role. I was willing to do whatever it took to make the team win. I was actually waiting for it. I knew that I was going to have to shoot the ball more. I just had to get used to it. But I knew I was going to have to do it.”
Sure enough, just three games into the new season, Johnson has done more than what could have ever been expected. He tossed in 32 points in the season opener against defending county champion Hudson Catholic, including draining an astounding eight 3-pointers, then had 26 points and seven assists in a win over Dickinson and added 19 points and six assists in a win over Bayonne.
For his efforts, Johnson has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Johnson is the first honoree of the winter scholastic sports season.
While some people might have been surprised by Johnson’s early season scoring prowess, his head coach is not one of them.
“I knew he could do it,” Morano said. “It was just a matter of him gaining confidence. But in my 20 years coaching here, Gabe ranks right up there with the best shooters. He can shoot the ball off the bounce, which separates him from most. He has great range with his shot. We already knew that he could run the team and be a leader that everyone listens to. I saw him play some 40 games with us in the summer league and in the spring and fall leagues. I knew what he was capable of. If you give him an open look on the court, he’s going to knock down the shot. And his skill level with handling the basketball is as good as anyone’s in the county.
Added Morano, “He could have done this last year, but he knew the players he had around him and he just wanted to win. Now he feels like this is his team and he’s playing that way.”
Not only is Johnson a standout on the hardwood, but he’s also far above average in the classroom, maintaining a stellar 3.7 grade point average as a student.
Credit Johnson’s mother Recia Dickens for being the motivation in the classroom.
“My mother always told me that I needed to have great grades first,” Johnson said. “My Mom is always pushing me to hit the books. She told me from the start that grades were important.”
So Dad works on the jumper and Mom is working on the calculus. It’s a winning combination.
“I think I’m more proud of 3.7 than 26 [Johnson’s latest point per game average]. Johnson said. “Colleges don’t come looking at guys strictly because they can score 20 a game. I have to be proud of my grades. Most kids don’t get that.”
Morano knows what he has.
“Gabe is a phenomenal shooter,” Morano said. “He’s not the kind of kid who’s going to take 30 shots a game. I think that just shows what kind of a person he is.”
Morano is hopeful that Johnson’s early season explosion will lead to more colleges taking notice. Right now, his options have been limited. A lot of that is probably based on last year’s performance, coupled with his genuine lack of height.
But there aren’t many kids in New Jersey scoring 26 a game with a 3.7 GPA. Those are impeccable statistics – both ways.
“He’s definitely a scholarship player,” Morano said. “He’ll be a great get for whatever college scoops him up. He can definitely play at the [NCAA] Division I level. He has had quite a few Division II schools interested. I also think his best basketball is ahead of him. In two years, he’s proven to us that he can play with anybody. I think he’s going to get an offer.”
Johnson would love to major in sports science and physical therapy when he gets to college. Right now, he’s concentrating on one thing – winning.
“I know I can play at the highest level,” Johnson said. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. But I know I can play.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com