Stevie Johnson had been struggling at the free-throw line and didn’t want to let his team down. It was a pivotal moment in one of the biggest games of the season. Iowa State was down four points to No. 13 Oklahoma State with just over three minutes left in the 2000 Big 12 Conference Tournament semifinal.
“I had been missing free throws early on,” Johnson remembered. “I said to myself, ‘Oh man, they’re going to be fouling me because I’ve been missing free throws.’ And I was able to hit my free throws.”
He did more than that. Johnson went to work, scoring seven-straight points, including a pair of conventional three-point plays in a two-minute span to put the Cyclones over the hump in a crucial 68-64 victory.
“I knew I wasn’t a great free throw shooter, but I made sure I made the ‘and-1s’ in that game,” Johnson said. “It was the best feeling ever. I remember Mike (Nurse) jumping on my back. It was great.”
It was one of many great days as a Cyclone for Johnson, who was back in town this week helping out at Fred Hoiberg’s Basketball Camp.
The 36-year-old Johnson will always be remembered by Cyclone fans for a lot of reasons. The Beaumont, Miss., native was the tenacious defender and rebounder on arguably the greatest basketball team in school history, the 1999-2000 squad which captured both the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles and went onto the Elite Eight.
When his basketball eligibility was up after that magical hoops season, he wasn’t finished making history. Johnson hadn’t played organized football since his freshman year of high school, but he thought he would give football a try in his final season in Ames.
Well, the rest is Cyclone history. Johnson made the team, and was a significant contributor at linebacker on arguably one of the greatest football teams in school history, the 2000 squad which won a school-record nine games and captured the school’s first bowl victory (Insight.com Bowl).
That’s quite a legacy left by Johnson. He certainly is still proud of being a part of both iconic teams in Cyclone history.
“It means a lot because you think about the tradition of this school,” Johnson said. “You think about the people who came before me – Jeff Hornacek, Hoiberg, Troy Davis – all those people, and all those good teams that we had. I got the chance to play with (Marcus) Fizer and (Jamaal) Tinsley in basketball and (James) Reed and (Reggie) Hayward in football. Those years I spent here at Iowa State were the best years of my life.”
“I was a part of something great here at Iowa State, and it was just a blessing,” Johnson added. “I could’ve went to a lot of schools, but I don’t regret coming to Iowa State.”
Johnson is still playing basketball professionally, and if you saw him today, he could pass for a player in his mid-20s. He’s traveled the world playing the game he so cherishes. His first stop was in Iceland, leading the league in scoring and earning MVP honors. He spent the next eight years in Spain, followed by a stint in Argentina and his current team in Germany.
Despite all of his jet-setting, Johnson will always have a soft spot for Ames, Iowa.
“When I’m overseas, the games come on really late, so it might be 3 a.m. when the games are on,” Johnson said. “So coming back here, it just feels great. Now people are talking about Iowa State everywhere. It’s changed so much and that makes me feel good, because from where we started when I was here, to the notoriety we get now, you can see Iowa State jerseys in other places besides Iowa. That means a lot because I’m always bragging on my university everywhere I go.”
Johnson was a highly-touted recruit when he arrived in Ames prior to the 1996-97 season. Tim Floyd brought him to Iowa State, but it was under the guidance of Larry Eustachy where the power forward thrived.
Johnson was, and still is, an incredible athlete. He possessed extreme jumping ability and superior speed packed into his chiseled 6-4, 225-pound frame. He tested out with a 38-inch vertical leap and had an uncanny ability to time his jumps perfectly.
When Eustachy needed a guy to clean up around the hoop in the middle of his senior season (1999-2000), Johnson found his niche.
“I got a chance to play for Coach Floyd and Coach Eustachy, two of the greatest basketball men you’ll play for,” Johnson said. “Two really tough guys, but they made me a man. I came here, I didn’t know a lot about basketball. I was a really good athlete, but they taught me a lot of life lessons. I got a chance to grow up. When we started the conference season (1999-2000), Paul Shirley had gotten hurt and then Martin Rancik got hurt. So, I got the chance to start and things kind of went from there.”
The Cyclones were rolling and Johnson was a big part of it. He shot an incredible 66.3 percent from the field in his final year with the Cyclones, the best single-season clip recorded by a Cyclone with at least 100 made field goals (128-193 FG).
Playing alongside his teammates, including All-Americans Fizer and Tinsley, on a team which set the school record for wins (32) is something he will never forget.
“The biggest thing was, when we were in late game situations, we always felt like we were going to pull it out,” Johnson said. “If we were down five points with a minute left, we knew somebody was going to make a play. We knew Fizer would make a basket, or Jamaal is going to get one in. Then you would have Nurse or (Kantrail) Horton making big threes. It was always somebody who stepped up at the right time. And defensively, I think we were the best defensive team in the league. We had to be. We played really hard. Everybody knew their role. The cohesiveness was better than any team I’ve ever played with.”
After the record-setting 1999-2000 season ended, Johnson had a unique decision to contemplate. He always loved football and certainly had the build to succeed. His father, Cleo, was a fourth round pick of the Denver Broncos in the 1971 NFL Draft.
The Cyclones were on the verge of something great in Dan McCarney’s sixth season (2000) at Iowa State and Johnson was interested in joining the team for his fifth-year of eligibility.
The Iowa State coaching staff, including current head coach Paul Rhoads, who was an assistant on McCarney’s staff then, had talked to Johnson numerous times about the possibility of joining the team.
“The coaches had always talked to me about playing football. Growing up, football was probably my best sport, but I didn’t play it when I got older because my dad played two years of professional ball and he got hurt so he encouraged us not to play,” Johnson said. “I started excelling at basketball, so I left football and baseball alone. I needed a couple more classes to graduate and Coach (Tony) Alford, who was the running backs coach, had been talking to me a little bit about it. He told me, ‘You can do it, you know?’ I didn’t even know about the fifth-year rule where I could play another sport. I thought about it and said, ‘Yeah, I want to give it a try.’”
Depth at any position is needed for football, especially when you have the talent of Johnson. Johnson jumped into spring drills immediately after basketball season ended. He made an auspicious debut, leading the team in tackles in the 2000 Spring Game.
Johnson enjoyed the transition to football.
“As far as the physical part, I could pretty much adjust,” Johnson said. “But it was night and day. I hadn’t played football since I was a freshman in high school. To come to the Big 12, you are playing the big boys. Everything was so fast for me. About midway through the season I started to pick up on things, and it got a lot easier for me. I look at it now, to be able to contribute to that team, it means the world to me. I still chat with a lot of those guys. They opened their arms to me. They could have shunned me out coming from basketball. They allowed me to come into their locker room and be a part of their team and that meant a lot to me.”
Johnson played in 10 games at linebacker in 2000, racking up 17 tackles. He had a career-high six tackles vs. Colorado.
The season was capped off by a 37-29 victory over Pittsburgh in the Insight.com Bowl, a game where Johnson saw action.
As a key member of ISU’s greatest men’s basketball and football teams, I guess you could say Johnson’s legacy at Iowa State is firmly cemented.
“I don’t think much of it right now because I’m still playing,” Johnson said. “When I’m done I probably will. I was a part of an Elite Eight team and a Sweet 16 team in basketball, and then ISU’s first bowl win. And the people in Ames, they always treated me great. It was the best five years of my life.”