A Discussion with Jerry Johnson, La Academia Basketball Coach and Former Pro Athlete
By: Patrick Weider (Writer for 717 Sports Media)
The La Academia Basketball Team just completed a remarkable season where they won the PIAA District III-A title and made it to the final four in the state tournament. It’s a great accomplishment considering it is only their second season as a basketball program. The man who leads this program is Jerry Johnson, a 2001 McCaskey graduate who went on to star at Rider University and to play professionally overseas for a decade. Before he ever became a star basketball player, he was just a kid who grew up on the southeast side of Lancaster City.
As Johnson grew up in Lancaster City, he enjoyed playing sports. At an early age he started to play basketball on a daily basis. The one place he spent most of his time playing basketball was the Boys & Girls Club. Johnson said “I spent a lot of my time in the Boys & Girls Club. I was always in the gym trying to get better.”
Johnson then attended Southeast Middle School (formerly called Hand Middle School) and then J.P. McCaskey High School. As a freshman, he started on the varsity team and led them to success on the hardwood floor throughout his four-year career. Johnson enjoyed his experience at McCaskey and talked about the excitement of playing in front of large groups of fans. Johnson said “my high school career was so entertaining and exciting. Being at McCaskey was like going to a Penn State game, that’s how crowded it was. People took off work to come to our games to watch us. Every game was sold out.”
After High School he then went on to play four years at Rider University. Again, as a first-year player he started and excelled on the court. He earned the MAAC Rookie of the Year title. He went on to make three straight first team all-conference selections and own numerous school records. The mindset he developed at the Boys & Girls club and then honed at McCaskey continued at Rider University. It is a mindset of hard work and never-quit attitude. Johnson said “I took no prisoners. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity. I wanted to out work everyone”.
After graduating from Rider University, Johnson then embarked on a remarkable pro career that led him throughout Europe. He finished his last five years at Kazakhstan where he excelled so much on the basketball court, he was the first person to be granted citizenship so he could play on the National Team. He also was part of a title winning team in Spirou Charleroi. The same work ethic and drive that Johnson had at McCaskey and Rider University is what brought him success playing professionally overseas. Johnson said “go and take advantage of opportunities. Do your job and be respectful to everything.”
Once Johnson’s pro career ended, he always knew that he wanted to return to his hometown of Lancaster and impact people in the community in a positive way. He understood how it is to live in Lancaster and wanted to get back to his roots and make basketball a central focus of it. Johnson said “I knew I wanted to come home. I’d been everywhere in Europe. I wanted to show some kids how to play basketball and to make an impact in this community”.
Johnson wasn’t sure how he would impact the community, until he got a phone call one day about being Athletic Director and Basketball Coach at La Academia Charter School. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to take on this task, but his love for the community drove him to want to take this position. Simply put Johnson said he couldn’t turn down the “opportunity to give back to the community.”
With the same focus of playing on the basketball court, Johnson went about creating a culture of basketball around the school. He focused on always trying your best and putting in hard work to be successful. In La Academia’s second year as a program and first year in PIAA, they won a PIAA District III-A title and made it to the final four of the state playoffs. This win was not about Johnson, but about the community and the people of Lancaster City. Johnson said “It just means so much. It just shows if you put your mind and heart into something you can achieve your goals. Hard work and grit. Not even just our school but the community. It is going to carry them forward”.
Johnson grew up in Lancaster, traveled the world and returned home to lead a school to a District Title - it is something dreams are made of. Johnson’s drive and dedication to the city of Lancaster and the community that gave him everything is inspiring to many in the community. Johnson said, “I am just a Southeast Lancaster kid.” After all these years he is still that Southeast kid at heart but has achieved so much for the community and is an inspiration for all to see.