Larry Adren Johnson, Jr.: Newspaper Articles



Tuesday, October 28, 1986
By Scott Heiberger

Larry Johnson was just starting to ease into college life at Alaska Pacific University when he began to feel run down.

The former Bartlett High basketball player was working out in anticipation of the APU season, but he didn't feel quite right and he had a virus he couldn't shake.

"I'd been jogging every day and getting in shape for the preseason," said Johnson. "It was time for a routine checkup and blood test, and then they noticed that my white blood cell count was low." The diagnosis was a bone marrow disorder, and Johnson has been in a Seattle hospital since mid-September.

Johnson sounded good on the telephone last week, despite three days of chemotherapy on his bone marrow. He said he wants to be back in Anchorage for the Great Alaska Shootout in late November.

But Johnson's situation worsened over the weekend when he developed pneumonia, said APU Coach Mike Blewett. Blewett visited Johnson for two days and flew back to Anchorage Monday.

"He's in intensive care now and on a respirator," said Blewett. "He's very sick. He was conscious but he couldn't talk because of the respirator, so he wrote notes."

Johnson is vulnerable to infection because of his lack of white blood cells. The white cells act as scavengers in the body and fight infection. Antibiotics are being used instead.

Blewett said the doctors hope the marrow will revive and begin producing blood cells.

"He hadn't started developing cells yet, which is the real problem," said Blewett.

Bartlett Coach Larry Whitmore, who coached Johnson last season on the Golden Bears' state championship team, would like to see a flood of letters directed to the hospital.

"Right now the best thing we can do is give Larry as much love as we can, because it gets lonely down there," said Whitmore.

Johnson is in University Hospital, Ward 5 Southeast, 1959 NE Pacific St., Seattle, Wash., 98195. The hospital phone number is 206-548-3308.

Johnson's mother, Marva, has been with him almost constantly. His brother, Reggie, and sister, also named Marva, flew down with Blewett Saturday and stayed.

Former Bartlett teammate Steve Walton has visited and the APU volleyball team has stopped by on two road trips. APU basketball players are trying to give what support they can long distance.

"We're pulling for him," said Blewett. "We miss his upbeat attitude . . . It really puts a new perspective on things. Pressure isn't trying to win or lose a game when you get into something like this."

Johnson first became ill after his sophomore year in high school. He learned his white blood cell count was low and that he had a bone marrow problem.

He missed the next school year while undergoing treatment, which included blood transfusions and medication. Johnson, who recently turned 20, overcame the sickness and was a key member of Bartlett's state championship team.

"Larry eats, breathes and lives basketball," said Whitmore of the 6 foot 2 guard. "His total wish was to win state, and that's what kept him going in high school. That's why I was so glad we could do it."

Reggie also was a member of Bartlett's title squad and is a freshman on APU's team. Reggie is red shirting, however, because of knee surgery. He said Larry doesn't depress easily.

"He just never gets down on himself and never sulks," said Reggie before going to Seattle, "not even when he left for the hospital. And now that he's down there, there's times he says he feels fine (even) if he doesn't. That's just the way he is. Always positive."

Larry said that he didn't want his friends to worry.

"Just tell everyone to send their prayers. I'll be back," he said.

Monday, March 02, 1987
By Lew Freedman

The visit is only for 10 days, but Larry Johnson hopes he can figure out a way to see hundreds of people and thank them when he returns to Alaska today for the first time in six months.

Much of that time the 6 foot 2 guard on the 1986 Bartlett High state championship team was in University Hospital in Seattle, struggling against a form of leukemia afflicting his bone marrow. But these days Johnson sees the inside of a hospital only twice a week and the inside of a gymnasium more frequently than that.

"I'm feeling great," said Johnson, 20, who was scheduled to play for Alaska Pacific University's new team this season before his illness sidelined him.

Since he was released from the hospital in December and has been undergoing treatments to increase his platelet count, Johnson has been living in Seattle.

"I can't get the treatment in Anchorage," he said.

He has also virtually been living at basketball games. He has been working out with the Seattle Pacific University team, and been attending the Falcons' home games, including last Saturday's game against the University of Alaska Anchorage. He also goes to University of Washington games and Seattle SuperSonics home games.

"The Sonics came over to see me in the hospital," said Johnson, who said he has developed friendships with Sonics players Xavier McDaniel, Dale Ellis and others. "They leave me tickets."

Last fall, though, Johnson wasn't getting to any basketball games, never mind playing in any. He was weak and couldn't acknowledge the telephone calls and letters he received from well wishers in Anchorage.

"I got over 300 letters," he said. "My mom and brother and sister read them to me. I got a lot of calls, too, but I had a respirator in my mouth."

Johnson can only stay in Anchorage for 10 days because he must keep up his outpatient treatments, but he said he hopes to see many of the people who cheered him up.

"I want to visit some of the schools that wrote to me," said Johnson.

Sunday, September 06, 1987
By Beth Bragg

Like so many of the Alaska Pacific University students who spend hours hanging out at the Moseley Sports Center, Larry Johnson looks young and strong and healthy and athletic.

He is friendly and talkative, the kind of person who can make a newcomer feel welcome. He has a round, boyish face and an irresistible grin. As he talks and laughs with the dozens of friends who seem drawn to him, Larry Johnson is so full of life that it is astonishing to know he was almost lifeless a year ago.

"I'm really not supposed to be here," said Johnson.

Last September, Johnson, a former basketball star at Bartlett High who has hopes of making the APU basketball team this season, left Anchorage for what he thought would be a short stay in a Seattle hospital. Soon a machine was breathing for him. A tormented family watched as he slowly slipped away.

People spoke of Johnson's condition in whispers, almost afraid to say the word: Leukemia, a cancer that attacks the blood system, destroying the white blood cells that fight infection.

Johnson's weight dropped from 195 pounds to 130 and his lungs shriveled from lack of use. Filled with drugs and barely able to talk, he communicated with paper and pencil.

"I was aware of the severity, but I didn't know time," said Johnson, who missed an entire year of high school with the disease only to come back and help Bartlett win the state championship in his senior year in 1985-86.

"I was on all kinds of drugs, morphine and stuff, so I was so high most of the time. I didn't know when I would be out of the woods, but I always knew I was gonna recover."

Few others were as confident. Johnson failed to respond to chemotherapy, and by December doctors were left with one final hope bone marrow transplants. His mother, Marva, was the donor.

The transplants worked. Johnson's blood cell count went up and his strength began to return. On June 4, he and his mother finally came home. The short stay in Seattle had lasted more than eight months.

Johnson's disease has been in remission fora couple of months now, and his doctor visits have dwindled to once every week or two.

"My blood counts are holding real steady, and they're high," said Johnson. "Lately, I've been thinking, Gosh, am I gonna get sick again? But today was the best I've ever felt breathing wise."

Johnson said his blood cell count shot up by 50 percent once he got back to Anchorage the result, he thinks, of being at home and happy.

By July he was truly back home on a basketball court, playing in the Anchorage Recreational Summer League. Now he spends a couple of hours a day playing at Moseley Sports Center.

"I have 28 days to get into shape for preseason," said Johnson, who will be 21 in October. "I wanna push myself to get back to where I was. I still have a lot of things to do my jumping is almost nil, and I need to build up my strength. I have to work out in stretches a game and a half and I'm bushed."

No matter what Johnson's condition is by the time APU begins practice, Pioneer Coach Mike Blewett said he will be part of the team.

"He'll probably be a combination manager-practice player," said Blewett. "We'll see how he develops. He lost a lot of his strength when he was sick, but he's just a joy to have around."

"It's remarkable he even recovered. When I saw him in Seattle he was flat on his back with a respirator and in a coma, and now there he is," said Blewett while watching Johnson play some one on one last week.

Johnson said he gained about 40 pounds this summer to get back up to 195. "I eat constantly," he said. "Every time I see a commercial, every time I see my brother eat."

"I didn't realize how much weight I'd lost until they got me off the respirator (in December) and I saw myself in a mirror. As soon as I got off the respirator, I ate a whole pizza by myself and drank seven liters of water."

Johnson's darkest days were those spent on the respirator, unable to drink even a sip of water. He couldn't walk and could barely talk.

"I watched basketball games and called people back home," he said. "I had a $500 phone bill."

One conversation was with APU basketball player Paul Bryant, who became quick friends with Johnson last fall before Johnson got sick.

Bryant, Johnson's roommate, remembers making the phone call almost in desperation.

"For one day I had doubts about Larry. He had pneumonia and the doctors had given up on him," said Bryant. "I called him up and he could barely talk, and he said, 'Paul, I will see you back out on the court.'" He told me, "'Paul, I'm going to fight it,' and after that I had confidence in Larry."

"I kind of got tired of people who doubted Larry's faith and who said Larry won't make it. He had the faith and he knew it wasn't his time."

Larry Johnson believes faith had a great deal to do with his return to health.

"I really think it did," he said. "This changes your whole perspective on life, on what's important and what isn't. You're not gonna play basketball all your life. When I got sick my junior year, I came back and I think I got through that because of basketball. But not this time. It was more knowing how much I missed everybody and getting so many prayers and support from Alaska. I can't believe all the support I got I have over 500 letters from people I don't even know. I can never thank people for the support they gave me."

The center of Johnson's support system was his family. His mother "was the rock, she was so strong," said Johnson. His grandmother from Tennessee joined him in Seattle. His brother Reggie, also an APU basketball player, and sister Lynn, a 15-year-old at Bartlett, came to visit when they could.

"It was pretty bad the first time I saw him in Seattle," said Reggie, who shakes his head in amazement at Larry's presence on the basketball court. "I saw him in December and his arms were so skinny."

"I'm still concerned it's not like it used to be, I know that. I might be a little protective unconsciously, but he's still my big brother. He knows what he can do and what he can't do."

Mostly what Larry Johnson does is inspire. People who know him know it is a miracle to have him back.

"I just say thank God for him," said Bryant. "Thank God no tragedy happened. He's a motivator now. We sort of dedicated last season to Larry, but this year will be our big dedication to him, to show him how much his willpower means to us.

"Larry's back and he's here to stay, so you've gotta cherish him."

Tuesday, June 28, 1988
By Scott Heiberger

Bartlett High graduate Larry Johnson had suppressed leukemia for more than a year. He planned to be on the basketball courts last week when the Anchorage Recreational Summer League began.

But Johnson, who helped Bartlett win a state championship in 1986, suffered a relapse of his five year old affliction. The cancer that attacks the infection fighting white blood cells took 25 pounds from him last month.

Johnson was told his body probably couldn't handle the ravages of chemotherapy, but said his spirits were lifted when he heard of a doctor in Greece who has cured cancer patients with injections of serum and a strict diet.

Johnson was supposed to go to Greece last month, but lack of money delayed the trip.

"I want to get over there, get healthy, and get on with what I have to do," said Johnson, who plans to go to law school. "If my body bounces back like it's supposed to, I don't see any reason why I can't play ball again."

Johnson, 21, attended Alaska Pacific University last year and worked out with the team. He enrolled in a weight lifting class second semester to build himself back up from a severe bout with leukemia in 1986. Then came the sudden drop in weight that put him at his current 170 pounds on a 6 foot 2 frame.

Johnson's mother, Marva, tried to get an advance on the retirement money she's accumulated while working for Alascom. But her union told her she can't because it would set a bad precedent.

Marva is willing to retire early. But union rules prevent her from getting the cash in a lump sum for a year after retirement.

Furthermore, the money can't be used as collateral for a loan.

"This is a real setback," said Larry. "We were counting on that."

The Johnsons hope to leave for Greece in a couple weeks. Marva figures they'll need $25,000 for transportation, treatment and living expenses while Larry goes through four to six weeks of the program.

The doctor, Haridon Alivizatos, relies on a treatment of nontoxic serum, natural foods, no medication and lots of rest.

"He believes this gives the body's natural immune system the chance to do its job," said Marva.

Larry is used to battling back. Two years ago he weighed 130 pounds and was in a coma at a Seattle hospital. Ten months after receiving a bone marrow transplant from Marva, he was playing in the summer league.

"I just wish I had heard of this guy (Alivizatos) five years ago," said Johnson.

Thursday, December 22, 1988
By Scott Heiberger

For five years Larry Johnson fought leukemia. The disease that attacked his bone marrow would flatten him for months at a time, but he always got back up.

He was hit particularly hard the month before Thanksgiving. He surprised everyone by leaving the hospital and going home in time for the holiday.

"The day before Thanksgiving, there he was at the door. He had gotten a ride home," said his mom, Marva. "He still had that smile." Wednesday morning Johnson's body couldn't fight anymore. He died at the age of 22 at Providence Hospital.

"We knew it was terminal, but it seemed he was on the upswing," said Larry Whitmore, who coached Johnson on Bartlett High's 1986 state championship basketball team. "He was such a strong kid."

Johnson, an Alaska Pacific University student, was a regular at APU basketball games and practices and attended last weekend's games against Northwest College. He had hoped to try out for the team, but the leukemia never stayed away long enough.

He was the public address announcer at home games last year, and he'd exchange a special hand shake with the starting five before tipoff.

"It was kind of a mutual thing between Larry and the players," said APU Coach Mike Blewett. "It was obvious his health was bad and he needed us, needed a niche. At the same time I think our players drew from his positive attitude. He always had that smile, despite the pain and the knowledge of having a terminal illness."

Larry's brother, Reggie, is a sophomore guard for APU and played with Larry on Bartlett's championship team. Sometimes he couldn't believe how Larry held up so well.

"I thought about that a lot," said Reggie. "Sometimes he said it was hurting, but that was only when it was real bad. I knew it hurt him other times but he wouldn't say anything."

Marva said Larry checked into Providence Tuesday night for a blood transfusion and observation. It was something he had done many times before.

"The doctor said he had a brain hemorrhage," said Marva. "He went to sleep peacefully."

Friends, relatives, and teammates gathered at the Johnson house Wednesday. They grieved, but there also was laughter for Larry, whose outgoing personality touched everyone he got near.

"Someone would say, 'I remember when Larry did this or that,' and then that would remind someone else of a story," said APU player John Paxton. "You can't really mope around about a guy so full of life."

Larry's personality was hard to resist.

"When he walked through a mall in this town he was like a billboard," said Paxton, who rooms with Reggie at APU. "People were always saying "Hi' to him. There aren't too many people who don't know Larry."

Throughout his fight, Larry shuttled back and forth to University Hospital in Seattle for treatment.

He said he received hundreds of letters during his Seattle stays, many from people he didn't know. He said the letters helped him pull through a lonely situation.

"Flying back and forth and being away from home, it takes its toll on a person," said Reggie.

The disease stayed in remission from the summer of 1987 until this past summer. But in June, Larry got hit again. He and his mom looked into the possibility of seeking help in Greece from a doctor who used a treatment of nontoxic serum, natural foods, no medication and lots of rest.

But raising the money was a problem, and the doctor they sought had a cutoff of early July for accepting patients for the six week treatment program.

Larry went back to Seattle and returned to Anchorage this fall. The time in hospitals was rough on him. He lived in the dorm room with Reggie and Paxton this fall when he was out.

"After he'd get out of the hospital he was OK because then he felt like one of the fellas again," said Paxton. "He was working out, going out late and at the same time taking care of himself. ... For a guy who was so sick he didn't show it."

Thursday, December 29, 1988
by Lew Freedman

They said goodbye to Larry Johnson's bones Wednesday, but not to his spirit.

No, not to his spirit.

They filled the Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Fairview for Larry Johnson. Filled it so full they had to bring in folding chairs. Filled it so full they crowded Rev. John L. Smith on the pulpit. Filled it so full they lined the wall behind the pews. And the hallway, too. On his good days, Larry often sat in the lobby of Grant Hall on the APU campus. The students gathered around him. Lying in his open coffin, Larry Johnson was again surrounded by friends. It's possible more people came to say goodbye to Larry than ever watched him play basketball at Bartlett High.

You hear the word special a lot when Larry Johnson's name is mentioned. If you met him you know his special smile, the special look of his bright brown eyes, his special love for the game of basketball. He was a young man with a terminal illness, who made other people feel good.

All true, but what was truly special about Larry Johnson was his courage.

For five years Larry fought leukemia, a cancerous blood disorder that sapped his energy, wrecked his dreams, and ultimately took his life four days before Christmas. Larry fought leukemia for five years and never told anyone that life was unfair.

Larry Johnson was too busy living to cry for himself, but on Wednesday hundreds of his friends and relatives cried rivers for him. Ushers passed through the aisles handing out tissues.

His basketball coaches eulogized Johnson, and the things they remembered best are not his ability to shoot the jump shot or dribble to his left. No, they saw far beyond the skills that meant so much to him, to the goodness inside a young man who died at 22.

Larry Whitmore coached Bartlett High to the boys state basketball championship in 1986. Johnson was on that team. Whitmore spoke of a young man he saw in Providence Hospital a couple of weeks ago who was stronger than he was.

"Larry was an inspiration," said Whitmore. "I sat with him and said, 'Do you ever ask why? Why me?' Do you ever think, 'Life's given me a raw deal?'"

And Johnson lay there in his hospital bed, his basketball body once so robust and strong at 6 foot 2 and 195 pounds, now so thin and weak, and he said to Whitmore, " "No, coach, no.' "

Whitmore said he told Johnson if it were in his power he would trade places with him. And Johnson, he said, told him, " "Coach, someone has to carry this. Let it be me.' "

If Larry Johnson ever wanted to be someone else, ever asked to trade places with another human being, that was between him and the Lord. He never said it aloud.

Larry Johnson asked only to be a healthier Larry Johnson, one who could play ball. Oh, what Larry would have given for the strength to play a single minute of a single game in an APU Pioneers' basketball jersey. He yearned to play in the backcourt with brother Reggie. Larry never stopped believing some day he would have that joy.

It was such a long struggle for Larry Johnson. He missed a year at Bartlett and graduated late. Then he signed on to play ball at APU in the fall of 1986 and couldn't. He spent eight months in the hospital in Seattle and nearly died. He lived for days in intensive care, barely conscious, breathing on a respirator. Drained, weakened, he fought off infections and pneumonia. APU sports teams used to visit him on their road trips. Hundreds of letters were sent from Alaska.

And then he rallied, fought back, and on the days he was able he attended Seattle SuperSonics games. Made friends with the players, too. Larry made friends wherever he went.

I only knew Larry Johnson after he became sick. The first time we talked was at a basketball game. Of course. It was in Seattle and Larry was out of the hospital to watch the University of Alaska Anchorage play Seattle Pacific. I had been told this young man was on his deathbed. I met a vibrant, bubbly young man with plans for the future. He'd be playing ball next year, and I'd be covering him, he assured me.

The last time I talked with Larry was Dec. 8 at a basketball game. Of course. It was before the UAA-APU game at West High. Larry said he was feeling fine, that he planned to take three courses when the new semester started at APU in mid-January. When the game ended, he rushed onto the court with a ball to take a few shots. I rebounded for him until they raised the baskets. Less than two weeks later he was dead.

Larry drew strength from basketball, even though he lost the strength to play it. He never got closer to playing a game for APU than practicing or acting as announcer at home games at the Moseley Sports Center, but he was as much a part of the team as the players on the court.

When the five Pioneer starters were introduced they first dashed over to clasp hands with Larry on the sidelines in a special handshake before running out to mid-court. At Larry's funeral four players were among the seven pallbearers.

"You can't really mope around about a guy so full of life," said John Paxton,one of those teammates.

People didn't mope around Larry Johnson, they smiled.

Reggie, a year younger, shared a childhood and adolescence with Larry that was filled with basketball. They talked it, watched it, played it. Larry's favorite player was Magic Johnson and he dreamed of playing college basketball, of throwing magical passes. And yet what Reggie will remember of his brother has little to do with basketball. He will remember Larry's refusal to give in to leukemia, his refusal to be anything but a big brother.

"He wasn't selfish at all," said Reggie. "Even though he was sick, he didn't want all the attention. He looked out for me a lot. He helped me a lot."

Larry died when the Pioneers were on Christmas break. Monday, the Pioneers regrouped in their gym for their first workout since Larry's death. It was not an everyday practice. Coach Mike Blewett didn't diagram Xs and Os. He talked about life and death. He talked to his players about the will to live, not the will to win.

These were young college men, 19- and 20-year-olds who have not seen very much of life and who know little of death. Blewett said he hoped they would learn from Larry Johnson, learn something of determination, learn to appreciate the health they had.

Blewett also eulogized Johnson Wednesday.

"Never once in all that time, never once in all that time he suffered, did I hear him complain," said Blewett. "The days we feel down, the days we feel sorry for ourselves, we should remember we have a pretty easy road. When that happens, let's think about Larry."

We all face death alone, but our worth may be measured by those we touch in life. Larry Johnson was a young black man, but there were as many whites as blacks in Greater Friendship Baptist Church. There were old women and young men, girlfriends and old high school chums, from Bartlett, APU, and the basketball community.

Duncan Ferguson, a vice president of APU, a school Larry was hardly well enough to attend, was there. Retiring Chugiak High football coach Tom Huffer, whose young men played sports against this young man, came. Gerald Brown and Tony Turner, great Bartlett basketball players in their time, came to celebrate the life of a great player of another time, and mourn his passing.

Rev. Smith looked around his filled church at the mixture of the faces and said of Larry, "He touched a lot of people along the way with Godlike character."

A lot of people. As the long line of cars drove single file along the Glenn Highway to the Fort Richardson National Cemetery, you could see the looks from passing motorists.

Somebody famous must have died, they had to be thinking. Some big shot.

No, nobody famous. But somebody special.


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