When Central entered its locker room on Thursday before its semifinal matchup with Spain Park, assistant coach Greg Johnson was flooded with memories.
It was the same locker room he laced his shoes up in 1999, when Central faced Grissom in the Class 6A state championship game, the only other team at Central to play for a state title.
“When I walked in, it brought back everything,” he said on Friday.
There are good memories, of course. Not every player gets to play in an arena as big as the one at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Few players get to play in a state championship game, for that matter.
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There are the not-so-good memories, too. Like when he fouled out in the second half, which Central head coach Bobby Wright still swears made a monumental difference in the outcome of the game. Despite taking a lead into halftime, Central lost the game to Grissom 44-38.
“I feel real strongly that had Greg not fouled out of that ballgame, it would have been different,” Wright said with a smile on Friday.
Johnson said the game has stuck with him over the past 17 years.
“Since that game, ever since,” he said. “Coach will bring it up to me every once in awhile. I’m just like, ‘Coach, I was trying to win.’”
On Saturday, he’ll return to the arena he played in years ago, courtside this time as he becomes the only player at Central to have played and coached in a state championship basketball game.
Not everything has changed for him. Wright is still a demanding coach, as much to his assistants as his players.
“He expects the same thing from you as a player as he does a coach,” Johnson said. “He expects you to come in and get to work every day. That’s what I try to do.”
Johnson will take some of the things he’s learned and pass it along to the players as they try to accomplish the one win he wasn’t able to during his time in high school.
“I just said, ‘Don’t look at the lights,’” Johnson said. “‘Go out there and play as hard as you possibly can. Don’t leave anything out there. No regrets. … I left something down there, man. I’ve always said I wanted to come back and get it. We have a chance tomorrow to bring it home.”