The Melvin Becomes The Man
The smile and easygoing manner gave it away.
VCU did not sign Melvin Johnson until late July prior to the start of his freshman season, but we knew exactly who were getting: a fun-loving, megawatt-smiling sharpshooter, unafraid to take his shots but also to name his shots. It was halfway through his freshman season that Johnson nicknamed his floater “The Melvin,” and not long after that we learned his spinning midrange fadeaway in the lane is “The Boogie Down.”
For three seasons, that’s who we got. Turns out we had almost no idea who we were getting in Melvin Johnson. Though he still flashes his makes-you-smile smile, there is a maturity and serious side to Johnson that has emerged his senior season.
That leadership, both on and off the court, has been a stabilizing factor for the 2015-16 Rams. It has been a season that may have gone wayward at any moment, considering all that is new. Johnson has not allowed that transition to slow this team down, not for one minute, and his guidance has VCU on the brink of its sixth-straight NCAA tournament berth.
“Like most people he had to find a level of comfort,” says assistant coach Rasheen Davis, who has known Johnson since Melvin was a child. “He’s read a lot of books, like Tony Dungy’s, and he talks to the guys about being a leader and passing it on.”
Johnson has always enjoyed basketball and the adulation that came with it – probably too much. He admits in prior years he was difficult at times off the court.
“I was selfish,” he says. “I mainly just cared about myself; statistically, off the court. Off the court I really wasn’t focused.”
But it’s so much different now. There’s real distance between the Melvin Johnson we knew as a freshman in 2012 and now. For a man who has so wonderfully illustrated an outward expression of emotion on the court, he’s become much more self-reflective off of it.
Much of that is a result of understanding his background, and the opportunity that sits in front of him.
Says Davis: “Where he comes from—nothing—you learn to survive on your own, but when things are good you make the most of it. That’s what he sees.”
Last November Johnson was invited to give a “TED Talk” on athletes in the criminal justice system at VCU’s TedxVCU event. This past summer, he interned in Altria’s Brand & Trade Channel Integrity (BTCI) department, which combats illicit tobacco trafficking. This semester, Johnson is working an internship with the Virginia General Assembly with Mo Alie-Cox.
“The first step in leadership is…you have to handle your own house before you start talking about other people’s stuff,” says VCU head coach Will Wade. “Melvin’s done a nice job of taking care of his own business, making sure he’s one of the hardest workers, making sure he’s in the gym, making sure he’s doing those things, which in turn has allowed his teammates to listen and allowed him to have a more powerful voice with things.”
Oh, and Johnson amped up his on-the-court persona as well this year. He leads VCU in scoring, and is far more than The Melvin and Boogie Down. Johnson set career highs in both assists and steals this year as well, and of course there is the record. Johnson recently broke BA Walker’s school record for career three-pointers made.
It’s safe to say that Melvin Johnson’s career at VCU is the gold standard for the collegiate student-athlete experience. Johnson will leave VCU a decorated player with multiple NCAA tournaments under his belt, and options for a professional basketball career. And because he worked hard off the court, Johnson will leave VCU a graduate with real world experience, primed with options in his non-basketball career.
Melvin Johnson is a mature young man staring success in the face.
(Side note: some quotes and sentences in the above piece were written by the lovely and talented Chris Kowalczyk in an earlier piece. He was kind enough to let me use them here.)
KB, as IN KickS Butt
Last April 22, Korey Billbury gave himself a birthday present. Billbury had battled through a difficult early springtime. After 49 consecutive starts and 81 starts overall, the all league performer was suspended by Oral Roberts head coach Sean Sutton and missed the final six games of his season.
Billbury was graduating in early May, but his place in the Oral Roberts basketball family was unclear. He had one season of eligibility remaining but no guarantees. One option, as permitted by the NCAA, was to explore the graduate transfer rule. This allowed Billbury to play his final season elsewhere, provided he enrolled in graduate school in a program his current school did not offer.
The time between that February suspension and his birthday weighed heavily, as life decisions loomed.
There was a void. Unknown. Transition.
Enter Will Wade—himself navigating a transition period. Wade needed to restock a basketball roster that lost its entire recruiting class when Shaka Smart moved to Texas. Billbury had the exact qualities of toughness and maturity, and the ability to flat out produce on the basketball court that Wade desired. In his typical uber-detailed manner, Wade researched for any red flags and turned up none. He offered Billbury the opportunity to join VCU, and Billbury accepted on his birthday.
“He was honest with me,” says Billbury of Wade. “He didn’t sell me anything. I had other coaches promising me minutes or shots, but I’ve had the stat lines. I’ve had most plays run for me. I want to win and I want to go to the NCAA tournament.”
Billbury admits that talking about a lesser scoring role and accepting it were two different things. He struggled early finding the balance, but his natural competitiveness and will to win clarified matters.
“After we left New York City (after losses to Wisconsin and Duke), I started looking around and thought ‘what could I do?’” he says. “I realized I couldn’t compete with Mel’s scoring but I can rebound. I can play defense. I can bring intangibles to the floor. I thought about it and released it.”
A funny thing happened on Korey Billbury’s route to supporting role. He found his three-point stroke. He continued to score. With the freedom and clarity in his mind that he can score and support the team in ways other than points scored, Billbury became a complete teammate.
Billbury scored 22 points in VCUs win over North Florida and 20 points each in wins at Richmond and St. Louis. He had just five points but eight rebounds in VCUs big win at St. Joseph’s in early January, and helped beat Richmond in a wholly different manner at the Siegel Center in the return game: he scored four points, but grabbed seven rebounds and routinely thwarted Spiders’ drives to the basket in the second half.
In VCUs win at Davidson, Billbury harassed the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, Brian Sullivan, to 12 points on 4-12 shooting. He supported his double-figures scoring with gritty, hard-nosed play. It’s an edge that helps VCU work through tight late-game situations.
“He’s a little more comfortable with his teammates (and) he understands there’s other ways to affect game other than scoring points,” says Wade. “He looks at himself through a different lens.”
Predictably it took his teammates time to get comfortable with Billbury, but they have responded to his leadership in the closing weeks of the regular season. It came to a head after the team’s difficult loss on the road to UMass.
“I’ve never been very vocal, but we needed someone to speak up and change things,” says Billbury.
“Coach Wade texted me that we’ve got to get ready for the big push and I texted him back and said tomorrow’s practice would be different, and I started yelling, screaming, talking. I want to help push us however I can.”
“He’s an outspoken guy. He lets you know what he thinks,” says Wade. “He’s spoken up more and he is great for our guys. He lets them know how it is. (For example, if) guys are complaining that the steak is medium and not medium-well he lets them know ‘you know this isn’t the real world; most teams aren’t eating steaks the night before the game.’ He’s been very good for us.”
Billbury strikes you as an old soul. He admits that he doesn’t like to go out a lot and that “I’m not what you’d call adventurous.” Outside of basketball he prefers to hang around with his family and watch movies, old movies from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The Usual Suspects (from 1995) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) are among his favorites.
“They seem like small things, but I really cherish the small things in life,” he says. “I’m thankful.”
Earlier this season Billbury commented that “being around this team lifts my spirits up.”
That feeling is mutual.