One of the best high school coaches in Minnesota this season is a former Gophers basketball player you might remember playing almost like it was yesterday.
It sure doesn’t seem like eight years have passed since Damian Johnson was a starting senior forward for the U -- and one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten.
The 6-foot-7 Louisiana native ended his career on a high note by helping the Gophers reach the NCAA tournament with a magical run to the conference tournament title game in 2010.
Now nearly a decade later, Johnson is running his own program as North St. Paul’s varsity boys basketball coach after a couple years as an assistant at Eden Prairie. The Polars, who won the Metro East title with a 13-1 record this year, defeated Tartan on Wednesday to advance to the Class 4A Section 6 semifinals. They will play top-seeded Cretin-Derham Hall (25-2) and Gophers recruit Daniel Oturu at 7 p.m. Saturday at Hastings High School.
In a Q&A last month, Johnson talked about his first season at North St. Paul, how he got into coaching and the Gophers.
Q: How rewarding has it been to see the Polars have so much success in your first season?
A: The kids were kind of hungry. They had a bad year last year. They wall wanted to win. We’ve got a lot of guys who are seniors (scoring leader Goodnews Kpegeol 18.2 ppg) who want to go out with a bang. It’s not me. It’s them wanting to work and get better. I just want to help guys reach the heights I’ve reached and even go further. I think being able to help a lot of guys understand the game and doing the extra stuff it makes my day a lot better. I feel like all the work those guys put in makes me proud. I walk around with a smile on my face seeing those guys put in work and wanting to get better.
Q: Did you always want to become a basketball coach one day?
A: I always felt like I was just a natural coach. It’s always been in me. I was always a guy who loved studying film and stuff. I always wanted to get more knowledge of the game and get different nuances from different coaches. I picked up a lot from Coach (Tubby) Smith, but also from what Tom Izzo used to do to us. The (NBA Development) League helped me out a lot about getting guys isolated and into scoring opportunities. I loved picking stuff up from other people. I feel like I’m a sponge. I rather do that than sitting around and watching the game. I’d rather pass my knowledge on that I picked up from other people. I always knew I would be a coach. It was just a matter of time.
Q: Which coach did you learn the most from over the years?
A: Robert Mackinnon Jr. He coaches the Dallas Mavericks G League team, the Texas Legends. I watched an ESPN 30-for-30 and his dad (Bob Mackinnon) was on there with the ABA team in St. Louis (Spirits). He’s a great coach. He really taught me a lot. He just breaks stuff down. He’s good at developing players and building relationships. He’s gotten a lot of guys call-ups. Every year, he’s helping a lot of guys get to the NBA. You got to love a coach who is looking out for the best interest of his players. I played for him with the Springfield Armor (now the Grand Rapids Drive in the G League) from 2011-13.
Q: When did your professional playing career come to an end? You still look like you could make money overseas.
A: You’ll never see me play again, unless it’s in an open gym. I stopped playing before because I was getting older. Wear and tear on your body was starting to accumulate. My kids are younger and I wanted to spend time with them. Coaching and working at the school just fits my personality, and I love working with younger people and helping them. I just feel like this is better for me than playing. Last November, I was playing a pickup game at the U and popped my Achilles’ running and going after a loose ball. But I officially stopped playing (pro) in September 2016 overseas in Australia.
Q: The Gophers obviously struggled this season with injuries and off-court issues. Did that remind you of how the 2009-10 team wasn’t able to live up to high expectations?
A: Losing Royce (White) and Trevor (Mbakwe) didn’t really affect us at the time. Those guys would’ve made us so much better. But at the beginning of the year, nobody even realized what we missed, because we were still one of the top teams. We beat Butler and we were still winning. We had a lot of guys who could come in and play and give us minutes. Right now, the Gophers went through the same type of thing, but they didn’t have any depth. It took us a few games to adjust (playing without point guard Al Nolen), but Devoe (Joseph) was ready for his moment. He took it as an opportunity to showcase what he could do. Our team was close-knit. We did everything together. We had each other’s back. That was the year we found out about Paul Carter’s sister (diagnosed with cancer). That brought us even closer together. Nobody was about their own individual accolades. Everybody wanted to go to the NCAA tournament.
Q: How good do you think the Gophers could’ve been your senior season at full strength?
A: The guys we lost (Mbakwe, White, Nolen) could’ve been starters on an Elite Eight or Final Four team, which was similar to what the guys lost this year (Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Reggie Lynch). But we all stuck together and we all wanted to go to the NCAA that year. There was no way I was going to allow anyone to get off course. I made sure we all stuck together. It’s something we did no matter what. I saw we were on the bubble. When I got snubbed on Big Ten defensive player of the year guys felt like our team didn’t get respect. We always had something we used to motivate us instead of having stuff bringing us down. We wanted to prove ourselves in the Big Ten tournament. We all had a chip on our shoulder. (The attention) was always about Coach Smith and nobody thought the players were good enough. We wanted to prove people wrong.
Q: What was difficult to watch for you when the Gophers struggled and played shorthanded this year?
A: It’s all about sticking together and not worrying about all the outside stuff. You could see them focusing on the refs and stuff like that. You can’t let all the negative noise cloud your mind during games. I’ve seen a lot of that from those guys.