PHILADELPHIA — Even a decade later, the memories remain clear for Mahir Johnson.
He can remember watching his dad play pick-up games at the Chester Boys and Girls Club. He can remember the "workouts" — an unusual characterization for a 5-year-old's basketball routine and a testament to the centrality of the game in his life. He can recite the advice verbatim.
He can remember and reference all of it, every lesson, every session imbibing the vaunted history of Chester hoops at the hip of his father, Mike Johnson.
Now, 13 years after his father's death, Mahir is living the legacy in orange and black. And he's hoping to pen the next chapter in Clippers history Friday night with in the District One Class AAAA final against Pennsbury at Villanova.
Mahir Johnson's lineage is the stuff of Chester royalty. His father, Mike, was an All-Delco guard on the 1988-89 team, which compiled a 30-2 record en route to the school's second state crown. Wearing the same No. 21 jersey his son has donned as senior, Mike was the point guard and orchestrator on one of Chester's most legendary teams.
Mike, though, isn't around to watch his son carry the torch. He was gunned down on a Saturday evening in Chester in January 2001. A family man, a hard worker juggling multiple jobs and night classes for his master's degree, left behind a wife and three children at the age of 29, three months removed from his enshrinement in the Chester Athletics Hall of Fame.
Mahir doesn't remember much from that day. His Chester coach, though, recalls it all too clearly.
"I got the call, and it took a couple breaths away," said Chester coach Larry Yarbray, who graduated a year prior to Johnson and was his college teammate at Coppin State for three seasons. "I didn't want to believe it. ... I lost a part of me that day. I still don't understand it."
Yarbray regarded Mike Johnson as a brother. They began playing basketball together at age 12 and overlapped on three successful Chester teams plus their days at Coppin State. After graduation, they both went about their lives, Yarbray moving to Delaware and Johnson staying in Chester, but kept in contact as their families grew.
After Johnson's death, Yarbray kept tabs on Mahir, watching him grow as a young man and as a player, from Chester Biddy League through AAU and his three years at Glasgow (Del.) High School.
When Mahir decided it was time to come home and play for Chester as a senior, Yarbray felt "blessed' to have him. There would be details to iron out, and for every player who has left Chester for school and pondered a return, Yarbray knew most failed to follow through.
Mahir, like his father so many times before him, has proven to be different.
He's been the driving force behind the No. 2 Clippers' run to the District One Class AAAA title game Friday against No. 5 Pennsbury. Johnson has averaged 19.1 points per game this season, including a dominant 29-point performance in the Clippers' blowout of West Chester Rustin in the semifinals.
With the familiar No. 21 on Mahir's back, Mike is never far from his son's mind. Mahir constantly views his performances through the lens of what his father and former coach would think, a constant reminder of where he came from and where he wants to go.
"We always talked about (playing for Chester) when I was younger," Mahir said. "It just makes me go harder when I put on the Chester jersey. ... I know he's still here in spirit, but he's not really here. It just pushes me to go hard every day. I wear his No. 21 to always make me go hard."
Mike and Mahir are different players, for sure. Mike was a dogged defender in his days at Chester. Though he averaged 18.7 points per game as a senior, his skills on the other side of the ball garnered even more attention on an explosive offensive team flush with scoring stars.
Mahir is more of a pure scorer, though no slouch as a defender. To Yarbray, the common thread between them is clear.
"They both had the intangibles, and what I mean by that is the willingness to make whatever plays it took to help their team win," Yarbray said. "Whether it was rebound or make the extra pass or guard the best guy on the other team, they would do it."
Though instilled at such a young age, the lesson that most sticks with Mahir is simple, and quintessentially Mike Johnson.
"Be fearless," he said. "Don't ever let anybody take your heart. Go at every and anybody out there on the court. You have no friends out there on the court."
"They have that fearlessness to go against anybody any time," Yarbray said, "never afraid to take on the best player on the biggest stage."
Mike Johnson's trademark in that storied 1989 title run was a knack for stepping up when needed most. His finest performances were reserved for when Chester faced its stiffest tests in the state tournament, like a two-overtime thriller against Glen Mills in the second round when the Clippers avenged their District One ouster at the hands of the Battlin' Bulls, or an 89-88 victory over Penn Wood in the semifinals.
One can't help but see the parallels to the way in which Mahir has taken over games in districts. That fire for a state title, the one that led him back to his father's old stomping grounds, burns bright, even in the soft-spoken senior.
"A couple of years when I used to come to Chester games, I used to always want to play in big games like that," Mahir said. "For me to be playing here now is a great feeling."
By Yarbray's estimation, a few more wins would make the Johnsons the first father-son tandem to deliver state titles to Chester High.
At a school whose gym is wallpapered with banners, that one would be extra special — for player, coach and community.