CHESTER — Being the son of Mike Johnson meant a lot was expected of Mahir Johnson in the city of Chester.
It meant trips to the gym for workouts and drill sessions at age 5. It meant trying to keep up with the moves his father could pull off on the basketball court. It meant the lore of Chester basketball was a ubiquitous facet of family conversation, the achievements and trophies won by Mike making for tales of encouragement from a young age. It even informed the name choice for Mahir, Arabic for "skilled," by Mike, who converted to Islam later in his life.
And, once Mahir was old enough to realize it, that legacy entailed a destiny, an inescapable pull for the younger Johnson to someday return to his roots in Chester. Even though the elder Johnson wasn't there to instruct any longer, the honor of playing his senior season at Chester High after three successful years at Glasgow in Delaware was a dream Mahir Johnson always harbored.
"I always wanted to come back and play for Chester, play where I'm from," Johnson said. "I was already comfortable with the coaching staff, it was an easy decision."
"It's always discussed," Johnson's mother, Almika Purnsley said. "... Before he passed, Mike always talked to Mahir about what he achieved at Chester High. He always showed him the trophies that we had in our old house. It was like a dream of his to play for Chester."
Johnson not only made the dream of donning the orange and black — his father's No. 21, of course — come true. He didn't just do honor to the family name. What Johnson accomplished in leading the Clippers to the District One Class AAAA Championship and the semifinals of the PIAA tournament etched his name into a unique and hallowed place in the annals of Chester basketball.
Those achievements make Johnson the 2014 Daily Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Johnson is joined on the All-Delco first team by Chester and former Glasgow teammate Tyrell Sturdivant, the Archbishop Carroll duo of Austin Tilghman and Derrick Jones, Penn Wood's Malik Jackson and Interboro's Christian Irons.
Jones is the lone repeat selection. He and Jackson, both juniors, are the only underclassmen. The All-Delco teams are selected in consultation with area coaches.
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Chester is home to a complicated past for Johnson. Both of his parents attended Chester High. Mike was a standout on the basketball team, helping lead the Clippers to the program's second state title in 1989, earning All-Delco honors as a scrappy, hard-nosed guard with a deceptive aptitude for scoring. He parlayed his success into four years and an education at Coppin State.
But the streets of Chester were also the scene of the family's darkest moment, which Mike was gunned down by an unknown assailant in 2001. A hard worker juggling multiple jobs and studying for his Master's degree, Johnson's death left behind a wife, three children and a stunned community.
Mahir Johnson's primary memories, though, tend toward the positive.
"I remember we would be outside playing on the court in front of our old house in Chester," he said. "I remember that. I remember I always used to go with him when he used to play at the gym. I tried to do the things that he used to do. ... It didn't really go too well for me."
Despite all that was in their collective past, Purnsley had no hesitation when Johnson made the decision to go back to Chester for his senior year. She trusted her son, studious, soft-spoken and focused only on books and basketball, to navigate the challenges. She understood what was pulling him toward that decision.
And, most of all, she trusted the drive within him, one that on and off the basketball court seemed hereditary.
"Growing up, I always told him that I support him 100 percent in whatever he wants to do," Purnsley said. "He decided to do that, and I supported him. He always wanted to be a good object in the city of Chester. He wanted to go back and make a name for himself like his dad did."
With the guidance of what Purnsley called his "supporting cast" — which includes her father and two brothers and Mahir's stepfather, Barry Butler, a Chester High guard in the late 70s — the decision became easy. The family undertook the move from Delaware to enroll in the school district, Johnson bringing along Glasgow teammate and fellow Chester native Sturdivant, someone Johnson describes as being "like a brother."
There were obstacles along the way and a potential source of doubt when a knee injury shelved Johnson for his junior year. Years of wear and tear finally caught up with him, and in the first game of his junior season, he injured it badly enough to necessitate surgery that wrote off the entire campaign. (Having lost that year, he'll pursue prep school next season.)
While the injury didn't dent Johnson's certainty in the preordained homecoming plan, playing spectator as his junior season flew by was something Johnson couldn't have gotten though alone.
"It was so tough. You would've thought that it was my knee that injured, because whatever he went through, I went through," Purnsley said. "I was mainly just getting him to find something else that interested him."
"She gave me confidence in the tough times when I was down with my injury," Johnson said. "She played a big part, giving me pep talks and telling me everything would be all right."
It took some time in his senior season for a Chester team with 10 new contributors to jell. The hallmarks of Larry Yarbray's teams — pressure defense, a team approach to denial in the lane and rebounding, patience on offense — took time to instill.
Eventually, though, everyone started pulling in the same direction.
"It was never a doubt," Johnson said. "It was a little frustrating at times. We had a couple of tough losses, but we would just come back and get better each and every day. People didn't know what this season would be like. People were thinking it was going to be a rebuilding season, but we just wanted to come out and have a good season like we did."
Soon enough, the Clippers righted the ship, and Johnson was the center of that effort. He averaged 19.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, finishing his career with 1,218 points in just three seasons. He scored in double-figures in 30 of the Clippers' 31 games and topped 20 points 13 times. Chester had a 10-3 record in those contests.
He was often at his best when Chester needed him most. He went off for 36 points, tied for the high-point game in Delco, to see the Clippers past Capital Christian. His 19-point effort aided in avenging a loss to Penn Wood.
He delivered possibly the best single-game performance of the season in the District One semifinal against West Chester Rustin, where he scored 29 points. He had 20 at the half, the same total as Rustin, while also playing lockdown defense on Rustin's 1,000-point scorer Ethan Ridgeway. Though he was limited to just 11 points in the district title-game win over Pennsbury, his dogged defense helped limit the Falcons to four fourth-quarter points in the come-from-behind win.
"It means a lot, to come here and win the district championship, to add another banner up in the gym," Johnson said. "We worked really hard, all year. People probably weren't thinking we were going to win the district championship, but we weren't worried about what other people were saying."
"It's a privilege and an honor being able to coach him, playing with his dad and being able to help him," Yarbray said. "Just going through what we went through, being able to show him what the Chester program is all about, I think it was a great experience for us."
Johnson scored 28 points in a wild win over Hazleton in the second round of states, then nearly single-handedly willed Chester all the way back in the semifinal loss to La Salle, scoring a game-high 26 points, 16 in the fourth quarter.
Through all those accomplishments, all the peaks and valleys, thoughts of his father were never far away. All he needed as a reminder was to look at the No. 21 on his jersey.
"I wasn't really worried about all the expectation, because I was prepared for it," Johnson said. "I worked really hard over the summer. I was prepared for all the pressure, for all the expectations. ...
"I thought about it every day, and it made me go harder, trying to fill his shoes. That kept me going."
Daily Times Boys Basketball Super 7
1. Chester (25-6)
2. Archbishop Carroll (23-5)
3. Haverford (16-12)
4. Penn Wood (15-8)
5. Episcopal Academy (16-8)
6. Haverford School (16-8)
7. Radnor (14-9)