Mark McDermott

Of love, basketball, and survival: The Ray Johnston Band

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Ray Johnston, who plays 12 + Highland Friday night.

Ray Johnston was living the dream.

In fact, he was living the very specific dream he’d had since he was 9-years-old growing up in Montgomery, Alabama. Always precocious, Johnston wrote a one-page autobiography at that age that his mother Martha still keeps. He graded his life thus far as “around an A plus” before predicting his future with the final line, scrawled along the bottom of the paper: “My dream is to play professional basketball.”

And just to be clear he wasn’t messing around, he ended in all caps: “I WILL.”

Much of what would follow in the life of Ray Johnston would be precisely about his will.

He went to college at the University of Alabama, and though he was 6 ‘2 and a talented athlete, coaches said he wasn’t quite good enough to play at big college level. He ignored them, walked on, and made the team.

Later, at the age of 25, he hadn’t quite achieved his dream but he was doing just fine – he was a successful mortgage loan officer in Dallas, dating Miss Texas, and still hooping every chance he got: night leagues, weekend tournaments, and pick-up games every day at lunch. One of the tournaments he entered was called Hoop It Up and took place at the American Airlines arena, home to the Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban added a twist to the tourney: he sent scouts to look for local talent to try out for the team’s summer league team.

Johnston was pass-first point guard with an inconsistent shot, but he was smart and tough and hustled his ass off. Twenty players were invited to a Sunday afternoon tryout.  Johnston was one of them, and he had a strategy going in.

“I was never a player people see on the floor and go, ‘Ah, damn – he deserves to be paid,’Johnston said. “I just won a lot of games.  And once I got my success in business I had a little maturity, and I thought, ‘Sometimes opportunities in life –  be it relationships, be it business, be it sports – are about how you separate yourself from the pack. What is your point of difference?”

His point of difference is he knew the Mavericks and knew what they wanted. He’d been a season ticket holder for two years, and he’d paid attention to how they did things. He even knew a play, and he told his teammates how to run it. “I said, ‘We’re gonna run ‘Three Up’ because it’s easy to execute on stupid defenders, which is what most of our defenders were.”

His game caught Mav’s general manager Donnie Nelson’s attention. “Ray just kept winning,” Nelson later remarked.

Johnston was totally relaxed. “I thought, ‘Okay, worse case scenario, I’ll meet some Mavericks people and do some of their mortgages and maybe get a little upgrade on my season ticket,’” he recalled. “That’s really how I looked at it.”

Johnston won an invitation to the Mav’s summer league camp. He had a good camp, made the team, and played sparingly alongside such highly vaunted young players as Josh Howard and Devon Harris. “I scored one bucket, which was more than I scored in college,” he said.

The coaches genuinely liked the kid and, against all odds, he secured an invite to the team’s veteran camp that fall. Steve Nash had just left for Phoenix and so the team actually had a real need for a third point guard. “I had a legit chance,”Johnston said. “A really good chance.”

A few weeks later, Johnston was playing a pickup game when he bruised his shin. He ended up getting rushed to a hospital when his shin ballooned with blood. Within 24 hours, doctors had to induce him into a coma in order to save his life. He woke up more than a month later to learn he’d been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia; his body, in fact, was 84 percent leukemic.

His mother was told that Johnston had a one in a million chance of survival. “Well,” she said, “then he’s the one.”

Nelson was there every day at the hospital for four-and-a-half months.  As somebody who’d seen Johnston’s heart revealed by the way he played basketball, Nelson was hardly shocked when the kid defied the odds and walked out of the hospital alive. But even Nelson was shocked at what would unfold afterwards.

“He made it out, and what he did after…. is live life like no one I’ve known,” said Nelson, his voice cracking, in an HDNet documentary about Johnston released last year.

“One of the things I’ve learned from this Ray Johnston ordeal is how much a body can withstand and still come out ahead,” remarked Tarek Souryal, the Maverick’s team physician, in the HDNet documentary.

Johnson survived four relapses, a bone marrow transplant, the amputation of seven toes, and countless days spent isolated in hospitals. Through it all, he returned to another of his passions, music.

He’d picked up guitar as a freshman in college and played in some cover bands, and later, during his corporate career in Dallas, he’d occasionally play at events ranging from weddings to happy hours. “Not to any point where I was thinking about a music career,”Johnston said. “But more once every month or two as kind of a hobby – I just happened to be decent enough to not scare off people when they listened to me.”

And so in 2009, Johnston started a band. He’d already been playing with saxophonist Keith Anderson – a jazz and gospel player who’s played with luminaries such as Herbie Hancock – and he soon enlisted another heavy hitter, Hammond B3 organist Bobby Sparks. Johnston, who’d saved money during his real estate career, gave himself four months by putting the guys on payroll and heading to the studio.

Less than a year later, the Ray Johnston Band were already playing the famed SXSW Festival in Austin and had released a buoyant, sweet and downright groovy record called Sweet Tooth. The band has been frequently compared to the Dave Matthews Band, and while Johnston acknowledges DMB as an influence, there’s something else going on here.  Johnston is an unschooled musician – he is taking his first voice lessons right now, after legendary drummer Steve Jordan (who plays on the band’s upcoming second record) suggested he needed to further step outside the boundaries of his influences – but he has a gift for melody and a knack for wry and infectiously happy songwriting.

This isn’t the blues and it isn’t Bob Dylan. The music nonetheless transmits some light-on-its-feet wisdom and cuts a bit of new ground doing so. Take the lead track, “Text Me,” a smart-assed love song that actually speaks to the way romance is often conducted nowadays (complete with “LOLs” and “TTYLs). The song “First Date” captures the slightly magical feel of love – or at least serious like – at its sweet inception.

This is happy music. None other than Dirk Nowitzski has called Johnston“one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met” and part of this toughness is a resolute decision to enjoy life. The Ray Johnston Band’s motto is “Smile Hard” and Johnston – a man of quiet but intense faith – quotes his favorite biblical scripture, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, a downcast spirit dries the bones.”

If leukemia didn’t exactly change Johnston, it further freed a man who was already hell-bent on following his dreams.

Johnston, in other words, is still living the dream. And he is still winning. He has been in remission for 18 months, largely due to his participation in a clinical trial for a drug called tamibarotene produced by the 20-person LA-based biotech company CytRx.

“I don’t think I was a changed man,”Johnston said of his experience fighting the disease. “I just had a lot less filters – if I wanted to do something, or if I saw it advantageous to share my faith, or to share the fact I am on a clinical trial, I would do so. And I wouldn’t really ask any people’s permission.”

Aldous Huxley wrote, “Gratitude is heaven.” Johnston lives in gratitude: he’s grateful to the Mavericks, particularly Nelson (“He’s just a great guy with a huge heart,” he said), grateful to his band, his family, to 12 + Highland in Manhattan Beach for putting on his concert this Friday night and to Toes on the Nose for presenting it.

“The irony of the Ray Johnston Band playing for Toes on the Nose is I only have three toes – I had to have seven of ‘em amputated,”Johnston said. “It’s like the best advertisement waiting to be produced.”

Mostly, Johnston is grateful for every day.

“With having leukemia five times now in seven years, you don’t really set five year goals,” he said. “My five year goal is to be breathing and smiling. And I try to align myself with impact.”

Another goal is to warm up for or at least become acquainted with Jack Johnson, whose own wry sense of humor and musical story – a professional athlete turned musician with a grassroots approach to the business – jibes with Johnston’s. At any rate, Johnston is just plain happy to be playing and singing anywhere.

“After going through all this, it’s an easy stage,”Johnston said. “I’m playing music. I can talk about what I went through, and talk about how you can kind of find the glass half full. You just have to keep digging through.”

See for more info. The RJB plays 12+ Highland July 29 from 8 to 10 p.m. ER

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