By Malachi Parker
Matt Johnson was labeled “a long shot” while facing hardship after hardship; however, his first year as head coach of the Sacramento High boys’ basketball team saw him exceed all expectations.
In Johnson’s initial twelve months leading varsity, the Sacramento Dragons drastically improved, finishing the 2022-23 season with a 25-8 record compared to 16-13 the year before. They came in third for the league, won a section championship, played host in a state playoff game and saw their coach establish new standards.
“We are building something special here, I’m just happy I get to be a part of it,” said Johnson, who was recently named Boys Basketball Coach of the Year by the Sacramento Bee.
Many would say that Johnson beat the odds to get to this point.
He was taken from his mother at a young age and was in foster care for the majority of his youth.
“I was in nine different houses and nine different schools,” the coach recalled, “but the one constant I had was basketball.”
Johnson thought these trials were normal when he was younger. Throughout the years in foster care, he and his mother did work to make their way back to each other. In his freshman year of high school, they were reunited. Johnson then attended Sacramento High.
“That same year I was reunited with my mom, I watched our house burn down and I lost everything,” he remembered. “That’s why I am not materialistic now, I don’t care for a lot of that.”
After the fire, Johnson, his sister and mom were staying in a hotel, living off a check from the city’s relief funds. Despite the loss, they had to carry on with everyday tasks like going to school or work before coming back to a hotel room they called home.
“Everything smelled like smoke for months, and we couldn’t get the smell out of our clothes,” he said, “so we went to school smelling like smoke.”
Two months after the fire, Johnson discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant with the first child that they would have in high school. Their daughter arrived two years later.
Johnson attended Sacramento High from 2001 to 2005, playing basketball all four years. He broke onto the varsity team halfway through his sophomore season. In the three years that Johnson was on varsity, he had multiple all-tournament honors, won team MVP and was on the all-city first team his senior year.
Johnson and the Sacramento Dragons also accomplished three league titles and a section championship in 2005. Johnson was a NCAA Division 1 talent; however, he did not take his SATs, so he would have to go the route of junior college. Johnson had offers from schools like Sacramento State, University of San Francisco and Boise State, among others.
“When schools found out I wasn’t going Division 1, it was like a feeding frenzy to get me to their juco because I was a Division 1 talent who wasn’t going there right away,” Johnson noted.
Johnson ended his career at Sacramento High and continued to play at Sierra College in Rocklin under coach John Fusano. For him, Sierra College was far enough away but it was still close enough to be home.
“I didn’t want to go to Sac City because everyone goes there and it’s like a continuation,” he said. “I loved my time at Sacramento High, but I left with two kids and a lot of bad habits.”
One reason Johnson never tried an out-of-state community college was that the had two children at home.
Looking back, his son, Matt Jr., appreciates that.
“Our family started so young that it gave us the chance to grow up together and I have a lot of respect for my dad as a man,” Matt Jr. reflected.
Johnson came into Sierra College as a power forward. The summer before his sophomore season Johnson played in a showcase that had scouts in the stands. They ranked Johnson as the number one junior college point guard in the nation.
Johnson was drawing attention from programs across the country and after his two years at Sierra College he continued his playing career at Northern Arizona University. When he arrived at NAU, he had another position change. The school already had a point guard who was in the same class as Johnson, so other had to play the shooting guard position.
“At this point I can do everything on the court except shoot well,” Johnson added, laughing.
Johnson recalls the countless days on a shooting machine with his teammate Cameron Jones, who is NAU’s all-time leading scorer, as well as putting up hundreds of shots.
That practiced paid off as Johnson shot above 40% from behind the three-point line that season.
When his time at NAU ended, Johnson continued playing professionally in the American Basketball Association (ABA), in China, and in Saudi Arabia. He played for several years but his career ended sooner than expected: He was back home in the off-season playing flag football with some friends and broke his leg. He missed the next season recovering before deciding it was time to walk away.
“I was at home and I needed a job, so I took this one off of Craigslist and it ended up being real estate,” he said. “I learned it and now I’ve been doing it for the last decade or so.”
Real estate is Johnson’s day job; however, his real passion lies in the basketball gym as a coach. He started coaching his son’s travel team around the 5th grade.
“When my son started to have a knack for the game and it was something he wanted to pursue, we got him on a travel team with a bunch of his friends and I just coached them until they all hit the varsity level in high school,” Johnson detailed.
Johnson felt like he had a talent for coaching. After his son and the rest of the team hit the varsity level, the group split apart as they went on to play for their school or bigger name travel teams.
The former pro was left with an empty nest feeling.
When that run ended, Johnson reached out to his old coach, John Fusano, and asked for a coaching job. Fusano had no paying jobs available but could use some volunteer help. Johnson jumped at the opportunity.
After the first year at Sierra, and some team success, Johnson was set on coming back to the high school-level coaching staff: His son who would be attending Sacramento High the upcoming year. A job opened up.
“In my eyes, I couldn’t lose either way,” Johnson said. “I was either going to be on staff and coach my son again, or I was going to get to go back to my alma mater.”
Johnson hit the ground running. There’s seems to be agreement that the impact he’s had on the varsity program, the kids, and the community is completely obvious. The Dragons improved their win total by nine games and won a section title in Johnson’s first year. A big part of the increase in wins was Johnson finding talent that was not on the team, along with getting the best out of the players he already had.
“I didn’t play for the school until Matt found me on campus,” said sophomore forward Shobal Barksdale. “I had played basketball before, just not for the school.”
Barksdale is a sophomore listed as a 6-foot-6 forward who was a huge presence for the Dragons. He remembers first time he met Johnson as a normal day – until he was approached by the coach.
“He just asked me questions like how tall I was and if I played basketball before,” Barksdale recalled, “so I came out to a practice and I liked Matt, so I decided to stay and play.”
Johnson wants more outcomes like that.
“Overall, the mark I leave on this school and community is going to be a positive one,” he stressed.
That trajectory appears visible in the young men that he coaches.
“I know Coach Matt beyond all this basketball stuff, and I didn’t really know my father growing up, so he’s been a father figure to me,” said senior guard Mike Wilson. “I’ve learned a lot from him that had nothing to do with basketball.”
Sacramento High is known for graduating its kids and sending them to college, and Johnson will have three of his senior guards graduating this year.
“I feel like if it wasn’t for Coach Matt I would’ve quit the team, ” acknowledged senior guard Landon Minnifield.
Minnifield felt overlooked until Johnson came along.
“Not only did he give me a chance to prove myself,” the player went on, “he never gave up on me when I messed up in practice or in games and continuously worked with me.”