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Williamsport local makes NBA debut, gives back

Alize Johnson makes his NBA regular-season debut Wednesday when his Indiana Pacers host the Memphis Grizzlies.

But back home his professional impact already is being felt. Johnson now makes a living playing in Indiana but his roots remain planted in the Williamsport area. A man who always has wanted to give back now has the perfect vehicle to help his community. And he already is at work.

Johnson recently signed a deal with Nike. Almost as soon as the ink dried on that contract, the 2014 St. John Neumann graduate was working the phones. Now, his alma mater — along with the Williamsport and Loyalsock basketball teams — will be wearing free Nike sneakers this winter after Johnson donated a bunch to each team.

“It’s a great feeling. In years past I wasn’t able to do these things. I had plans, but financially I wasn’t stable enough to carry them out,” Johnson said. “Now that I do, it’s going to be huge for what I have to offer the city and for what’s to come.”

Johnson knows as well as anyone that sneakers do not come cheap. Anything that can help relieve some financial burden is a help. Johnson has more plans brewing as well. His label now is NBA basketball player, but at home, he has become a role model first.

Last June, Johnson became the first Lycoming County player ever selected in the NBA Draft. He debuted at Neumann in 2011 as a 5-foot-9 point guard on a team that went 2-20. He graduated as a two-time all-stater, two-time district champion and a player who led Neumann to a 30-1 record his senior season. His journey is proof that local players can achieve great things against long odds.

Johnson has paved the way and his goal now is to show younger players how to do it the right way.

“It gives me the respect level, being as I made this far that it gives them the motivation to make it,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping the next generation of players can look at me and look up to me.”

Johnson started at the bottom in both high school and college before quickly working his way up. At every level, the 6-9 power forward has relentlessly worked, become his team’s best player and made his teammates better. A two-time all-star at Frank Phillips College, Johnson then became a two-time Missouri Valley Conference at Missouri State, averaging a double-double the past two seasons. That gave Johnson a shot at living his NBA dream and now Johnson must work his way up again.

Minutes have been hard to come by this preseason, but Johnson showed what he can do in his third preseason game, scoring eight points, grabbing nine rebounds and adding an assist against Memphis. Last Thursday against the Bulls, Johnson grabbed a rebound, ran the court like a guard and dealt a pretty cross-court assist.

The Pacers are a deep team expected to be one of the Eastern Conference’s best squads this season. Johnson might not play a lot but he can make an impression each day at practice. At each stop along this basketball journey, Johnson has seized every opportunity to come his way. Do not expect that to change now.

“There’s been a lot of places where it felt hard, but it’s about finding yourself and just trying to climb your way back to the top. You know you have to go back down for a little bit and try to figure it out,” Johnson said. “So far, I’m just trying to develop my game. This is a year where I’m going to have to learn what it is that the Pacers want and just be ready for every opportunity I get. I’m going to bring it every day in practice and try and make them better and just keep working hard and keep the motor running.”

Johnson is assimilating well with the Indiana community and was a big hit at the rookie talent show. Dressed as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Johnson had the crowd rocking while performing a rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.”

Those in Indiana are learning what the local community already knows.

Johnson is an outstanding player, but he is an even better man.

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