Ex-Harlem Globetrotter preaches while he plays

February 25, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

He has performed in the "Magic Circle" with Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal as one of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters -- a comedy basketball giant, although he stands just 5-foot-4.

Spencer "Spinny" Johnson, now of Gaithersburg, will bring his trick-shot artistry and his message of hope tomorrow to the Forest Ridge Elementary School in North Laurel.

The 41-year-old Frederick native said he tries to encourage children to stay off of drugs, do well in school, and respect others and themselves.

"Kids need to feel good about who they are," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson, a single father of two, says he can relate to the struggle to succeed amid criticism that children often face from their peers. The National Basketball Association, for instance, would not recruit him because of his height.

"People were always telling me that I was too small," Mr. Johnson said. "I was going to set out to prove to them that I could do it."

And he did.

A two-time All-American at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., Mr. Johnson was recruited by the Globetrotters in July 1976, a few weeks after he graduated.

He stayed with the Globetrotters for three months, traveling to Germany, Peru, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. After his short stint with the Globetrotters, Mr. Johnson was released.

For the next four years, he worked part time at a pizza parlor in Gaithersburg, looking for another opportunity to fulfill his dream.

It came in 1980. He was reunited with Meadowlark Lemon, when the famed Globetrotters leader left the team. Mr. Lemon recruited Mr. Johnson to his new comedy basketball team, the Bucketteers.

For the next 1 1/2 years, Mr. Johnson banked shots off his head into a basket, threw one-bounce swishers from half-court, and juggled and spun basketballs on his fingers.

Spinning the ball -- which he does on any of his fingers or on the end of a spoon as he uses it to eat -- wasn't how he got his nickname, though.

"My mother gave me that name when I was a kid because I didn't eat my spinach," Mr. Johnson said.

He still doesn't eat his spinach, he said. But that didn't keep him from continuing his success in basketball.

After working with Meadowlark Lemon, Mr. Johnson joined with Marques Haynes -- another former Globetrotter -- for two years, starting in 1981. Mr. Haynes organized comedy basketball teams under the names Harlem Magicians and Harlem Wizards.

In 1984, Mr. Johnson started his own, one-man show, "On the Ball Productions," to visit schools and perform at bar mitzvahs and birthday parties.

He sets a goal of visiting at least 100 schools each year and charges $375 a show. Last year, he visited 136 schools nationwide, including the recreation center at Forest Ridge Elementary School.

"He's really popular with the community," said Brian Emelson, recreation site coordinator for Forest Ridge. "The kids always ask for him to come back. I love to see everybody with smiles on their faces, and he does that."

So far, more than 170 people have bought tickets to his hour-long show at Forest Ridge, which starts at 1 p.m. The show costs $2 per person or $5 for a family with three to six members.

For more information, call the Forest Ridge Elementary School recreation center at 880-5855 or the Recreation Bureau at 313-2762.

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