Lessons in `On the Ball'

Comedy basketball is used to promote education

January 06, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the Sun

Spencer "Spinny" Johnson threw a basketball into the air, bopped it off his head like a soccer player and scored a basket.

Then he selected about a dozen seventh-graders to come and try it. Brendan Tucker, 12, bounced the ball off his head -- and missed. But Johnson gave him a second shot.

The trick was one of several performed by Johnson and attempted by students yesterday at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in Pikesville during Johnson's hourlong comedy basketball routine: On the Ball, Spinny.

Johnson, who said he began his career working with the Harlem Globetrotters three decades ago, gave a motivational talk about being respectful and getting a good education.

"Getting a good education is the most important thing that you can do for yourself," he told the youngsters.

The performance was a hit, said Linda Wagner, who teaches visual arts at the school.

"The kids need more of this, and I need more of this, too," she said. "It's great to see a positive role model for the children. He even made me feel better about myself."

Johnson is scheduled to perform at 2 p.m. today at the Lansdowne Library.

The educational portion of Johnson's show focuses on topics ranging from civil rights and peer pressure to drug and alcohol abstinence. He also talks about the importance of respecting adults and being good listeners.

To achieve his goal, he makes the students a part of the show, said the Laytonsville resident.

"Allowing the children to participate is the most important part of what I'm trying to do," said Johnson, who does about 250 shows a year, charging $650 to $1,000 per performance. "Students who are involved in what I am doing, get more out of it."

Johnson developed his interest in comedy basketball after earning a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1976 from Geneva College in Pennsylvania.

At that point Johnson, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall, began traveling with the Harlem Globetrotters, he said. In later years, he traveled with the Meadowlark Lemon Bucketeers and the Harlem Magicians.

When he grew tired of traveling with the groups, Johnson decided to create a comedy basketball show. He said he wanted control of his time, and he had a message of his own to share.

"When I started the program, I hoped to reach one student with a negative attitude [to] become more positive," said Johnson, who started the show about 22 years ago. "And I know I reach a lot more than that, so I keep going."

Throughout the show, he randomly selects students to attempt the tricks. And he sets them up to succeed, he said.

"If a student tries a trick and they don't succeed the first time around, I have them try it again," he said. "I want to build their confidence. It gives me a chance to reach kids before their attitudes are fully formed."

And he also performs for his audience. In yesterday's show, he juggled three basketballs, caught two balls and threw another one up into the air. Then he bounced the three balls simultaneously, catching them as a group, still in a straight line.

He put shaving cream on the side of one boy's face, got a ball spinning, sat it on the plastic "razor" and began to "shave" the youngster.

Johnson, a Montgomery County substitute teacher, said the best part of his job is when he learns that he made a difference in a child's life.

"Often after a show, a child or a group of children will come up to me and tell me what the show meant to them," he said. "Or a guidance counselor or principal will ask me to talk with a child after the show to try to help them."

To sum it up, Brendan Tucker said that he had learned that no one can ever tell you what you can or can't try to do. He recalled how Johnson said that people had told him he was too short to succeed in basketball.

"But he proved them wrong," said Brendan. "You have to go to college, and you have to try hard. That's what I learned today."

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