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Remembering My Friend: Gary "Cat" Johnson

Updated on April 10, 2019
Mr Archer profile image

I am old, and growing older. It is a fact of life that the days ahead are far outnumbered by the days behind.

Cat Johnson, Joplin Sports Hero and far, far more
Cat Johnson, Joplin Sports Hero and far, far more

I learned about this moments ago...

My wife was seated beside me, reading "The Turner Report" on her phone. Mr. Turner is a former teacher at the Joplin, Mo. School District, a teacher of our eldest daughter and a man who invited me to be included in his book about the Joplin Tornado of 2011, which was my very first entree into the world of professional writing and became my first time in print. She follows him as he details stories about Joplin, the school district (both good and bad stories) and shares things I might like or know something about. This time she told me that Cat Johnson had died, as reported on Mr. Turner's report.

"What?" I asked, mouth hanging open. "Cat's dead?"

My mind immediately went back some 52 years to a time when I first joined the Boy's Club in Joplin, my father taking me over for my very first visit. This little black kid came running up to us and asked my dad, who he obviously knew from Ewert Park where my dad played fast-pitch softball for a quarter so he could get a bottle of pop.

My dad smiled, fished around in his pocket and handed him the quarter. With a smile a mile wide and an excited "Thank you Mr. S!" he ran off to get his pop.

I got to know Cat from that day, and counted him a friend from that day to this.

We lived in Royal Heights, Cat lived in East Town

We moved a couple of years later to a home (our first that we were buying after years of renting) in Royal Heights, several miles from Ewert Park. Before that we lived on 15th St, just a few blocks from Ewert and the nearby Boys Club. I still saw Cat at the ball park as it was located in what was called East Town, a leftover term from days now long gone for the part of town where the black people lived. We were the same age, only a few months apart but I was a grade ahead of Cat in school, which made no difference at all to us. At the park, everyone played cupball together, chased foul balls down and brought the ball back to the concession stand for a free ten cent cup of pop. It was a competition and even then Cat won more than his fair share of free pop due to his speed and fierce competitive nature.

Most will not know what cupball was: it was when we would crumple up an old soda cup into a ball, choose up teams and pitch the "ball" to the hitter who used their hand as a bat. We played some ferocious games of ball back then, I assure you, games only interrupted by the occasional foul ball hit over the fence for us to chase down and return.

Even though Joplin was a segregated town in a sense, with the black families living in a certain part of town and attending a particular school (Lincoln, I think) I always seemed to run around with a bunch of the kids from those families. My first school was Carver National Nursery School which was right beside Ewert Park and contained me and two other white kids; the rest were black. People like James Fields, aka Koochie and David Burton, aka Batman would be friends throughout my junior and senior high school years along with Cat and beyond; I still run into Batman every now and then even today, 55 years later.

Memorial High School 1973 - 1977

I graduated in May of 1977, Cat in 1978. He was a member of the basketball team that went 62 and 1 combined during my senior year of 1977 and his of 1978. The only game lost during those two years was in my senior year against cross town rival school Parkwood (we would call it doow-krap, which was Parkwood spelled backwards). We were a 3A, they were a 4A school with more students, more money and more prestige. That year we won the state 3A football championship, again losing only to Parkwood. We went 10 - 1 and won state; they went 11 - 0 and didn't. Crazy year, they didn't qualify for state; I still don't know why.

Anyway, Cat led the Eagles to the state basketball championship losing only once, and we had already beaten Parkwood three times that year anyway. The next year he led the team to an undefeated season and another state championship. Back to back state champs, pretty damn good. Oh, and as a sophomore he led the varsity to the state championship game but lost. Three years, three state championship games, two championships.

What I remember most about Cat during those years wasn't his play on the team winning those championships, it was our lunch hour games. Every day we would hustle to the gym to play 32. This basketball game was everyone against everyone else, no matter how many there were. Ten, fifteen, thirty it didn't matter. If you made the shot you got two points and went to the free throw line. If you could make three free throws in a row you got a point apiece and the ball out of bounds again. First person to 32 won.

When Cat got the ball, he was tough to stop. And more often than not, he would call me out saying, "Come on Mike, come on and try to stop me" because he knew I would do my best to stop him. Oh, I couldn't compete with him shot for shot but I was a determined defensive player who played for the Boys Club traveling team and was the only white starter on the team (I jumped center; this white boy could jump). I would dog him around as the rest of the guys huddled under the basket, waiting for a rebound that may not come. He made more than he missed but at least he and I knew I had given all I had and he had to work a little even if he still bested me. And I loved every minute of it; he was a star on the team, a hero in school and would become a professional basketball player for eight years in London after a college career at ORU in Tulsa that put him in their Hall of Fame.

Damn I miss those days.

ORU, London and back to Joplin

After graduation, Cat went to Tulsa and ORU after being pursued by colleges and universities across the country. At ORU his teams beat such notables as Marquette, whose coach Al McGuire said that Cat was so quick he was on McGuire's "All Blur Team", Princeton, Creighton, Georgetown and Kansas. He was drafted by the New Jersey Nets but went instead to Europe and played eight years for London, where he met his wife Wendy and eventually had sons Madison and Phoenix. As a freshman Phoenix played in a game against my son in which my son took a charge from Phoenix in a crucial moment late in the game. After the game I found Cat and told him that was my son who took the charge, to which he laughed and said he remembered our noontime games and my defense on him. "Now our kids are doing what we did back then!"

After London Cat had moved back home to Joplin, right back to his old neighborhood in fact, opening a used car dealership on the corner of St Louis and Broadway, now called Langston Hughes Drive. His dealership became a success as he sold fair priced late model, well maintained cars and SUV's in an area long believed to be blighted and unsafe. No one bothered his lot, due in part to his being one of them who had made good and came home to them. I would stop by every now and again to see him, met his wife a time or two and just say hello to them. Cat never had a big head, never was too busy for anyone, and welcomed all to his business.

The last person I went to see when we moved several years ago from Joplin to near Springfield was Cat. He wasn't there at the time but I told his wife I was moving and wanted to say goodbye to him before leaving. I did call him later to tell him and spent a few minutes just talking about old times.

I will miss you Cat

And our classmates from Memorial. Our high school is no more, and after the tornado took the old Parkwood which had become Joplin High School (having had both high schools combined into one school) the trophy case filled with memorabilia from our school's glory days are gone too. No pictures or trophies, no net remnants, nothing remains to show the students how great you were. You were inducted into the ORU Hall of Fame, and the Joplin Sports Authority Hall Of Fame as well. Your classmates will remember you for a vast number of reasons including back to back state championships; your neighborhood will remember your homecoming after your success in Europe; your children will remember you for being a good father.

I will remember your smile during our first meeting, and the time you dunked two handed behind your head as a 5' 10" kid during our lunch at Memorial during my senior year. I was in awe of you as a player, and counted you a friend. I will miss you my friend.


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