This piece originally appeared in the February 4, 2020 edition of The Kaleidoscope.
When Aaron Johnson first started at UAB, he said he was not sure if he was going to even last his first semester.
“I remember calling my dad my freshman year and I told him, ‘I think I’m coming home’,” Johnson said, “He said, ‘Well, I don’t know what home you refer to because I don’t have a room here for you.’ And I was like, ‘What you mean?’ He’s like, ‘You got to figure it out. You chose to go down there. You chose to do what you got to do. So, you got to figure it out.’”
Johnson did figure it out. Over a decade after that phone call, his number one jersey will be retired in a special ceremony at Bartow Arena. The ceremony will take place during the men’s basketball game against North Texas on Feb. 8 as a part of Alumni Weekend events.
It is an honor that Johnson, now a graduate assistant with the basketball team, said he never expected.
“I never even really knew that people did that growing up, to have my (jersey hanging in the rafters) at a major division one school is really mind blowing,” Johnson said.
He joins Oliver Robinson, Steve Mitchell and Jerome Mincy as the only UAB men’s basketball players to receive this honor.
Johnson played for UAB from 2007-11 under then-Head Coach Mike Davis. He played an unselfish game becoming the UAB record holder for assists in a game, season and career.
Former Kaleidoscope sportswriter, Tarek Abdalla, said he remembers Johnson as an integral part of the UAB basketball program.
“He was some guy that took control of a game, every game,” Abdalla said, “We had a lot of talent on that team, but you can tell that he was the glue that held everything together. There’s always something just a little missing when he was off the court.”
During Johnson’s senior season, things all came together. He led the NCAA in assists, was named Conference USA Player of the Year, received an AP All-American honorable mention and helped lead UAB into the NCAA tournament.
Johnson said there is no feeling like playing in the NCAA tournament.
“The NCAA tournament is one of those moments where you have to be in the moment to understand the moment, and even though we lost the game, (I) can still feel it,” Johnson said.
After graduating UAB, Johnson would go on to play professionally in Europe and in the NBA G-League, formerly known as the D-League. He played there until May of 2019 when he said he grew tired of playing so far away from his family.
“I have 11 brothers and sisters,” Johnson said. “I was missing them a lot, missing my wife, missing my mom, my dad and I kind of just wanted to stop.”
Johnson said the decision for to move to coaching was an easy one.
“(I’ve )always been able to tell people you know, what spots will be good for them to score,” Johnson said. “I (have) always been able to just draw up plays and write plays and stuff.”
Alex Church, a graduate assistant with the team, said that Johnson’s experience makes him great with players.
“He’s great at being able to relate to the guys being a former player, share his experiences, share his knowledge of how to play and things he tried to do on the court,” Church said.
When Johnson was deciding on where to attend graduate school, he said there was only one option.
“If it wasn’t for UAB, and Coach Ehsan accepting me into the family that they’re building and the program, I wouldn’t be in school right now,” Johnson said. “I (would) be working a job somewhere.”
Johnson said he is still grateful for the opportunities he received at UAB.
“Birmingham is my home,” Johnson said.“(They) took in a Chicago kid from the Southside, Inglewood area, made him welcome and made him feel at home.”
With his jersey hanging in Bartow Arena, a part of him will always be in Birmingham.