Spencer Johnson said no to Mark Pope once before. Now he’s one of BYU’s X-factors

Johnson, a junior on the Cougars men’s basketball team, took a long and ‘twisty’ road to find a home at BYU.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) takes the ball up the middle as Utah Valley Wolverines guard Le'Tre Darthard (1) defends, in basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Utah Valley Wolverines in Orem, on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Spencer Johnson went to bed every night as a kid with a basketball in his arms. Once he fell asleep, his parents would place it on his bedroom floor only for him to bring it to the breakfast table the next morning.

The young Johnson, now a junior guard for the BYU men’s basketball team, went everywhere with that basketball. He would dribble it around the house, up and down the marble staircase, up and down the gravel road outside, Euro-stepping around his family members or hooking their arms and yelling, “And one!”

Johnson’s passion for basketball never wavered — not even when he found himself at a crossroads a few years ago.

He had just decided to leave Utah Valley University not long after leaving Weber State — two locations where he was either getting very little playing time or wasn’t on scholarship and not playing at all.

“He felt like he was overlooked,” said Isaac Johnson, Spencer’s younger brother who currently plays at Oregon.

So Johnson did what he had to. He chose to transfer a third time, but to Salt Lake Community College. There, he got the playing time he needed to showcase what some had seen when he was coming out of American Fork High School — a versatile player who could score, defend and had developed a do-it-all mentality.

Cougars coach Mark Pope, who recruited Johnson out of high school but was initially turned down, still had a love for his game. He reached out, and this time Johnson said yes.

“It’s been this twisty, windy, long road to get where I am,” Johnson said.

The long and winding road

Johnson has basketball in his DNA.

His father, Darren, played at Utah State. His mother, Emily, received a scholarship to play collegiately, instead chose to focus on her studies. His older brother, Alex, played in high school. And his younger sister, Gracie, plays for Nyssa High School in Oregon and is getting attention from some universities.

Johnson’s entire family is intimately familiar with his militaristic passion for basketball. Darren Johnson said Spencer was the one child who he didn’t have to motivate to practice. It was his son who suggested waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the nearby church that housed a gym. When he went on his mission to northern Italy right after high school, “it truly was a sacrifice for him” to be away from basketball that long, Emily Johnson said.

Johnson was so dedicated to the sport that he drafted a makeshift contract on a piece of notebook paper that stated he would do whatever it took to become a professional basketball player. Both he and his dad signed the contract, which hung unframed at the head of his bed so he could see it when he woke up.

Even in his college apartment, posters of Michael Jordan and other basketball figures blanket his walls.

“Every single piece of artwork he had in this house included a basketball,” said Isabella Johnson, Spencer’s wife since last May. “I’m not exaggerating.”

That dedication proved instrumental when he embarked on the journey that led him to BYU. Pope wanted him at UVU when he returned from his mission, but Johnson chose Weber State instead.

“We tried to recruit him really hard and he was he was just not drinking the Kool-Aid, man,” Pope said. “He could see right through me.”

But the Wildcats weren’t the right fit for Johnson, a realization his mother said he had “almost instantly.” Isaac Johnson recalled his brother saying he felt like he was “kicking guys’ butts in practice” but was frustrated that didn’t translate to minutes.

After a summer and just one semester at Weber State, Johnson turned his attention to Pope and UVU. But the former Wolverines coach didn’t have any more scholarships to give. Still, Johnson chose to stick with UVU until he could figure out his next move. It was still his redshirt year.

One semester later, Pope and much of his staff were headed to BYU. Mark Madsen, meanwhile, was set to take over at UVU, where Johnson hoped to stay. But Madsen was completely unfamiliar with Johnson, who was not on the current roster, and thus did not offer him a scholarship, either.

“I think it was a series of unfortunate events that just kind of all happened at the same time,” Emily Johnson said. “And when you get all these different coaches moving around, unfortunately the person who gets it in the shorts probably the most is the player.”

From there, Johnson chose to play at SLCC, which Pope described as a move that took “a ton of courage.” Johnson’s younger brother agrees.

“I think taking a step back from Division I basketball, going to a community college and betting on himself,” Isaac Johnson said, “that showed tremendous mental maturity — from being able to just look to the future and then executing when he was at community college and getting to where he is now.”

Finding a home at BYU

Johnson credits his time at SLCC as the turning point of his basketball journey.

“That was seriously the greatest thing I could have done for my career,” Johnson said. “It really was just kind of take a step back and reevaluate what I valued and where I wanted to go. The options were wide open at that point. I could stay there, I could stop playing, I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted that was recruiting me.”

Johnson performed so well that he started getting offers again. BYU, UVU, Boise State. Nevada and Utah State mulled over the same. He committed to Pope and the Cougars, though, quite early.

“I think he just felt sorry for me,” Pope joked.

But committing to BYU, in some ways, was just the beginning for Johnson, who continued to hone his craft in a way that suggested he wouldn’t accept a repeat of what he had already experienced. He was going to stick with a program this time.

Isabella, who was in a new relationship with Johnson, saw her future husband’s dedication to basketball in the small moments. He’d bring it up during lunches, study sessions, while making dinner. He told her it’d be helpful if she asked him about practices and what he was trying to improve in his game. They stretched and shot baskets together. She sat next to him while he watched film and explained concepts to her.

Johnson even still slept with a basketball in his arms every night, Isabella Johnson said. It was a plush one his sister gifted him, but it was a reminder that even as a young adult, he still lived, breathed and dreamt about basketball.

“It wasn’t even just on the top of his mind,” Isabella Johnson said. “You can tell it was in his heart.”

Isabella is also very much in Johnson’s heart. He said that since he’s been married to her, he’s become a better basketball player.

Johnson is about to finish his second season with BYU. He’s played in 56 games and averaged 5.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game in that span. And while the numbers don’t leap off the page in his role as a bench player, Pope has not been shy about his impact for the Cougars.

“There’s zero chance we have the success we had this year, last year,” Pope said. “No chance without him.”

As the Cougars start their West Coast Conference Tournament run on Friday, they’ll need all the help they can get. Alex Barcello will need to be special, and they’ll need every role player to pull their weight if they want a chance at winning it all and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Johnson is ready to fill his role.

“Every team needs a do-it-all-guy. It’s a super valuable role,” Johnson said. “So going into this tournament and these games that are coming up, it’s something that we’re going to rely on and it’s huge for us.”

Those closest to Johnson know the long road it took for him to find his place at BYU. His wife attends almost all his games, and will be in the stands in Las Vegas cheering him on, reveling in where the love of her life is now.

“There’s been a few times that it’s really brought me to tears, and I don’t cry very easily,” Isabella Johnson said of watching her husband play. “But I see the everyday flash before my eyes as he makes a shot or as he steals the ball or has an amazing assist. It’s pretty incredible to watch someone’s dreams unfold in front of them.”