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Jermaine Johnson (left) and presidential candidate Andrew Yang at the Charleston County Democratic Party Blue Jamboree on Oct. 5, 2019, at The Bend in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Jermaine Johnson navigates South Carolina political circles with the same presence and confidence he once used to patrol basketball courts for the College of Charleston. Walking the grounds of one of the state’s largest Democratic Party gatherings, he stops every few feet to offer a handshake or a hug. He rallies volunteers who are handing out pins and pamphlets. And he takes the stage to share his own personal journey, from homeless teenager to basketball standout to political advocate and activist.

He tells the crowd at the Blue Jamboree in North Charleston about growing up in Los Angeles during the height of the crack epidemic, which shattered his family and forced him into poverty. He talks about coming home and finding the electricity cut off, about how he lived in a series of motels following one eviction after another, about attending seven high schools as he and his mother shuttled from place to place.

He doesn’t talk about his father being in and out of prison, the death of one brother, or how the scar on his face from a teenage pistol-whipping is a lifelong reminder of where he grew up. He doesn’t talk about how he struggled to leave that environment — getting kicked out of one prep school, the benchings and suspensions in Charleston, a fight with a teammate, all that anger and defensiveness from L.A. following him wherever he went.

But it’s all part of what made him who he is. “I am absolutely amazed by the fact that I didn’t die,” said Johnson, who lives in Columbia with his wife and three children. “My original dream growing up was just to live to see the age of 18. It’s a whole different ballgame now.”

Indeed it is evident when Johnson — make that Dr. Jermaine Johnson, thanks to his doctorate in business administration and organizational leadership — heads off to one corner of the Blue Jamboree festival ground. Out of a white SUV steps Andrew Yang, Democratic candidate for president, who slips on a sport coat and greets Johnson with a wide smile and a bear hug. As state coordinator, Johnson is Yang’s point man in South Carolina, organizing the campaign’s efforts in one of the key early primary states.

It’s but one of the many hats he wears now. Johnson also founded a nonprofit that helps military veterans, the recently incarcerated, and others suffering through hard economic times find work. He owns a consulting firm, is active in both the Richland County Democratic Party and the Richland County Recreation Commission, and has visions of running for office himself.

“Jermaine is a true activist, and that’s the one thing about him that I admire the most,” said Cynthia Watson, field director for the Richland County Democratic Party. “He puts others first and meets others where they are. He’s this giant-sized person but he’s got a really good heart. He’s just been a true activist in the community for those who can’t articulate for themselves.”

For those who knew the intractable Johnson who played basketball in Charleston, it’s a head-spinning transformation.

“He’s really grown up. He’s really matured. I don’t know what happened to him,” said Bobby Cremins, who coached Johnson for three of his four seasons with the Cougars. “It’s amazing. He’s really into politics and he’s really motivated to do great things with his life. It’s great to see. It’s really wonderful to see.”

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The College of Charleston's Jermaine Johnson cheers during a game against Georgia Southern. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

‘Make sure he doesn’t leave’

Jermaine Johnson’s career at the College of Charleston almost ended before it really began. Three months into his redshirt season of 2004-05, he was involved in a locker room fight with teammate Jeff Horowitz, who alleged in a police report that Johnson punched him in the face and shoved him into lockers. Horowitz would transfer to UNC Wilmington, and Johnson seemed to have one foot out the door as well.

Later that same day, Johnson said, he told then-Cougars head coach Tom Herrion he was transferring to Long Beach State. He credits Herrion, now an assistant at South Florida, with talking him out of it.

“I had made up my mind. I was out of there,” Johnson recalled. “I had already told Long Beach State I was coming. (Herrion) said, ‘Jermaine, this is the most stable environment you’ve ever had in your life. You’ve never had stability, and this is what you need.’ That’s what it was.”

The 6-foot-7 Johnson would develop into a strong player for the Cougars, averaging 10 points and 7.5 rebounds over his career. He finished as one of only four players in school history with at least 1,100 points and 850 rebounds. But he struggled to adapt to the structure of a team environment, and at times clashed with coaches. Cremins pulled Johnson from the starting lineup for the first four games of his sophomore season and suspended him one game as a senior for refusing to shake hands after a loss to The Citadel.

“He and I had our spats,” Cremins recalled. When Cremins was hired during the summer before Johnson’s redshirt sophomore year, he asked former Charleston coach John Kresse about the Cougars’ mercurial big man. “He told me, ‘Bobby, you better make sure he doesn’t leave,’ ” Cremins said. “John told me that he could play, and I definitely should talk to him. So I flew out to L.A. to meet with him and his mother. He loved the College of Charleston, but I wasn’t sure he was coming back. But after I met with him and his mother, I had a good feeling he probably would. And he did.”

But coaching Johnson proved a challenge at first, Cremins remembered, and it took the influence of star guard Dontaye Draper to help everyone get on the same page. Looking back, Johnson recalls the struggle of going from the chaos of his life in Los Angeles to more rigid basketball environments. He even got kicked out of his first prep school, those demons from Southern California following him 3,000 miles away.

Understandably so, given where he had come from. “My parents were both on crack when I was very small,” Johnson said. “They cleaned up, but it took my father a little longer. The drug stuff and the jail and all that, it hit my family hard.”

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The College of Charleston's Jermaine Johnson takes a hook shot in front of Furman's Brandon Sebirumbi at the Carolina First Arena in 2009. File/Staff

His father was in an out of prison and had a gambling addiction that contributed to the family’s dire financial straits. Evictions forced them to live in a series of motels, and all the moving from place to place meant Johnson was constantly changing high schools. One of his brothers went to prison for six years. Drugs, gangs and violence were everywhere. Trying to get him out of that environment, an AAU coach helped Johnson land at a prep school outside New York.

His arrival at Trinity-Pawling School marked “the first time I knew there was something different in the world,” Johnson said. “I got there and saw all those kids in ties and blazers and suits. I had friends who lived in the rich parts of Connecticut, and they would take me home with them. That was the first time I ever saw snow, the first time I ever saw stars. I was like, ‘Man, I really don’t want to go back to my old environment.’

“But when you’re young, you’re still being influenced by other people and you haven’t matured all the way,” he added. “That’s why I had so many issues trying to adapt.” Although he would graduate from

C of C with a communications degree, he wasn’t yet able to leave his past behind.

‘I’ve got the perfect dude’

That took hitting rock bottom, which came back in L.A. The summer after graduating from College of Charleston, Johnson had been mixing with the likes of James Harden and Amar’e Stoudamire in workouts arranged by his agent. But after one season with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA D-League, he was released. His agent dropped him. He’d gone from hanging out with NBA stars to sleeping on the couch in his mother’s two-room apartment in Irvine, Calif.

“This was right after I had just thought I was going to be this big superstar,” Johnson said. “I had a degree, but I had no job, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life.”

He reconnected with a former girlfriend from the College of Charleston, a biology major from Columbia named Evan who would eventually become his wife. He began reaching out to others, apologizing for his attitude or actions. He accepted an offer to play pro basketball in Mexico, beginning a six-year international career that took him to Portugal, Brazil and Canada. All the while he continued his education online, completing master’s work in 2014 and his doctorate in 2018. While in Canada, teammates would tease him for doing coursework in the locker room before games.

In many ways, he’s the same Jermaine Johnson who played for the Cougars a decade ago —  gregarious and quick-witted, with an easy smile and a personality as large as his 6-foot-7-inch frame. But the edginess he carried with him from Los Angeles to Charleston is gone. “He’s still the same guy,” said his wife, Evan, “but he thinks before he speaks now.”

After his basketball career ended, Johnson settled in Columbia with his wife and son Jermaine Jr., who had been born during his senior year at the College of Charleston. It was his pastor, Sammy Wade of St. John Baptist Church in Hopkins, who urged Johnson to see his greater potential. The result was the New Economic Beginnings Foundation, which helps find employment for people not unlike members of Johnson’s own family — such as one brother who fought to piece his life back together after six years in prison, and another who struggled after leaving the military.

The foundation provides counselors, works with the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services on expungements and the solicitor’s office on pretrial intervention. It helps prepare resumes and offers continuing education credits through USC. Johnson’s community involvement caught the attention of the late S.C. House member Joe Neal, who became his mentor.

“There’s an earnestness about him, and a humbleness about him,” Watson said of Johnson. “There are no pretenses about him. He likes people, and the nice thing about that is they like him back. They see the genuineness in him.”

Johnson’s relationship with Neal helped him meet other legislators and get involved in other organizations, and before he knew it he was beginning to make a name for himself in state politics. So much so that when Yang’s campaign called the Young Democrats of South Carolina looking for someone who might be able to help them in the Palmetto State, the organization’s president told them, “I’ve got the perfect dude.”

Due to both his upbringing and his nonprofit work with those looking for employment, Johnson had been intrigued by Yang’s central campaign issue of a universal basic income — $1,000 a month for everyone. “That would literally liberate everyone I serve,” Johnson said. “It would allow them to pay their basic bills. I know what $1,000 a month would have done for me growing up. That’s what made be a believer.”

The Yang campaign asked Johnson to set up the candidate’s first visit to South Carolina, over a weekend in May. Johnson mined his contacts and arranged visits with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, the Democratic Black Caucus, College of Charleston president Andrew Hsu, even a jaunt to the Silver Dollar bar on King Street. Afterward, Johnson said, Yang called him personally to offer him the state coordinator role with the campaign.

“Absolutely,” Johnson replied. “This is what I’ve wanted to be a part of.”

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Jermaine Johnson talks with Jake Abellanosa at the Charleston County Democratic Party Blue Jamboree on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, at The Bend in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

All of which led to the recent Blue Jamboree in North Charleston, where Johnson fired up the “Yang Gang” group of volunteers, guided the candidate through a crowd that increased in size as he crossed the festival ground, and introduced Yang on stage. Wearing a cap emblazoned with one of Yang’s slogans — MATH, short for “Make America Think Again” — Johnson stood at the candidate's side as more than 100 people lined up for selfies and handshakes.

Despite fervent support among young voters, Yang’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination seem remote — his national polling average is just 2 percent, according to The New York Times. But regardless of the results of the 2020 primaries, Johnson’s political career appears to be just getting started. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him run for office,” Watson said, “and I would say sooner rather than later.”

That’s a long way indeed from the talented but tempestuous player who once took the court for the Cougars.

“I knew he was capable. A lot of people liked him. There were some teachers who believed in him,” Cremins said. “He’s kind of shocked me with all this stuff he’s doing. But I’m very proud of him. It’s great to see him be so ambitious.”

Even Johnson seems amazed by how far he’s come.

“I went from homeless to Dr. Johnson and hanging out with presidential candidates,” Johnson said. “I have state representatives calling me. I can call the mayor (of Columbia) right now, and the mayor will answer. To me, it’s a dream come true. It’s something I never imagined in my life.”

Contact David Caraviello at dcaraviello@lowcountryeditorial.com.

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