RICHMOND, Va. – Brooklyn isn’t the Bronx, but it’s still New York City, and that’s good enough for Melvin Johnson.
The VCU freshman guard, a Bronx native, is set to return to his hometown this week as the Rams descend on Brooklyn and Barclays Center for the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The second-seeded Rams have a first round bye and will take on the winner of No. 7 Xavier and No. 10 Saint Joseph’s on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
For Johnson, it’s a chance to come home to play before friends and family in the city’s new, chic hoops destination. Johnson says he expects about 50 relatives, neighborhood buddies, AAU teammates and others to make the trip to the arena. But please, if you know Johnson, don’t call him. Call the Barclays ticket office.
“I couldn’t get 50 tickets, so I’ve got friends that are purchasing tickets,” he said Tuesday.
But it’s not all bad. Johnson says he’s been flattered by the outpouring of support he’s receiving from New York.
“Just for them to come out for me and do things like that for the entire weekend is going to mean a lot for me and is going to go a long way,” he said.
Like most kids from New York, Johnson grew up amid the city’s rich basketball history and below the giant shadow cast by what many consider, the center of the basketball universe, Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. While Barclays Center doesn’t have ghosts of Hall of Famers drifting among the rafters like the Garden, the building is “The Next Big Thing” in the city. Although he estimates his home is 45 minutes from Barclays, Johnson says there’s considerable buzz throughout the Bronx and the other boroughs about the arena.
Johnson says that when he met with Shaka Smart this summer during his recruiting process, the VCU Coach was quick to sell Melvin on the prospect of playing in New York City in March.
“That actually played a factor in me coming here, Coach saying the conference tournament was going back to where I’m from,” Johnson, who hopes to show teammates around Times Square later this week, said. “That just pushed me a little bit towards VCU.”
The flip side to the opportunity to play in New York is that there are potential drawbacks. The A-10 Tournament is already a pressure cooker. The league is more balanced than ever. While the Rams are the No. 2 seed, their potential first round opponents are a team they rallied from 17 points down in the second half to beat (Xavier) and another they outlasted in overtime (Saint Joseph’s). The last thing Johnson needs is added pressure to perform in front of a hometown crowd. But he says he’s not concerned. He has a plan for bucking the nerves.
“I’ve actually been trying to get that out of my system this week, doing anything extra to please anybody. My mom is the only person I need to please,” he said. “I know what I need to do for us to win and for me to play well as an individual…stay as calm as possible. Keep following the plan. Just worry about what Coach Smart thinks rather than what one side is saying, do this or that.”
So, when he takes the floor at Barclays Center this week, Johnson plans to soak in the experience, one he’ll try to extend until Sunday.
“It’s like the next big thing in New York right now,” Johnson said of the arena. “Of course it’s going to get higher and higher in terms of popularity, but it’s just overwhelming, it’s a surreal feeling to go back home and play in the Barclays in front of my friends and family and hopefully win a championship.”