NCAA Sweet 16: Coaching is serious business for Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins

When Johnny Dawkins Jr. accepted the Stanford men’s basketball coaching job in 2008, he worried even simple pleasures like golf would set a poor example for his players. So the man who was dubbed “The Cardiac Kid” as a child — because he was as serious as a heart attack — left the clubs behind at his parents’ house, where they currently sit slumped against the washing machine.

“He’s always a perfectionist about what he’s doing,” Johnny Sr. said. “He doesn’t want anybody to think that he’s not invested in his job.”

Few would disagree with the hulking father, his voice booming with pride inside the family’s cozy Maryland townhouse. Two days before, he watched on television as Johnny Jr. guided 10th-seeded Stanford over second-seeded Kansas to reach the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 and thought about how the time had flown by.

The younger Dawkins is 50 years old now, long past the summer days of playground pickup games at D.C. area parks, where he began playing with adults at 11 years old. On Thursday in Memphis, he will lead Stanford into its first region semifinal appearance since 2008, the season before Dawkins became its coach.

It marks a happy end to a winter that began with his name atop hot-seat lists after an implicit declaration from Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir that his future employment depended on an NCAA tournament bid. Through it all, though, Dawkins has remained steadfast in his beliefs, which were forged on the blacktops of Washington and lugged westward after the Cardinal plucked him from an assistant coaching job at Duke.

Everything except the golf clubs.

“I wanted to make sure I stayed focused at the task at hand,” he said. “You have to throw yourself all-in and be consumed with that. That’s what I tried to do.”

‘The basketball was my toy’

Sligo Creek Park in Silver Spring was their location of choice, where Johnny Dawkins Sr. would reach a broomstick toward the sky so his son could practice shooting over tall defenders. The three-point line didn’t exist back then, but Johnny Jr. could still light it up. As he grew older, he became the missing piece for Johnny Sr.’s playground team, joining his father and three uncles on the court.

“I’d be the small guy, the young guy,” Johnny Jr. said. “They probably wanted to choke the air out of me a few times, probably taking shots that were ill-advised. I’m glad they had restraint.”

Now retired, Johnny Sr. was a Green Beret and worked as a bus driver, train operator and station manager for Metro, requesting the early shifts so afternoons could be spent at the playground. Johnny Jr. clung to him from an early age, drawn by their mutual love of the sport, but he inherited his work ethic from his mother, Peggy, who for nine years held two jobs — at the University of Maryland, where she still works, and H&R Block during tax season — even though the family was financially secure enough that it didn’t need the extra income.

Perhaps this is why, seated in their living room on a recent afternoon, Peggy and Johnny Sr. could not recall a single moment from their son’s childhood when he played with toys. Instead, he spent his days dribbling around the house to the point that when Coach Mike Krzyzewski recruited Johnny Jr. to Duke, Peggy thanked him because “I’m sick and tired of hearing that boom-dee-boom all day long.”

“That’s accurate,” Johnny Jr. said. “The basketball was my toy.”

‘Whoosh’

To track Johnny Jr.’s career is a dizzying proposition. At Mackin High School in the District, which has since merged into Archbishop Carroll, he became an All-Met. Fans took to yelling “whoosh” when he launched feathery left-handed jumpers because more often than not the ball kissed the net.

“Our games got so full that people were turned away,” said Paul DeStefano, the former coach at Mackin. “But they knew when he was shooting because they heard the crowd go, ‘whoosh’ from outside the doors.”

At Duke, more tales of his athleticism and dedication arose, like the time he ran a sub-five-minute mile, in basketball shoes, without training. He graduated as Duke’s all-time leading scorer and the Naismith player of the year in 1986.

“He was Allen Iverson before there was Allen Iverson,” said Tommy Amaker, a former Duke teammate who now coaches at Harvard. “He could jump out of the gym for a guy his size. He would plant and go off two like a pogo stick.”

Ascending the coaching ladder took longer. After a nine-year NBA career, he accepted an administrative internship in Duke’s athletics department and broadcast games on the radio. In 1998, he joined Krzyzewski’s staff as an assistant and was promoted to associate head coach the following season. There he remained for a decade, waiting for the perfect job to open, until he found it at Stanford in 2008.

Coaching success took even longer. The Cardinal won the National Invitation Tournament in 2012, but an NCAA tournament appearance eluded him until this season.

On Sunday afternoon, after the Cardinal upset Kansas in St. Louis, Dawkins entered a jubilant locker room. The players always dance after big wins, so after the biggest victory of his coaching career, Dawkins wanted to show them another side. And that was how the serious man, the human heart attack with his no-toy childhood and stashed golf clubs, found himself getting down before everyone, doing the moonwalk and the Charleston until his players buckled in laughter.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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