“Nothing Without Work”: A Reflection on the Life of Kris Johnson

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Portrait of Coach Kris (KJ) Johnson taken in 2018.

Everyone’s entitled to an opportunity. Whether that’s a huge opportunity a small opportunity, whatever to get a foot in the door, everyone’s entitled to a chance to prove themselves. Kris Johnson gave me my first opportunity to experience life at a place like West Nottingham Academy.  

I was in my one-bedroom apartment in Winterville, North Carolina a year removed from quitting an engineering job to pursue a career in basketball after falling in love with coaching. I left my engineering job for a non-coaching position, but it was still the best basketball-related opportunity I was able to find in North Carolina. I made a lot of great connections, and I’m grateful for my time in N.C., but things were not going well, and I needed to be back on a sideline. I was urgently trying to get out of there with about three weeks left on my lease. I had several exciting interviews and prospects. I was optimistic that I had a college coaching job in the bag. Except I didn’t. I finished in 2nd place for two positions and top 5 for another, and I loved all three of these positions. This all happened in the span of one week. My experience was pretty dejecting.  

A few days later I got a call from Kris (KJ). The opportunity was to become his assistant coach at a small boarding school in Maryland. I’d get to live on campus and be an admissions fellow. If he asked me a week prior, I don’t know if I would have been as excited as I was that day. What sold me was his passion for a vision of bringing back a once-storied basketball program. He gave me the history of the program started by Raphael Chillious. The prep powerhouse with Josh Boone and company and how we could bring that back. I learned about the great basketball traditions before that with Coach Spiro and his teams. Colora, Maryland was so close to all these great basketball hubs, not to mention a school that had a great feel for international students. One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever received was “make sure the people you work for are aligned with your vision.” I loved KJ’s vision and was bought in. After the interview process, I was excited to accept the role and move to smalltown Colora, Maryland. 

Mentorship 

Coach Kris Johnson and player removes the net after claiming the championship title.

I don’t believe everyone’s entitled to mentorship in the workplace. The opportunity…sure, but everyone has their own job to do and their own crosses to bear. So, if you find someone who is a mentor to you, thank them. That person is taking time to help you develop and they really care about you. KJ was that for me. He asked me all the time questions like “what do you want to do next?” “What are you looking to get out of this.”  Always very direct, sometimes catching me off guard and coming out of nowhere. On top of that, he’d get me up at 7 AM on a weekend to go watch a full slate of high school basketball games. He’d go on recruiting trips with me and make calls so I could work certain camps, help me get coaching certificates and licenses, and so on. He’d advise on how to approach certain situations whether it was related to basketball, being at a boarding school, life, or whatever. Just observing his leadership style gave me so much, too. He took the time to meet kids where they were, he mopped the basketball court before every practice and game, and never accepted anything less than 100 percent effort. Even after he left West Nottingham, via our catch-ups on the phone, I always found myself picking up some piece of information that would help me out in my life and career.  

Friendship

It might be a little harsh to say, but along the same lines as mentorship, no one’s entitled to friendship in the workplace either.  We all have a job to do and that’s the number one thing. So, if you find a mentor who happens to become one of your best friends, thank them. One of my favorite parts about KJ is the reaction other people would have when you brought him up. “I Love KJ!” “he’s the man!!” More importantly, he was always there for you. He’d check in with you just to check-in and see how you’re doing. He was fiercely loyal to all of his friends and family and was someone you could always depend on. There were countless times when us going to grab a bite or to simple hang out with one another. Watching March Madness all day over spring break with him, my fiancé Corinne, and former Dean of Students, Sasha Skulsky, is one of my favorite WNA memories.  

KJ and Sasha’s friendship deserves special mention. The two of them were so close and had such a great bond and student-focused energy. Those two had a tag team way of getting on your case and you just had to take it because no one cared about our students more than those two and no one worked harder than those two. When I first started working here, there were times I’d get really upset about how hard those two could get on me. But I’m forever grateful because they were pushing me and whoever else wanted to hear to be better. I remember Sasha poking fun at a ‘KJ timeout speech’ where he told our guys to simply “be better.” Both Sasha and KJ expected your best each day and pushed you to get there. Most importantly, they walked the walk. Thank you for your continued mentorship and friendship, Sasha! 

Coach Kris Johnson posing with the Class of 2018.

Opportunity

One opportunity is great, but KJ gave me multiple opportunities. Upon leaving West Nottingham he named me Head Basketball Coach, and later would recommend me to replace him as Athletic Director. Overwhelmed with both at times, I leaned on him for so much. He was never further than a text or phone call away, not to mention everything he set in place already set me up for success. I’d thank him all the time and he’d give back a “stop you earned it.” Earning what you have was one of the biggest things with him but still, everyone needs help and influence along the way, and he was that for me. We told each other how much we appreciated each other many times before his passing, so I have comfort in that.  

I made it a point to acknowledge him publicly last year. We were fortunate enough to have ESPN’s Adam Finkelstein profile our team and I made it a point to acknowledge how much he’d done for me.  

“I keep our tradition and the standard of excellence that KJ and Chillious established in mind,” Fabian says, “and while I still have a ways to go to catch those two as a coach, I hope people understand how hungry I am to get there and that I’m insistent on doing that the right way.”  

The same day that piece came out, a player he recruited and I got to coach, Jamie Bergens, (Class of 2019), advanced with Oral Roberts advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in historic fashion. With KJ’s passing the following morning I’m not sure he ever saw Jamie’s win and that article, but I really hope he did. Recognition was never something he cared much for, but he worked so hard to build this program that I hope it gave him satisfaction to see all the success his players were having and that he was able to start the sustainably successful program he envisioned from the start.  

Our final text conversation was a little all over the place (if you know me then I’m sure that sounds about right). First talking about Jedy Cordilia (Class of 2020) and his opportunity to play college ball at Mt. St. Mary’s along with Jamie’s opportunity upcoming in the NCAA tournament. He was always thinking about opportunities for others and always focused on the kids. In there I asked him a random question about coordinating tennis practices and told him I’d try to stop bothering him with questions like that. He told me to never stop asking and told me who to call. Mentorship. We also talked about Corinne and I going to visit him where he lived in Charleston, S.C. once the school year was over like we did the year prior. He was excited for us to come down and reunite with us. Friendship.  

Portrait of Coach Thomas Fabian taken in 2018.

There’s so much more to KJ beyond the opportunities he helped others find, his mentorship, and his friendship with me but those are the three words that stand out when reflecting on such a special person.  

West Nottingham Academy continues to be deeply saddened by the loss of community member, coach, and friend, Kris Johnson. His contribution and influence are still felt on campus today. 

Author Thomas Fabian, Athletic Director and Head Coach of the Prep Basketball Team, is one of WNA’s most tenured staff members. His dedication to student success and growth mirrors that of Kris Johnson’s. 






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