Austin Toros point guard Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson is in his fourth year with the team, a rarity in a league where rosters change from day-to-day. Since his first year in 2007, Johnson has seen dozens of teammates come and go, some to the NBA, some to other professional teams and some just out of basketball.
Johnson has fallen into the category of a good player that everyone likes and is a team leader, but has never been able to break into the NBA. For Squeaky, whose road to Austin was long and rocky, playing for the Toros has not been a minor league struggle, but a dream realized.
“I never actually thought that I would be the guy that would be on the pedestal,” Johnson said. “Going to the NBA wasn’t the ultimate goal for me. For me it’s being successful and not doing things that my father wouldn’t agree of. With that being said, yeah I’ve made it and for me to continue playing basketball without actually thinking it’s a job or getting a job, I’m making it.”
Squeaky is having his best season yet with the Toros, averaging a career high in minutes (34.5), points (12.3) and assists (6.5). Overall, Johnson has enjoyed his time in Austin.
“It’s been great man,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs. I went from starting, to being a role player, to a guy that was just supporting the team in different ways. Now I got the job of starting and being part of the team and I’m excited about it.”
Johnson wants to keep playing basketball as long as possible and said he would love to be back with the Toros for a fifth season. If that doesn’t work out, he would be fine with playing somewhere overseas.
Squeaky, who was given his nickname by his aunt after a character from Laverne and Shirley (Squiggy), has had some stability the last four years as a member of the Toros, something he has not always had. Johnson was a senior star point guard at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans.
His whole family still lived there in a neighborhood called Skyview in the Ninth Ward. As the call was made to evacuate the city, Johnson’s stepfather Kevin Owens had seen the news reports and insisted they leave. Johnson’s mother Elise Ramsey had been through many hurricanes though and didn’t think Katrina would be any different. Owens begrudgingly sided with his wife.
After the levies broke, the whole bottom story of Johnson’s family’s house flooded. Squeaky saw the destruction and chaos on TV and his instincts were to get in his car and drive home, but was advised by friends it would be useless since no one could get into the city. For five long days, Johnson had no contact with his family.
On that fifth day, Ramsey was finally able to contact her son. Recently at Toros practice, when Johnson talked about the relief he felt when he heard from her, he interrupted himself, saying, “Man, you make me want to call her up right now just to hear her voice.”
At UAB, they helped out his family, giving them a place to stay. When Johnson reunited with his mother, he didn’t recognize her because she had lost some 50-60 pounds because of the stress of Katrina.
Things would get a little better though. Johnson’s family got to watch him at all his home games in Birmingham.
Although deeply affected by Katrina, Johnson himself would steer clear of the chaos because of basketball, a continuous theme in his life.
In Johnson’s neighborhood growing up, violence was common.
“It was kind of a pastime when there was nothing else to do,” Johnson said.
Squeaky was one of the few fortunate enough to grow up with both parents. His father Lonnie, a former military man, saw a better future for his son. He did everything he could to make sure Squeaky wasn’t running the streets in his free time. Johnson took a liking to any and all sports.
“He was a good kid,” his mother said. “He loved sports period. He was active and brought kids together, the majority of the time with a ball in his hand.”
The gym or the park was where you would find Johnson, not the streets. A large amount of the kids he grew up with from his neighborhood, his second family, are currently in jail, according to Johnson.
Basketball emerged as his main sport in high school from his father’s urging to focus on one. Only a psychic could foresee professional basketball for Johnson though. He was never the best player on his team; he was always told he was too small. His older brother would only pick him on his team if Squeaky promised not to shoot. This would be a blessing in disguise though, as he credits that with helping to hone his passing skills.
At Marion Abramson High School, Squeaky played on a team with five players that went on to play Division 1 basketball. Johnson was the starting point guard and was solid, averaging 12 points and 10 assists. His teammates were flashy though, scoring lots of points and overshadowing him, Johnson said. Southeastern Louisiana wanted him, but Johnson’s grades weren’t good enough.
Around this time, his father Lonnie, Johnson’s main influence for keeping focused on basketball and out of the streets, passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Johnson didn’t use this as an excuse to quit working hard and give up on basketball, instead, he used it to motivate himself.
Salt Lake Community College in Utah seemed to be Johnson’s only option. He was offered a scholarship there and grades were not a factor. So he went, even though Utah was a culture shock, Johnson said. The one person he could relate to was teammate and roommate Ravindra Amugama who came all the way from Cameroon. Together they each lived on one hundred dollars a month, squeaking by if you will.
“There was times when I wanted to come home and leave school, but I knew my father wanted to keep me in sports for a reason and if I came home, I would have felt like I’d have been a failure to him.”
His persistence paid off. UAB coach Mike Anderson took a liking to Squeaky. The two kept in contact through his time in Utah and Anderson promised Johnson if he kept his grades up, he could transfer to UAB, sit out a year, and the next year he would award him a full scholarship.
That first year in Birmingham, Squeaky had to pay his own tuition other than the grants he received for his father’s military service. He would join a grounds keeping crew, Johnson’s first job. This meant waking up at 6 AM and doing hard manual labor. It was essentially his meal ticket, if Ramen noodles and hot dogs can be considered meals.
Anderson would be a father figure the next three years, mentoring Johnson on and off the court.
“His thing was, he wanted me to become a man,” Johnson said. “That meant learning family values, which I had, but he wanted me mostly to get my degree, finish school and do the things I need to do so I can be prepared for things outside basketball.”
His first year, Johnson led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and helped his team reach the Sweet Sixteen by beating the no. 1 overall seed Kentucky in the second round. Now, looking back he considers that win the crowning glory of his college career.
Johnson went on to be a two-time nominee for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard. He also was named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year to go along with first team all-conference his senior season.
He graduated with a degree in Criminal Justice. Squeaky was satisfied. He lived his childhood dream. He made it out of Skyview, didn’t fall victim to the streets like so many he grew up with, made his father proud by following through with the path he set him on, played major college basketball in front of a national audience and earned his degree.
Fortunately for Johnson the dream continues and has for the last four years as now he gets paid to play. Squeaky was drafted in the second round of the D-League draft by the Toros in 2007. Head coach Brad Jones thinks Johnson is by far the team’s most valuable player.
“We have a very young team,” Jones said. “Squeaky is a veteran, he’s been around, more importantly he has the personality that everybody kind of pulls to. I’ve been around guys that people pull to that don’t necessarily lead you in the right direction, but they pull to him and he also has the character and the wisdom to lead guys in the right direction.”
Johnson’s favorite memory as a Toro was his first year, when, led by Quin Snyder, they made it to the D-League championship before losing to the Idaho Stampede.
“Coach Snyder worked with me,” Johnson said. “He helped me develop my skill set and understanding of the game.”
Snyder, like so many of his teammates through the years, left the team after getting a job as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. With the revolving door of players Johnson has seen come through Austin, Squeaky has still managed to build friendships and bonds with his former and current teammates. This year alone, 18 different players have seen minutes for Austin.
“It’s not hard because all of us keep up with each other through Skype or Facebook,” Johnson said. “I think it’s been really good. It’s like a fraternity, all of us kind of keep in touch.”
Whether he plays next year with the Toros, another D-League team or somewhere overseas, Squeaky said he has overachieved up to this point and is satisfied being able to play professional basketball, even if it’s not at the highest level.
“Some guys grow up breathing basketball knowing that they want to make the NBA, knowing that it’s their ticket for the rest of their life, but for me, I want to give back to people,” Johnson said. “I want to show them that there is a way out of neighborhoods, violence or not thinking you’ll be able to become something. I wanted to show them that you can be something, you just gotta think and dream big.”