HDNet's Road Diaries series recounts the ongoing rebounds of a former Mavericks hopeful
04/23/10 10:08 AM
By ED BARK
Dubbed "White Chocolate" and once envisioned as former Dallas Maverick Devin Harris' backup at point guard, Ray Johnston took a kick in a calf that wound up as a kick in the head.
It happened six years ago during a pickup game. The swelling persisted while Johnston's condition shockingly deteriorated. He was diagnosed as "84 percent leukemic," fell into a coma and almost bled to death.
"It was literally like looking at a corpse," says Mavericks president and GM Donn Nelson, who still has a hard time talking about it in HDNet's Ray Johnston Band: Road Diaries. The improbable, inspirational eight-part look at Johnston's recovery and re-invention premieres Sunday, April 25th at 7 p.m. (central) on HDNet., which is owned by Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban.
The opening half-hour begins with Johnston, now 31, singing "So I'm livin' my dream. But it wasn't my first dream."
At first it seemed like a pipe dream. Johnston, formerly a point guard for the University of Alabama, went undrafted by the NBA. But the Mavericks liked the way he looked during a Hoop It Up tournament at the American Airlines Center. He was signed to play with the team's summer league squad, which also included Harris and former Mav Josh Howard. Nelson terms it an "American Idol walk-on situation" in the early minutes of Road Diaries.
Howard, eventually diagnosed as a cancer on the Mavs before being traded to Washington this season, can be seen in a different light during Sunday's first episode. Wearing an HDNet jersey, he comes off as lucid and compassionate in talking about Johnston's huge health setback and prolonged hospitalization.
"To see him down and out the way he was, it just crushed me," Howard says.
Cuban, Johnston's parents, his pastor, various doctors and Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki are among the other talking heads in Road Diaries.
Nowitzki, a big smile on his face, plays and sings with Johnston while the closing credits roll for Sunday's opener.
"Looky there!" Johnston says. "It's the first duo we've ever done."
Nowitzki earlier says of Johnston: "The greatest thing about him is how resilient he is."
Realizing he no longer could play basketball at the pro level, Johnston began singing and composing before forming a band. Much of Episode 2, on Sunday, May 2nd, shows the band's first recording session at Palmyra Studios in Palmer, Texas. A debut album, "Sweet Tooth," was released last year.
"I think a couple of these songs have a chance on radio. I really do," Johnston says hopefully.
His health issues continue to hang over him. A tracheotomy hole is notably visible in his neck, and Johnston has lost most of his toes during surgeries. Episode 2 also details his visit to University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for another necessary battery of tests. His leukemia has recurred before, and will always be a threat.
Johnston also finds time to coach a team of high schoolers as part of the Dallas Heroes program. They're invited to the 32-team Desert Duel Memorial Tournament in Phoenix, where several prominent college basketball coaches are on hand in search of prospects.
Road Diaries is nicely produced and never less than upbeat in its recitations of Johnston's travails. He remains buoyantly optimistic through all of them, which his music reflects. Another sample lyric: "A cheerful heart is good medicine for the soul."
This review is being written before the Mavericks play the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of their first round playoff series, which is now tied 1-1. A Dallas loss will make a Sunday night win a virtual must. And in fact, Game 4 is scheduled to be in progress when Road Diaries premieres.
If it starts looking grim, a little dose of Ray Johnston's resiliency might be in order. Switching to HDNet for a bit might help to put things in perspective. When you get right down to it, the Mavericks are just playing a basketball game, albeit an important one. Johnston continues to play the game of life -- with lousy hands that he keeps turning into aces.