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Hoops standout at Heritage High School grateful for assist

Capone Johnson leaves behind troubled surroundings in Indiana for fresh start with coach and family in Vancouver

By , Columbian staff writer
11 Photos
Capone Johnson, left, Conner Childs, center, both 17, and Conner's dad Brian, right, burst into laughter as they chat after basketball practice together at their home Wednesday in Vancouver.
Capone Johnson, left, Conner Childs, center, both 17, and Conner's dad Brian, right, burst into laughter as they chat after basketball practice together at their home Wednesday in Vancouver. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Home for Heritage High School senior Capone Johnson is, and forever will be, Marion, Ind., population 28,000.

The city, which sits 85 miles northeast of Indianapolis, is where Johnson found joy through basketball in a state known for its hysteria for the sport.

But it’s also a place that violence ravaged in 2018 — the same year Johnson uprooted to Vancouver in search of a safer place, better education, stronger positive influences and a chance to thrive and succeed under the roof of Heritage boys basketball coach Brian Childs.

No matter where life takes Johnson, a basketball court also is and forever will be his home. That rang true when Johnson’s father was arrested on drug charges in 2018, and ultimately, sentenced in October to 20 years in an Indiana state prison.

But basketball is only part of this life story for Johnson, who in two years at Heritage has made a lasting impact.

As it turns out, Vancouver feels like more than a temporary place.

“This definitely feels like another home,” he said.

• • •

Johnson’s playmaking abilities as Heritage’s point guard are challenging for opposing coaches.

“He’s tough to game-plan for,” Skyview coach Matt Gruhler said. “His ability to get to the basket is, maybe, tops in the (4A Greater St. Helens) league.”

It was that way when Childs first coached Johnson as a sophomore at Eastbrook High in Marion, Ind. And it hasn’t changed now that Johnson and Childs are together again in their second year with the Timberwolves.

But what’s different for Johnson is family life. Childs and his wife, Kathy, are the teen’s guardians. While Johnson isn’t blood, he might as well be. The Childses call Johnson a son, in addition to their two boys, Conner, a Heritage senior, and Parker, a Frontier Middle School eighth-grader.

Johnson, 17, is beyond grateful.

“The relationship coach and I have — you can say it’s just like me and my dad,” he said. “He’s always there for me. I know he loves me and he’ll do anything for me.

“He and his family taking me in means a lot, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Heritage is Johnson’s fourth high school. He traveled to the Pacific Northwest only once before heading 2,300 miles west away from a region that, according to crime data, had 12 murder cases in 2018 — when Johnson was an all-conference point guard for Childs at Eastbrook.

No matter where he is, a high school gymnasium is that happy place where Johnson is kept centered when dark times fall.

Just ask him.

• • •

It has been two years since Johnson felt the lowest of lows on a cold Midwest night in late January.

Well before Johnson knew of Vancouver, he describes what he calls his worst high school game on Jan. 23, 2018: uncharacteristic turnovers and poor shooting for Eastbrook, a high school of around 1,000 students.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Hours after the game ended, Johnson was awoken from a sound sleep by his mother, Tori McNair, to learn his father had been arrested.

Police arrested James Montez Johnson in the early hours of Jan. 24, 2018, on charges of dealing in cocaine and methamphetamine after a police search warrant yielded “large amounts” of drugs inside a residence where two children were present. Capone Johnson wasn’t one of the children.

Johnson’s father has been “in and out of my life,” the son said, referring to a history of arrests and convictions dating back to at least 2002, according to court records. This arrest, however, felt different for Capone Johnson.

“I didn’t know how to react,” he said. “Every time something is going on, I know the gym clears my mind.”

That’s why he showed up at his school’s basketball practice that day, and played in a game two days later.

The soonest James Montez Johnson can be released is 2035.

Johnson doesn’t see his father as a convicted felon. He sees a man he loves and a good father who first taught him basketball and continues to give countless life lessons. Phone calls and video messaging through the prison keep father and son connected.

“I wouldn’t be the man I am today without him,” Capone Johnson said. “I like hearing his voice.”

Six weeks after his father’s January 2018 arrest, Johnson helped Eastbrook to a sectional championship game.

Two months after that, Coach Childs held a meet-and-greet as Heritage’s new boys basketball coach.

• • •

Brian Childs coached six years in Indiana — his home state — but the Pacific Northwest is home, too.

Kathy Childs, his wife, is a registered nurse originally from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and it’s where the Childses put down roots for 14 years before Marion, Ind.

Brian Childs was introduced as Heritage’s new boys basketball coach in May 2018 in front of players and parents weeks before fully settling in Vancouver.

Back in Indiana, Johnson was anything but settled.

He felt lost trying to deal with his father’s pending lengthy prison sentence, and gone was the coach who became a second father and mentor. Soon, the teen skipped school, and grades plummeted. Then he transferred to his third high school.

“That’s not me,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t focus.”

This part of the story is when Brian Childs get emotional. A kid he watched blossom through basketball quickly fell off the rails.

Childs, also now a history teacher at Heritage, said he felt he let Johnson down because this story goes beyond basketball.

“I want him to have a chance,” Childs said through tears. “The same opportunities that my son has, that his friends have. … He can do anything he wants to do.”

McNair, Johnson’s mother, can attest to that. Her son misses Indiana, but McNair misses the youngest of her three children more. McNair knows her son living with the Childses allows for more than what’s back home, she said. That’s why she signed off on her son finishing high school in Vancouver when the Childses offered to open their doors.

“I know it’s what’s best for him,” McNair said via telephone from her home in Marion, “because I don’t want him following in his father’s footsteps. … When that is all that’s here and nobody gives you a chance and there’s nowhere to go, that’s the stuff they get into.”

• • •

Heritage’s boys basketball season is winding down. The Timberwolves won’t qualify for the playoffs, and Wednesday’s regular-season finale hosting Washougal also is Senior Night.

For two seasons, Johnson and Conner Childs have been Heritage’s starting backcourt, but their friendship goes further. Johnson likes to brag about dropping 47 points on Childs’ sixth-grade Boys & Girls Club basketball team back in Indiana. They became friends a year later.

Once Johnson and Childs were reunited in Vancouver, Conner Childs said, “I felt like we picked up where we left off.”

Said Johnson: “Blood couldn’t make us any closer.”

Conner Childs said Johnson fit in quickly at Heritage. Johnson said he can’t picture where he’d be — “probably somewhere not good” — if he didn’t make a new home in Vancouver. His love for the Childses, and for Heritage, is on the same wavelength as the sport that’s given him hope.

“The love I have,” Johnson said, “is unconditional.”

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