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Original Issue

Creative Force Ohio State's Ken Johnson is an artist, musician and defensive virtuoso

As hard as he tried, Ken Johnson could not hide. Not from his
fellow ninth-graders at Detroit's Henry Ford High, who teased him
about his height. Not from the teachers who recognized him in
class even when he was slouched in his chair in the back row, and
certainly not from the basketball coach, who implored him to try
out for the team. "Everybody said I should play basketball, but I
didn't want to," says Johnson, who eventually relented and
played. "I had a lot of other interests. I never liked being
tall. It made me feel self-conscious."

Johnson isn't a diffident high school freshman anymore. A 6'11",
235-pound senior center at Ohio State, he has grown immeasurably
since arriving in Columbus in the fall of 1996. The 210-pound
wisp who welled up the first time Buckeyes coach Jim O'Brien
yelled at him in practice has become one of the nation's most
intimidating interior defenders. After leading the nation in
blocks last season (5.37 per game) en route to being named Big
Ten defensive player of the year, Johnson was swatting away an
average of 4.2 shots this season through Sunday, third best in
the country, and had led Ohio State to a 13-7 record, including a
64-55 upset of No. 3 Michigan State last Saturday. An art major
who plays piano and writes poetry in his spare time, Johnson
hardly fits the profile of the typical Division I athlete, but as
he's quick to point out, his creative pursuits have bolstered his

Johnson's mother, Tanya, was 17 when she gave birth to Ken and
his twin sister, Kiana. Tanya gave custody of her children to
their maternal grandmother, Doris, who raised them. Ken says he
turned to drawing, music and writing at an early age as outlets
through which he could express his despondency at not knowing his
father. Though Johnson was lightly recruited, Ohio State decided
to take a chance on him after he averaged 14.1 points, 13.5
rebounds and 9.5 blocks as a senior at Henry Ford. On the day he
left for Columbus, Johnson tried to back out of going. "He
started unpacking, putting his clothes on the couch with tears in
his eyes," Doris says. "I told him, 'You're going to college and
getting your education.'"

After sitting out his freshman year as a nonqualifier, Johnson
broke out with a seven-block performance in the 1999 NCAA South
Regional final against St. John's. At week's end he was averaging
11.8 points this season--up from 7.8 a year ago--and O'Brien even
had to caution him against taunting. "He's still an infant when
it comes to basketball," O'Brien says, "but he's come so, so

Johnson has never had formal training on the piano, but he often
plays his electronic keyboard and estimates he has written more
than 100 songs. (One of his favorites, titled A Painted Smile, is
about a child clown whose despair contrasts with the makeup he
wears.) Johnson aspires to be an artist but says he has never
drawn a portrait of himself playing basketball.

That's an artist's prerogative, but perhaps it's time Johnson
gave it a try. He just might like what he sees.