By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky signee Dakari Johnson — a McDonald’s All-American — played middle school basketball in Lexington at Sayre and coach Jason Nahra was impressed even then bymore than just his court skills.
“It would seem obvious to say that having a player with Dakari’s size and skill made a coach’s job easy, but what impressed me about Dakari was something less obvious,” said Nahra. “Dakari worked on his game every day, and his effort rubbed of on the players surrounding him, and they quickly realized that they had to work extra hard to make up what they lacked in matching his physical size. He had always been a leader because he drew a lot of attention based on his size, but he quickly became aware of how to lead by example.”
Nahra has remained friends with the family and even went to Chicago last month to watch Johnson play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. He shared these insights on the 7-foot, 250-pound Johnson — the top-ranked center in the 2013 recruiting class who played at Montverde Academy in Florida.
Question: Was it obvious then that he would be a future star?
Nahra: “Nothing is guaranteed of course, and Dakari realized this, even in Middle School. It quickly became apparent that his physical tools could be the foundation of a bright future, but those needed to be combined with several other traits. I recall the very first day of practice with Dakari as a 6th grader. I told him he had to make one post move to make a game winning shot, and I asked him what would he do. He posted up, and I threw him the ball, and without hesitation, he did a baseline drop step, up and under, and scored. From that moment, I was cautiously optimistic that he was headed for something big.”
Question: What do you remember most about him?
Nahra: “Dakari draws attention wherever he goes, and initially it’s because of his height, but once you talk to him, you realize that its everything else that keeps you engaged. His personality is fun-loving, and a smile is always present. He genuinely takes an interest in whoever he is talking with, and you can tell that he’s listening to you, not just hearing what you’re saying. When he visited Sayre recently, he demonstrated that he could seamlessly transition between a conversation with a teacher, and the next moment, a second grader. I’m proud of Dakari the basketball player, but even more proud of the person he is.”
Question: What kind of relationship did you have with his family and much have you followed his career since he left Lexington?
Nahra: “I have watched from a distance as Dakari has gone through his high school career. I have remained in contact with his family, occasionally shooting Dakari a text wishing him good luck, or to let him know that I’m proud of him. Like anyone I coach, I am confident knowing that Dakari realizes I will be a fan of his as a person even when the basketball stops bouncing.”
Question: Did it surprise you that he picked Kentucky?
Nahra: “I had no indication of which school Dakari would pick, since he kept that type of thing quiet, as he should. Kentucky seemed to be a place with the perfect combination of things for him on and off the court, and I believe that the appeal of returning to a town with which he was familiar was a big plus. Having a group of friends he made in his days at Sayre was a big draw as well. Nervousness comes from a lack of experience, so if his transition to college was going to be made easier because he was familiar with Lexington and the people here, I was all for it.”
Question: How will he fit into the Kentucky mystique?
Nahra: “Having lived in Lexington, Dakari is well aware of many things that come with Kentucky basketball. I’m not sure anyone can properly prepare for all that comes with it, but he is arriving on campus with a deeper knowledge base than most. I know he will embrace all that comes with being a Kentucky Wildcat, rather than running away from it. And at 7 feet tall, it would be particularly tough to hide from the spotlight anyway!”
Question: How would you describe his mother and how big a role has she had shaping his academic/athletic career?
Nahra: “Dakari stands 7 feet above the ground, but he is as well grounded as they come, and in my opinion, this can be directly attributed to his family. I am always impressed by his relationship with his Mom, and his little brother, and their family is a close knit one. His mom has her values perfectly aligned, and her boys know that they are expected to be well-rounded young men in all they do. The boys have learned accountability, and this applies to each aspect of their lives.”
Question: What made you decide to go to the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago to watch him play?
Nahra: “I have attended 8 McDonald’s All-American games, my first in 1986 (Rex Chapman’s year), but this one had a much more personal feel. With Dakari playing in the game, I watched like an anxious parent, but I tried to soak up the entire experience, just as I had encouraged Dakari to do. It was exciting to get a glimpse of the future of Kentucky basketball, and it was truly special to know that Dakari is going to be a part of it.”
Question: What is one thing UK fans might not know about Johnson that you think would be interesting for them to know?
Nahra: “Rumor has it, Dakari is a solid ping-pong player, although he has yet to challenge me! I would imagine he has no problem covering all of the table, and I bet that any weakness he has in his ping-pong game would be tough to exploit. I’m sure he will be often found at the ping-pong table in the Wildcat Lodge.”