Sydney Johnson was the only three-time captain in the history of Princeton basketball, and was named the Ivy League's Player of the Year in 1997. Since graduating from Princeton in 1997 he has been playing basketball professionally in Italy. In 1998 he started for Gorizia Pallacanestro, the team that won the Italian Second Division championship. He was kind enough to answer some questions from princetonbasketball.com list members last month and give us an update as to what he is doing now. Here are your questions, and his responses.
This interview originally ran in June 1998.
How long have you been in Italy?
This is my second full season in Italy after graduating in 1997.
How did you end up there? Did you have any offers to play elsewhere?
Near the end of my senior year at Princeton, I was in contact with several agents and when I finally chose one to represent me he recommeded that I play in a mini-tournament in Treviso, Italy. That tournament was held in May of 1997 so immediately after turning in my thesis and finishing my final exams, I flew over to Italy, participated in the Treviso tournament and then flew back the day before graduation. Several teams in Italy saw me play and the one that I eventually signed with gave me the best offer. I had one or two offers from French teams (my father played professionally in France in the 60s) but I had my heart set on Italy because it is considered by many as having the best basketball in Europe.
What league are you in? How does the division format work?
I play in the second division in Italy, commonly referred to as Italy's A2 division. There are 12 to 14 teams in A2 and we compete for two spots to be promoted to the top division each year (this year three spots are open for some reason). The play-off format is quite complicated but the simplest way to understand it is: if there were 8 play-off teams, four would be placed in bracket A and the other four in bracket B. Then the winners of each bracket would be promoted.
Any other players in that league we might know of?
In my two years here, I have competed against Dave Johnson (Syracuse), James Donaldson (former Dallas Maverick), Mike Brown (former Utah Jazz), Nate Erdmann (Oklahoma), Charles Smith and John Turner (Georgetown), Brian Shorter (Pittsburgh),Michael Ray Richardson (former New Jersey Net), Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani (N.C. State), Mike Iuzzolino (former Dallas Mavericks), Ariel McDonald (Minnesota) among many others. I have also played alongside Brian Oliver (Georgia Tech) and Jeff Nordgard (Wisconsin-Green Bay).
How was it having Princeton come over to Italy last summer on their summer tour, esp. playing against your former teammates?
Princeton's trip to Italy during the summer of 1997 was honestly one of the best times of my life. I was suffering from culture shock at the time and it was nice to see the familiar faces of my former teammates. The best part was just being able to spend a little more time with some of the guys who made my experience at Princeton a very special time.
How has playing in Europe differed from playing at Princeton?
The biggest difference between being a professional and playing at Princeton is the mentality of the players I play with. At Princeton, we played as a unit, as a team. We learned to set our egos and personal goals aside so that we could play together and win together. In professional basketball, people tend to look at what you do individually as a player and not necessarily what you do for your team. As a result, many (although not all) of my teammates are primarily concerned with how many points they scored, how many rebounds or assists they were credited with, win or lose. It is an adjustment I am still struggling with.
What are some of your fondest memories of playing at Princeton?
I will never forget our win at the Palestra my senior year. The win against Penn at Lafayette was great and the UCLA game was surreal (its the only word I can think of) but at the Palestra, where it was still a close game at the half, we came out and played like champions and played in a way like there was no doubt that we were the better team. That night more than any other, I was proud of the work that guys like Steve Goodrich, Mitch Henderson, Brian Earl and Gabe Lewullis had done over the summer(s) to make themselves better and to make us a really tough team to beat.
Playing for Coach Carill and then playing for Coach Carmody, how was the transition between the two, and what were some differences between the two coaches?
The transition was seamless. Coach Carmody always commanded a high level of respect from all the players as an assistant coach so when he took over it was business as usual. The only differences were that practices were not as loud and there wasn't any cigar smoke to contend with.
What made you decide to come to Princeton?
My dad is a college professor and he instilled in me an appreciation for academics and its benefits. I think he may have made the first calls to Princeton. When I realized I was not a "big time" college recruit (meaning places like Stanford, Notre Dame and/or Duke were out of the question), Princeton looked better and better every day. Coach Carill called me late in my post-graduate year (as did former Princeton assistant Armond Hill) and I made the decision to go there soon after my official visit. Penn was NEVER an option.
Sydney, I am a high school coach and would be very interested in any insights you could offer on how Princeton's match-up zone is taught and what defensive rules are be used.
You might not believe this Coach Forthoffer but our coaches' best insight on how to play the match-up was none at all. Of course, there are some basic principles to playing the match-up such as playing the ballhandler aggressively when he's in your "zone", rotating well enough so that the baseline is always covered on the weakside but Coach Carill and Coach Carmody were adamant in telling us "Just figure it out on your own!" What I took that as meaning is basically, no matter what defense you're playing, its all about how tough you are and whether you care enough about your team to NOT let your opponent score. Therefore, if in the match-up on a certain rotation I was expected to box out a 6'10" guy rather than figure out an alternative, I had to figure out a way to get it done. Also, you must be familiar who you are playing and use the match-up to expose your opponents' weaknesses. Its not about gimmicks, its about using whatever you can to take your opponent out of his game.
What was most difficult about playing for Coach Carril?
Great question. The best way to explain the difficult times with Coach Carill is to also explain why I am here in Italy playing professional basketball. He was a perfectionist with boundless energy and a refusal to be satisfied with mediocrity. For that reason, he forced me to give a lot more of myself than I thought I could. He helped me realize that the point at which I thought I was working hard wasn't always enough. And because of his unwillingness to be average, to coach an average team and to be associated with average players, I became a much better basketball player than I could have ever imagined.
After the last 3 seasons, and after a few eyebrow rasing recruiting classes, the question has come up - Can Princeton, with Ivy League admission standards and no scholarships, establish itself as a perennial top 20 team, or should Princeton fans be content with wiining the Ivy every couple of years and an NCAA tournament win every 5 years, or is it possible to do more? Will we ever see a Princeton team in the Final 4?
I don't think its fair to say that a team isn't accomplishing a lot if it wins but never reaches the Final Four. The NCAA tourney is arguably the hardest tourney to win in sports so not getting to the last weekend of the college basketball season does not mean a team is underachieving. That being said, its hard for Princeton to compete when it doesnt have the talent. We shouldnt forget that Princeton has had its share of All-Americans and NBA-caliber players. Players such as Bill Bradley, Geoff Petrie, Brian Taylor and Armond Hill were great players who chose Princeton and its academic and athletic challenges rather than the country's more recognized big-time scholarship programs. In recent years, Princeton has become more aggressive and successful in attracting the very best student-athletes. Players like Steve Goodrich and Chris Young, guys who could obviously have played at _bigger_ schools, are helping to keep Princeton in the national spotlight. Even so, staying in the rankings can only happen if Princeton continues to attract these types of players on a yearly basis.
One point I'd like to mention is that Princeton's commitment to only enrolling the best student-athletes demands certain sacrifices. It means that rather than accepting the athlete who spends all of his/her time in the gym, weightroom or on the field, the school prefers to accept the more well-rounded individual who works at his/her game but is also committed to spending hours on his/her classwork or in the library. While players at other schools have gained an advantage over Princeton by demanding less from its student athletes, Princeton basketball has always demanded more from its players while we are in the gym practicing in an effort to close the gap. Not enogh people thoughout the country realize that the coaching staff at Princeton gets the most out of its players and teaches the most basketball to its players than any other program in college basketball. With less, they always seem to do more.
Since most Americans do not know anything about Italian basketball, can you tell us about how the leagues are organized ?
-Are there commercial or municipal sponsors?
-What type of game is played?
-Who are the fans? Are they local or national? Mostly young? Are they different than the soccer folks?
-Do fans pay attention to American teams or could they care less?
-Is it expensive to go to a game? Is there much tv coverage?
-Is there a whole culture of American athletes in Europe? (hanging out together?)
The Italian A1 and A2 leagues are not much different from the NBA except they are on a much smaller scale. In fact, all of the European leagues attempt to imitate the NBA, but of course, with less money invested, a much smaller fan base and less overall talent. They certainly don't threaten the NBA's status as the best pro basketball league. In my division, each team is sponsored by a collection of local businesses (only in A1 do teams have one primary sponsor, but they also accept money from smaller investors). The games are often televised by the local affliates, but usually they are shown a day or two later. Games are also shown on cable channels throughout Italy but because soccer is so big in Europe the games are far less frequent than the latest _big game_ in soccer for that particular week. Games are much better in person anyway; tickets are not expensive and typical crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 at an A2 game can be loud, rowdy and when you're on the road, potentially dangerous. I say that jokingly of course, but often times the Italian basketball fans get almost as crazy as their soccer counterparts. I've been spit on several times and have had to sprint off the court to get away from fans who are a bit overzealous (after a win OR a loss). When you asked "what type of game is played?", I assume you mean what style and that just depends on which country you are in. The Italian leagues, both A1 and A2, are offensive-oriented and so the games are called much tighter. As a result, less aggressive defense is played and zone defenses are often used (the WORST defense in the world, the 2-3, is a mainstay over here). On the other hand, the Greek league is very physical and can sometimes pass for Knicks-Heat games. My brother has played in the German league for the past two seasons and those games have their share of banging and tough defense as well. Lastly, its almost imperative that you "hang out" with the American players. If you're new to a country, your only escape from the frustration of learning a new language and the ensuing culture shock is to spend time with your American teammates.
What do you recall as being the three biggest and best games you were involved with at Princeton and why? I have been toying with a list of the top 10 games in PU b-ball history and would personally put the win over UCLA on that list (duh). But were there any others during his time that you feel belongs on that list?
1) At Penn (Senior Year). Beating Penn never gets old (I wish it did because I think we only beat them three times while I was there). Best second half that Brian, Gabe, myself and the Class of 1998 may have played together.
2) At Lafayette, Vs. Penn (Junior Year). The importance of the game was obvious and to go into overtime with an NCAA berth on the line and the chance to finally beat Penn makes me think that this might be my favorite win. I think that the great support which the Princeton students have given the team in the last two years may have started with the thrills everyone had that night in Lafayette.
3) Vs. UCLA (Junior Year). Great win for Carill but also for the program and what it has given rise to in the last few years. You have to rank this one high in Princeton basketball history.
What is it like being an African American playing at PU, a team that stands out as being nearly all white in a sport dominated by African American players. Is Princeton a hard place for African Americans to play b-ball at? Why did you choose Princeton?
Being a person of color at Princeton can be a trying experience at times. There are those at Princeton who are well aware of their prejudices and prefer to revel in them; I can't say much to them except I offer them my pity. On the other hand, there is a much larger percentage of people at PU who were simply unaware of the prejudices and discriminating opinions that they harbored towards people of color. In both cases, it is difficult to comprehend because one expects the intellectual environment at Princeton, arguably the nation's best undergraduate university, to be free from ignorance of any kind. Unfortunately, this is not the case but don't be alarmed: Princeton is NO DIFFERENT from the larger society we live in. I'll spare you my thoughts on the cultural diversity discussion currently going on at Princeton and the subsequent response letters from our distinguisehd alumni except to say it's disturbing. Still, basketball was a safe haven for me. I loved my teammates, white and black. The locker room and the road trips were the best of times for me throughout my fours years at school. As far as being the only African American player (at times) on the team, that's for someone like Sports Illustrated or the Princeton Weekly to dwell on. All I did was go to class and play ball; changing the world may come later.
What are your future ambitions? I remember Carril once said that he thought SJ could do anything if he wanted to. That's pretty high praise for a tough guy to impress; what does SJ want to do with all the potential. Politics? Business? Sports (coaching?)???
I hate the word potential. It has the connotation that one hasn't quite achieved anything but that everybody is quietly waiting around for you to fulfill their predictions (Coach Carill told me that). I prefer to look at my future as unfinished business. What I mean is that I have been blessed with a Princeton degree, a successful college basketball career and some good times here in Italy. I also have some great friends in this world and my family is safe and doing fine. For that reason, I feel that it is high time for me to start giving back to the world which has given a lot to me. I don't see politics and/or business in the future; I can't see myself helping people the way I hope to in either of those two fields. In good time (once I am done with this basketball "experiment" over here), I hope to teach and coach to help kids and young adults reach their respective goals.
I would like to ask Sydney to reflect a little about what it was like to be coached by Carril. It appears that he had a great relationship with Carril but what about the other guys? Rumor had it that Brian Earl had a bad relationship and was about to transfer. What was that all about, if he knows? What were the key ingredients to getting along with Carril and what were the fatal flaws?
Like I mentioned earlier, I believe Coach Carril's greatest gift to me was to teach me and (in many ways) force me to work far past the point where I thought I was "giving my all". In an effort to get the most out of me (and my teammates), he spurred us on to giving our best every single time. To give your best on EVERY SINGLE OCCASION is no small achievement and regrettably I haven't always succeeded; even so, it is what I pursued on the basketball court, in the classroom and in my dedication to being better person to others around me. I can't explain why Coach Carril seemed to like me, but we did get along namely because he stayed true true to his demanding self and I accepted his ways and succeeded with this team because of it. That was the key. It was never a good idea to show coach any disrespect because whether you agreed with his methods or not he was right about what he was sayng 95% of the time and what he was saying about you or the team was the truth. To not listen or to roll your eyes or whatever was unwise because it signified to him that you weren't open to hearing what you needed to hear to to become a better player and person. As far as Brian's episode with Coach, it's probably best if I let Brian speak for himself. One thing I can say: Brian is a relentless and fearless competitor and despite their differences, he was born to wear the Orange and Black just like the other great Princeton players Coach Carril recruited.
Finally, finally, I would like to know Sydney's opinion of Carril and Carmody as basketball strategists, both in preparing a gameplan BEFORE a game and then their decision making DURING a game. I will be honest and say that at the end I did not think that Carril was a great coach DURING the game. I feel that he failed to call timeouts when needed sometimes, failed to make enough substitutions and sometimes failed to make adjustments during the game. Did you think any of these things? What about Carmody? Did he perceive differences in the way Carmody looked at a game and the way Carril did?
I hate to draw too many distinctions between Carril and Carmody; you're talking about two men I respect a great deal and who were quite influential in my development as a player and a person. Nevertheless, I have to admit they had different styles. But their respective styles differed not so much in preparation as in approach. You must remember that when you speak of Coach Carril's excellent preparation before the game these after-hours sessions in the film room included the entire staff. As a result, Coach Carril passed on his insistence on preparation to all of his assistants: Carmody, Hill, etc. That is why Coach Carmody rivals Coach Carril in readying his team BEFORE the game. DURING the game, I think that it's a little unfair to say coach Carril was not a great "bench coach". I mean, in his thirty years of coaching, what situation, play, etc. had he not seen? And since I think he had seen it all, what could he not adjust to during the course of a game? In Coach Carmody's case, I think he made up for lesser years as the head coach. Coach Carmody was aggressive: he was willing to press, use the match-up zone more often, go deeper on his bench, etc. As a result, he discovered his own coaching skills and direction much quicker by having the guts to try things out in his first few years. Of course, underlying this entire discussion is the fact that (again) their "deliveries" are much different.Coach Carril yelled and screamed, yet all along he was telling you what you needed to know. Coach Carmody yells and screams, but it isn't his usual method. He prefers to challenge guys directly in plain English so that you're well aware of his expectations for you and where he is coming from. What is important is not the delivery, though. What is important is whether you can deal with the truth, good or bad, and use it to motivate yourself into becoming a better player. None of coach Carril's great players backed down from his challenges and from what I witnessed first-hand, coach Carmody was getting the same passionate responses from his players.
Sydney: During Coach Carill's last few years at Princeton, he admitted that it was getting more difficult for him to coach in today's environment. During your four years at Princeton, did you sense that this was the case? If so, how did the team react?
I got the sense that the world was changing for Coach Carril. The old school approach that my dad so loved about Coach Carril was/is no longer in vogue. I think that our players handled Coach's style well, but it was becoming obvious that we were one of the last teams in college basketball whose coach was bigger than the program. Of course, considering what Coach has done that makes perfect sense, but in the '90's players are thinking more about what the coach and team can do for them than vice versa. Coach Carril was becoming weary of this trend and he knew it wasn't in his nature to conform to this mentality. Even so, with the group we had, the most unselfish and talented group I ever played with, Coach Carril could have continued coaching for some time without having to worry about the egos and selfishness of any of us.
You've been out for 2 years now, Sydney. What is the academic (i.e. classroom, test, paper) experience you remember most vividly? And what is the intellectual experience (not necessarily in class -- could be in dorm, on train to NY, in shower, at home...) you remember most vividly? And, of course, the athletic experience you remember most vividly? Feel free to relate more than one experience per category if there is a tie.
What regret(s) do you have from your 4 years at Princeton and what, if anything, can and will you do to rectify them?
I'll never forget the experience of writing my thesis. It was a great accomplishment for me to complete it on my own (with the help of my advisor) while playing basketball. I can't say that one intellectual experience stuck with me the most because it defies the notion of learning. Princeton taught me what I could know if I opened my eyes, ears and mind. Some people think they have it all figured out when they're a senior; Princeton taught me that I had only scratched the surface and no one particular experience stands out more than that. My only regrets are that I wish I had thanked all my professors for their valuable time in helping me and that I had thanked the fans who cheered for me on the night of my last home game.
How long will you play overseas? Do you have any inspirations to tryout for the NBA? What do you plan to do when you finish your basketball carrer?
I'll play overseas for as long as it stays fun. This past season was incredibly stressful; more so than it needed to be. If I have to endure too many more of those, I won't play for much longer. If I can enjoy the same fun I had my rookie year, I wouldn't look to stop any time soon. As far as the NBA goes, it is a dream for me, but then again I feel that every "true player" ought to live to get to the NBA. In my case, I know my limits and unfortunately I can't say the NBA is in my future. After I finish with basketball, I plan to give back to and help people for the rest of my life. Whatever I do with have this purpose in mind; I wouldn't have it any other way.