GHSA basketball state semifinals
Who: Buford girls vs. Laney, 7 p.m.
Who: Gainesville boys vs. Westover, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Macon Centreplex
Write their last name side-by-side and you get a world famous brand of children’s shampoo; put the two of them on the basketball court and you get anything but child’s play.
They’re brothers Nick and A.J. Johnson, who helped the Gainesville football team win a region title in the fall and a region title in basketball in the winter.
While those accomplishments are something of note, the two embark on their greatest challenge Friday when they take the court with the rest of the Red Elephants (21-8) to play Westover (26-6) in the Class AAA semifinals in Macon.
Take one look at the duo and it’s hard to imagine them being a force inside, but what they lack in size, they more than make up for with determination.
"The energy and the heart and the passion that they have makes them special," Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. "They love to compete and they’re such good people."
They especially love to compete alongside each other, and with this being Nick’s final year of high school, the two are relishing every game they get to play with each other.
"A lot of people are not fortunate enough to have a brother beside them when they play a sport," said the 6-foot-4 Nick.
And when they're out on the court, they try to make each other better.
"I make him push harder," said the 6-3 sophomore A.J. "I try to be better than him."
The brotherly bond also gives them an added advantage on the basketball court. They’ve been playing sports together all their lives and at times it appears that one knows what the other will be doing even before it happens.
"You can tell what he’s gonna do, what move he’s gonna do, or whether he’s gonna shoot it or pass it," Nick said. "It’s an advantage especially on defense because I know where he can get to. I can just look at him and he knows where to go."
For the most part he knows to go toward the basket and grab a rebound.
A.J. leads the team with eight rebounds a game, despite being an undersized big man.
"I just try to outmuscle them," A.J. said. "I don’t try to out-jump them, I just box ‘em out and try and get the ball."
And he normally does, whether his opponent is 6-1, 6-5 or 6-10.
"They don’t back down from any one or any thing," Cottrell said of the Johnsons. "That’s one of the things that makes them special."
The other is their personality.
Both admitted to being jokesters and loving to have a good time. At any point of a game, no matter how close the score, the two can normally be seen with smiles on their faces. The biggest smile can be seen when one brother does something spectacular.
"When he did that spin move on that dude from Druid Hills, I just thought it was sick," Nick said. "I knew he could do it, but the situation and the way he did it just made the dude look crazy."
That play came in Gainesville’s first-round win over the Red Devils, and what made that move even more unique was the fact that A.J. actually looked to score.
A self-proclaimed defensive specialist, A.J. said scoring isn’t really his thing.
"He’s more of a scorer," A.J. said while glancing over at his brother. "I just play defense."
Their offensive philosophies aren’t the only differences on the court.
A.J. is the energy guy, the guy that will dive into a pile to force a jump ball; the guy that will take a charge against someone twice his size; the guy that will come from nowhere to grab an offensive rebound.
Nick is more of a cerebral player. His post moves are well thought out and his rebounding skills are more refined and less surprising.
"I try to be more finesse," said Nick, who averages eight points per game. "I can be physical when I need to, but I like to think when I play and outsmart my opponent."
And what if his opponent was his baby brother?
"I’d win," A.J. said.
His brother disagrees.
"We haven’t really played one-on-one to a T," Nick said. "But if we were to play a serious game I’d win."
"Nah," A.J. countered. "I’d win by like two or four points."
"You won’t win at all," Nick replied.
Agree to disagree. But one thing is clear, these two may argue about who will win a game of one-on-one, but when it comes down to it, they’re cherishing their final days together on the basketball court.
"It’s a dream really," Nick said. "You look anywhere around the United States and it’s hard to find a school that won region in football and basketball...and to do it with your brother...I’m happy for it, and I thank God for it, for letting me be with my brother playing sports."