After so much death he questioned God, Lee boys basketball coach tries to reclaim peace

Nick Alvarez
Montgomery Advertiser

Bryant Johnson needed to make sense of the past year. He turned to Google for answers. 

Shortly after capturing a state title with the Lee boys' basketball team in February 2020, one of Johnson's star players, Jamari '"Chop" Smith, drowned. Later that summer, Jhakyndall Johnson, his son, was fatally shot at a concert.

Bryant Johnson had a fleeting sense of normalcy in the fall before three coworkers — Lee girls coach and close friend Rodney Scott, assistant football coach Dwanye Berry and assistant principal Ennis McCorvey III — died after complications with COVID-19. 

7 DEATHS IN 2 MONTHS:COVID-19 decimates Montgomery Public Schools, leaving staffers both scared and scarred

WHEN WILL THE PAIN END?:Lee grieves loss of another athlete after Jamari Smith's drowning

The specter of tragedy wasn't done: Johnson and his wife, Sabrina Johnson, tested positive for coronavirus in November. He ran a fever, and she was hospitalized with pneumonia, causing him to step away from the team. 

Searching for an answer

Lee head coach Bryant Johnson reacts on the bench at Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Lee defeated Carver 68-66.

His days ran together. In late December, Johnson did the one thing he said he wouldn't: He questioned God, and typed a question into Google: 

"Why do people go through so many deaths in a short time?"

He discovered methods to cope with grief. He scanned guides on spotting death before it happens. But Johnson couldn't find an answer to his real question: Why him? 

Instead of answers, he started seeing ads for vitamins and caskets. 

Twelve months after the pinnacle of a 20-year career, Johnson is focused on balancing himself while the AHSAA Final Four concludes in Birmingham. Johnson returned to the bench in January, and Lee rattled off four victories with two buzzer-beaters to end the season in the sub-regional round.

Now there are no more games to win. As the sorrow subsided and his wife's condition improved, Johnson is trying to reclaim his peace.

"For the most part, (Sabrina) is getting better,” Johnson said, “and I could say my days are getting better too." 

A blur of a year

Lee High School basketball coach Bryant Johnson speaks during Jamari "Chop" Smith's funeral service at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

Johnson recalls 2020 in moments, phone calls and text messages.

A little over a week before graduation, Johnson was preparing for a Facebook Live interview regarding Lee's Class 6A championship when he received a call from a parent. "Chop" was in the hospital. He eventually died while Johnson and Lee assistant coach Corey Carter were en route. 

Three months later, Johnson sat on Carter's balcony — they live in the same Montgomery apartment complex — and Johnson's phone beeped, alerting him that his son was shot following a rap concert in Pike County. 

"It's not for me to understand," Johnson told Carter, before driving to the intensive care unit. 

The gunman was arrested and charged in September. Johnson would only be further confused and saddened when Scott died Dec. 17, when he went into the school gymnasium and saw Scott collapsed on the floor.

Paramedics recognized Johnson at the scene, remembered all he'd been through and ushered him away into a classroom. 

Walking in circles

Bryant Johnson with his wife, Sabrina, and son Elijah.

Around that time, Johnson stopped going on his daily walks. He stared at the ceiling whenever he wasn't helping Sabrina.

Loops around his apartment's parking lot became routine at the start of the pandemic, tying back to his childhood in Brewton. Growing up, he traversed the small town, sometimes dribbling a basketball. He wanted to avoid trouble, he said, planning long trips so that when he returned it was time for dinner and bed. 

But back in Montgomery, the people Johnson usually spoke to during strolls weren't available. Sabrina was bedridden and monitoring her oxygen levels. Carter was leading the Generals in Johnson's absence. And Johnson had buried Scott a day prior to losing his mother, Nora Johnson, who died on New Year's Eve following a positive COVID test.

Johnson, a social studies teacher as well as a coach, threw himself into research. He sought to understand how the pandemic started and why it affected him so much. Against his wife's pleas, he hasn't spoken with a therapist. 

Johnson caught up with some family members at his mom's funeral. He said reconnecting with his hometown helped him gain perspective on 2020. He figured he had talked with enough people about his situation. Even if some of those conversations started with friends freezing in place and crying when they saw Johnson after a recent death.

“They probably saw something in me that I couldn't see,” Johnson said. “They probably saw my hurt even though I wasn't crying."

A path to relief 

Lee head coach Bryant Johnson talks with his team before the game at Stanhope Elmore High School in Milbrook, Ala., on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Lee defeated Stanhope Elmore 70-39.

His mood trended upward as Sabrina's lung capacity grew. After taking the trash out one night, Johnson veered away from his apartment without realizing it. He walked for about 30 minutes when Sabrina called him. 

At first, Johnson walked to lose weight. Then he timed his outings to coincide with Lee's games, allowing him to text coaches on the bench and receive score updates. The Generals lost three straight in late January, each defeat making Johnson fume around empty cars outside his apartment. 

When the Generals lost by 40 to Jefferson Davis — the first time in 20 tries JD had beaten Lee — Johnson decided it was time to return. He went back home and told Sabrina. 

"Baby, I'm going back," Johnson said. "This is hurting me." 

Lee High School coach Bryant Johnson gathers his team on the court as they prepare to leave the school's campus in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday February 26, 2020, heading to the AHSAA State Finals in Birmingham. Lee plays Oak Mountain at 10:30 Thursday.

She was apprehensive, so Johnson told her the next day he was "going to the store" when in fact he was stopping by practice. Two days later he was back on the sideline against Sidney Lanier, surprising Poets coach Anterio Thomas minutes before tipoff. 

As the Generals kept winning, Johnson took on more responsibility. Sabrina's sister, meanwhile, helped around the house. On Feb. 2 against G.W. Carver, Johnson dotted around Lee's gymnasium pregame to set up senior day festivities. He bumped fists and smiled behind a black neck gaiter. 

Following a last-second 68-66 win, Johnson bounced around the court. His lenses had popped out of their frames in the celebration and Johnson squinted at hardwood amid the screaming fans, some of whom had stormed the court.  

"It was a moment of relief," Carter said, "for a little while (Johnson) could take his mind off everything."