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 die 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 confidence.
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 t 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 far."
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.