Marcus Johnson Memorial Basketball Tournament takes place Saturday

A photo of Marcus Johnson playing basketball for Rincon Valley Middle School. Photo used as the centerpiece for memorial during  a candle light vigil at Rincon Valley Middle School on on Sunday, March, 17, 2013.  (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

The inaugural Marcus Johnson Memorial Foundation 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament takes place this weekend.
(SCOTT MANCHESTER / For The Press Democrat, 2013)

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Shelves lined with treasured basketball shoes, colorful and neat, reveal Marcus Johnson’s passion for the game and his look on the court.

Those 10 pairs, matching Nike models worn by legendary pro Kobe Bryant, remind family and friends of the joy Johnson brought to the sport and everyone around him.

To honor the legacy of this young man, killed a year ago watching a sprint car race — his other favorite sport — the Johnsons through the foundation named in Marcus’ memory are hosting a 3-on-3 basketball tournament Saturday in Santa Rosa. The fundraiser bolsters efforts to provide basketball shoes to high school players who cannot afford their own and assistance with youth basketball registration costs.

[RELATED: Visit the foundation’s website for more information on the tournament]

“This tournament celebrates Marcus in so many ways,” said his mother, Gina Johnson. “It celebrates Marcus because of his love for basketball and how much it would mean to him to have so many friends playing for him all at one time. They know how much Marcus loved basketball and loved his basketball shoes.”

Shooting and dribbling since he could walk, Johnson embodied the dedication of a player who truly respects the game, said Chico Averbuck, founder of the North Coast Basketball Association.

A basketball junkie, Johnson was a prize pupil of Averbuck’s development and life skills program. Johnson would have played as a freshman at Cardinal Newman High School this past season.

“He knew what hard work meant. He had a great motor,” Averbuck said. “He was one of the most wonderful human beings. He was an incredible leader.”

Had gusto for the game

From his first competitive games in North Bay CYO basketball as a fifth-grader, Johnson exhibited gusto for the game.

“He played his heart out every single play. He was a great teammate. It was all for the team,” said Zach Butler, friends with Johnson since preschool. “I learned a lot of things playing with him and against him.”

Competing for rival elementary schools in fifth and sixth grade — Johnson at Sequoia and Butler with Austin Creek — the pair would team in eighth grade at Rincon Valley Middle School. Butler recalled how his friend encouraged Butler to improve and make the squad.

“He always looked for positives. He was like always on your side,” said Butler, now a Maria Carrillo freshman.

Also a soccer player into middle school, Johnson enjoyed a variety of sports including tennis and snowboarding.

But basketball became his commitment.

“He was a scrappy kid. He played with a lot of heart,” said his father, Rob Johnson. “The one thing he would do for hours was just shoot the ball over and over and over again.”

Working to improve

The competitive side of Johnson was evident in his making the most of every opportunity to improve. For instance, Johnson would follow middle school practices with NCBA sessions four nights a week.

“He wanted to be there early and he was always the last one to leave,” his mother said.

Following the eighth-grade season, Johnson was set to join the North Bay Basketball Academy AAU program.

Then tragedy struck.

Johnson was in the pits watching a sprint car race in Marysville in March of last year. A car flew off the track and crashed, taking the lives of Johnson, 14, and Dale Richard Wondergem Jr., 68, a Grass Valley race car owner.

Excelled in racing, too

Racing was another sport at which Johnson excelled, the latest generation in a longtime Sonoma County family with deep racing roots.

Prize money allowed Johnson to buy new pairs of the Nike signature Kobe Bryant basketball shoes, often twice a year.

“He had a lot of passion for that. He would research when they would come out for sale and save his race money to buy them,” his mother said.

The last picture Johnson posted to Instagram was his latest pair, the blue-on-blue Kobe style purchased a month before the accident, she said.

The story of Johnson and his love of basketball shoes lives on.

Rob Johnson recalled Marcus discussing how troubled he was that an eighth-grade classmate did not try out for the Rincon Valley team because he could not afford basketball shoes.

“That was something really bothering him,” his father said. “He said he didn’t ever want someone to not play because of not having shoes.”

So there was the inspiration for the foundation’s goal.

Shoes bought for others

This past season, the Johnsons bought new basketball shoes for two freshman players, at Santa Rosa and Montgomery high schools, based on coach recommendations.

“It was a great experience,” Gina Johnson said. “They were very humble. It was really emotional. It definitely touches kids’ lives and their hearts.”

Seeking to expand the effort, the foundation wants to provide basketball shoes — one pair each to the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams — at the 25 or so Sonoma County high schools with basketball programs. Another goal is assisting youth players in need with CYO and AAU fees.

Learned life skills

Players in Averbuck’s development program also honor Johnson’s memory. Student athletes of the month and year receive an award for exemplifying characteristics Johnson named himself during a life skills exercise during his final week in the program: Competitive, courage, determination, hard worker and kind.

“He completely got it,” Averbuck said.

Setting aside a day for spirited basketball competition in Marcus’ name will become an annual tribute to their son, the Johnsons said.

The tournament could be expanded if it proves popular, they said.

One of the teams competing in Saturday’s inaugural event will include Butler and two other teammates of Johnson’s from middle school.

“I miss those moments with him. He really loved playing basketball,” Butler said. “It’s pretty inspiring for everyone else to play in his honor. It’s perfect really.”

Michael Coit can be reached at


Marcus Johnson Memorial Foundation 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament
Time: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Location: Rincon Valley Christian School
Format: Three divisions — 5th-6th grade, 7th-8th grade, 9th grade; 10-minute games
Registration for the tournament is now closed

To donate:

Marcus Johnson Memorial Foundation
First Community Bank,
438 First St.
Santa Rosa, CA 95401

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