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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Tom Johnson, veteran boys basketball coach at Barlow High, draws praise for his approach to dealing with prep players and his battle with  tongue cancer.The scene was set for the celebration of an important landmark Tuesday night at Barlow High.

Dozens of family, friends, former players and a raucous student section waving “T.J.” signs were on hand to enjoy Tom Johnson’s 500th victory as a varsity high school basketball head coach in the state of Oregon.

A former player did his part to spoil the occasion.

Chad Reeves’ David Douglas Scots rallied from a 12-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Bruins 64-50, keeping Johnson stuck on No. 499 for at least another game.

“We were lucky to get this one,” Reeves, Barlow class of 1990, said with a smile. “I feel like I’ve contributed coaching against Tom to a lot of these 499 wins — way more than I helped him win when I was here playing.”

Johnson, true to form, took the defeat calmly, gathering his players for a short, inspiring talk afterward. He interrupted an interview a couple of times to offer words of encouragement to players as they filed glumly out of the locker room.

“I pride myself on being positive,” Johnson said. “I try to accentuate the things the kids do well. But I’m really honest with the kids about their role on the team.”

Johnson, 55, also admits to being a bit uncomfortable with the attention.

“It’s about the kids,” he said. “It’s always been about our players.”

Never has Johnson been more in the spotlight than in the past year — and not just for approaching a milestone.

At the end of last basketball season, Johnson — a non-smoker — noticed a lump on his neck. The following Monday, he saw a physician. By Wednesday, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. He started two months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments in April, but the tumor remained, so it was surgically removed in August along with lymph nodes.

In the meantime, the 5-11 Johnson — a former standout guard at Roosevelt High, Clark College and Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon) — was on a feeding tube and lost 40 pounds, dropping to 140.

Two weeks ago, during his six-month checkup, Johnson got the word that he is clear of cancer. Last week, he returned to the classroom, teaching American writers and English at Barlow.

“I’m blessed that I’m still coaching and teaching and that I’m cancer-free,” said Johnson, who has regained strength and now weighs 165.

Though he took a break from teaching, Johnson hasn’t missed a day of coaching since practice began in November.

“I’ve delegated more to my assistants this year,” he said. “I feel much better than I did four months ago. I’m not 100 percent, but my energy is much better now.”

Johnson is able to speak barely above a whisper because the radiation and surgery damaged his vocal cords.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “Just saw a specialist today. They’re hoping they can do some things to make it better.”

The hard times have been made a bit easier by the people around him.

“The support from my community, my church (Good Shepherd), my former players — it’s been unbelievable,” he said.

Johnson coached his first five years at Lebanon — two as freshman coach, the last three heading up the varsity — before moving to Barlow, where he is in his 26th year as head coach. He owns a career varsity coaching record of 499-244, including the Freddy Jones-led team that reached the Class 4A finals in 1996.

Jones, who went on to a seven-year NBA career and now lives in Indianapolis, remains in Johnson’s inner circle.

“We had breakfast last Friday when he was in town,” Johnson said.

Both of Johnson’s sons — Drew, 21, and Jared, 18 — played for him at Barlow. Drew is now a junior at Western Oregon.

The best indication of a coach’s effectiveness is not the record but the impact he has on those around him.

“One of the best coaches I’ve had in my life,” Jones said. “More than anything, it was about having fun with him. He made it fun every day.”

Trent Inglesby was a sophomore on Johnson’s first Barlow team of 1986-87.

“My favorite coach of all-time,” said Inglesby, 42, who catches as many Barlow games as he can. “He can motivate players without yelling. He teaches fundamentals. Back then, he’d play with you, so we respected him as a player as well as a coach.

“He has a way of communicating, of pushing kids to play tough defense and team ball and to do the little things that matter to make the game better for everybody. From the best player to the 12th man, you want to come out and work hard for him. You can see it with the players on this year’s team, too. To do what he has done for so long is amazing.”

Ryan Weber played on Johnson’s 1992-93 team that reached the 4A semifinals.

“You won’t find a better coach or a better man anywhere,” said Weber, 38. “He wins games, but the reason is because he teaches boys how to be men. He teaches how to play together, how to be selfless, how to work hard and sacrifice for other people. He instills in people confidence and courage by believing in them.

“Besides my father and Jesus, there’s no one who has influenced me more in my life.”

Assistant coaches Gene Saling and Ron Jones have been with Johnson forever — Saling for 26 years, Jones for 23, though he spent seven of those years coaching the Bruin girls. They swear by Johnson even more as a person than as a coach.

“He doesn’t coach by intimidation,” Saling said. “He uses positive reinforcement. He runs disciplined practices, but there’s not a lot of high stress. They’re serious about winning, but they can enjoy the game of basketball.”

In a “media guide” that is distributed at games — and surely edited by the coach — each player is featured in a full-page bio. There is nothing about Johnson’s considerable resume. His contribution is a two-paragraph note that focuses on academic achievement of his athletes.

“At a team meeting last week, he had each player who got a 3.5 GPA or better stand to be recognized,” Saling said. “At our postseason awards banquet, he always starts by noting the kids who are getting it done in the classroom.”

There was disappointment among the ranks with Tuesday’s loss. But Johnson still had a smile on his face as he walked upstairs from the locker room to greet well-wishers, including some of the students who waved the “T.J.” cards and cheered to the bitter end.

“We have wonderful kids here,” he said.

With good health, Johnson is going to add considerably to his already impressive total of career victories.

“I want to do this for several more years,” he said, smiling again. “Even after tonight.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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