Johnny Berhanemeskel once found himself fighting for a spot on the Gee-Gees practice squad. Now he’s the leader of a top team vying for a national championship.
Photo by Marta Kierkus
On a Friday night in early November, hundreds of people have crammed their way into the Montpetit gymnasium for the opening game of the Gee-Gees men’s basketball season. Any other night of the season the crowd, draped in garnet and grey, might have showed up for a variety of reasons. The Gee-Gees are the second-ranked team in the country, and in the past few years have developed a loyal group of followers within Ottawa and across Canada.
But this night was different. This night, the hopeful faces were there to honour a player who has become known around campus simply as Johnny B.
Star shooting guard Johnny Berhanemeskel began the night 13 points shy of the all-time record for career points in University of Ottawa basketball history. After pouring in 12 points during the first half with his typical, unassuming precision, Berhanemeskel stepped back onto the court, twisted around a McMaster Marauders defender in the paint before letting go of a finger roll layup that fell straight through the basket, and collected his record-breaking 1,572nd and 1,573rd points.
The game stopped dead. The entire Gee-Gees squad huddled around their leader to congratulate him. Some members of the crowd, including those who had brought huge cardboard cut-outs of Berhanemeskel’s smiling face, bowed down in a gesture of respect. And with a glowing grin, Johnny B met coach James Derouin at centre court to receive the game ball.
If only for a few fleeting seconds, there at centre court you could almost see Johnny letting go, soaking in the standing ovation and full weight of his accomplishment.
“It’s definitely humbling,” said Berhanemeskel. “It’s a cool thing, it might mean more to my parents and friends, but if they’re happy with it then I’m good with that.”
Five years ago, no one would have expected that moment—not even Johnny himself.
The young redshirt
A quiet and scrawny kid from the east end of Ottawa, Johnny B walked onto the U of O campus five years ago as just another freshman.
He was there to play for a newly hired head coach who hadn’t recruited him and didn’t yet believe in him. As Johnny attempted his best impression of a point guard, head coach Derouin was convinced that Johnny’s only chance to be a part of the team would be as a redshirt: an undressed practice player.
It was during an early practice at that 2010 summer camp when Johnny, still playing unnaturally as a point guard, came down in transition and hit a long jump shot and changed the coach’s mind.
“It was probably the first time I’d actually seen him shoot the ball,” said Derouin. “I stopped the scrimmage and said to him, ‘I want you to shoot it every time you touch it now. If you’re open I want you to shoot it.’ So he made five of his next six jump shots and Clarence Porter, my assistant, and I were like, ‘OK, this kid can shoot it.’”
It wasn’t long until others took notice. In a preseason game later that summer against the University of Cincinnati, a highly successful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I program, Johnny came off the bench and shot four straight threes and picked up another basket in the paint to give him 14 points in the first half. He led the team that game with 16 points and two rebounds.
“The crowd was going crazy,” said Derouin. “He has started every single game we’ve played since.”
Johnny would prove it wasn’t a fluke, earning himself significant playing time in his freshman season, averaging 16 points per game.
The Gee-Gees already had two other stars on their roster that year. Josh Gibson-Bascombe was in his fifth year and held the record at the time for all-time points, eventually going on to play professionally in the Czech Republic. Then there was Warren Ward, a player that grew close to Johnny before his departure in 2013 to also play professionally in Europe.
Ward said he was overly tough on Johnny on the court: If he wanted it, he’d have to earn it. But he said by the end of their three years together, he felt like the student as much as the teacher.
Ward said it’s his old friend’s humility, compassion, and unmatched work ethic that makes him so special.
“It’s why he has what he has now,” Ward said from Avignon, France, where he now plays for the Grand Avignon Sorgues in the French ligue nationale 1.
“From day one, Johnny has probably outworked all of the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport), which is why to those who know him, it’s no surprise to see him succeed. He’s a leader, and for that team, the leader.”
Leading by example
The night after the record fell in the Gee-Gees’ win over McMaster, the team took on the Brock Badgers in a comparatively less meaningful regular season match. But it was during this game that the characteristics that define Johnny’s play and personality were on full display.
The Gee-Gees began the game sloppily, and the score against the low-ranked Badgers was a lot closer than expected. In the locker room at halftime, a frustrated James Derouin looked to Johnny to turn things around. Berhanemeskel came through with 18 points in the second half, leading to a game-high 28 points and an easy 103-68 win.
The game was emblematic of Johnny’s leadership style, said Derouin. While fellow fifth-year Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue is the most vocal leader on the team, Johnny leads by example.
“I thought he was even better than excellent, he was phenomenal against Brock,” said Derouin.
Johnny’s quiet leadership isn’t confined to the court. Fourth-year point guard Mike L’Africain recalls how Johnny reached out to him to come to the U of O and took time to help him learn the city.
Third-year swingman Moe Ismail recalls the time when Johnny took him in when he had nowhere to stay in the summer of his rookie year, and looks back fondly on how Johnny was willing to selflessly put him up despite barely knowing him.
“I don’t know if I can even say how much the guy means to me,” said L’Africain. “He does so many things that nobody sees outside of the basketball court, and even on the court. He looks like he is quiet but he is always teaching and getting everybody involved. He has taught me so much.”
Winning a championship
As a team, the Gee-Gees consider themselves a family. And emblazoned on the top of their family crest is the burning desire to be crowned national champions.
Last year they fell one game short, losing 79-67 to their archrivals the Carleton Ravens in the CIS championship game.
The Ravens have been the class of Canadian basketball for more than a decade, collecting 10 of the last 12 national championships.
Carleton’s Thomas Scrubb, a member of the Canadian national team and one-time CIS defensive player of the year, has played across the court from Johnny for every one of his five years.
“He’s one of the tougher guys to guard in the CIS,” said Scrubb. “A lot of scorers are only dangerous when they have the ball, but with Johnny you can never lose sight of him or lose focus on what he is doing because he’s always finding different ways to score.”
Ravens head coach Dave Smart is a seven-time CIS coach of the year and has the utmost respect for Berhanemeskel.
“Johnny is the epitome of what they are,” Smart said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen this month. “There’s not a lot of CIS and OUA players that I have more respect for. He always gets it done.”
But there’s still that nagging idea of a national championship that leaves the Gee-Gee’s business unfinished.
“I’ve wanted to see how far I could take it and I think it has all kind of worked out so far, ”Berhanemeskel said of his career. “Hopefully, we can win a championship and then I’ll really be able to be grateful.”
For the Gee-Gees to win the championship they will most likely have to pass Scrubb and his brother Phil, a three-time CIS most outstanding player.
The rivalry between the teams is one of the most intense in Canadian basketball and reached fever pitch last year after Johnny made a buzzer-beating shot in the OUA final. This gave the Gee-Gees their first victory over the Ravens in 18 meetings spanning seven years, not long before the team would meet again in the CIS final.
The final shot
After this season, Johnny will most likely go on to play professionally, leaving behind a legacy in Gee-Gees basketball.
The same kid who awkwardly faked it as a point guard redshirt in his rookie year has become one of the school’s all-time best players, known for drilling shots at the buzzer, for putting on shooting clinics against the best of the NCAA, and for being one of the most genuine and hardworking people on and off the court. To anyone in the Canadian basketball community, Johnny is known on a first-name basis.
“I just remember when I was in Grade 12 and there wasn’t much belief in me and no one had any high expectations,” said Johnny.
“I’ve always used it as motivation and just always know that I have a long way to go before I’m actually there, wherever I want to reach, whether it’s playing pro or whatever.”
L’Africain still can’t quite figure out how someone so unassuming and kind, looking like “the biggest scrub” he’s ever seen, has transformed into “the best player in the country.”
Coach Derouin said he’s just as blown away watching him develop and getting to coach him through it.
“He’s an amazing kid. I know I’ll say the same thing about (Matt) Plunkett, same thing about Gab (Gonthier-Dubue) or Mike (L’Africain), but there is another level of amazing. Johnny is at another level of amazing,” he said.
“Sometimes the basketball gods just shine on you.”
The legend of Johnny B is still far from over—he has this season to wrap up the loose ends.
Some may look at the roaring crowd and blown-up cardboard cut-outs of Johnny’s face after he broke the Gee-Gees scoring record as the symbol of a great career and a job well-done, but he isn’t ready to congratulate himself yet.
He recalls a day in practice when he was shooting free throws and ended up making 99 straight, only to miss the 100th.
Reflecting on that final shot, Johnny couldn’t help but laugh. “There is still one more hurdle to get over,” he said.
“Hopefully my guys can help me get over that one per cent. Because I definitely need to get to that hundred.”