April 23, 2010

Ray Johnston: His Story Begins Where Others Would End

Posted: 05:08 PM ET

Here's the story.  Loan officer plays pick-up basketball game...catches the eye of an NBA talent scout...tries out for and makes the Dallas Mavericks.  End of story, right?  For Ray Johnston, that's where it starts.  Shortly after making the team, Johnston learned he had leukemia, and was immediately placed into a coma.  He's come close to death several times while fighting the disease, yet now he's touring with the Ray Johnston Band - and they're really good.

HDNet is following the band around and chronicling Ray's amazing story.  "Ray Johnston Band: Road Diaries" premieres Sunday.  Check out the clip, and read Ray's story below as told to the LKL Blog.


LKL Blog: First things first, how did you become a Dallas Maverick?

Johnston: In 2004, I took the oh so traveled path of going from the loan officer desk, to the Hoop-It-Up 3-on-3 tournament, and had my fingers crossed I'd come out a Dallas Maverick after that.  It was so random.  The Mavericks were just being smart and doing basic PR in their backyard.  Some of the Maverick scouts came out and decided they'd invite 20 of the best they see to an open tryout.  The talent in the competition is really good.  A lot of folks are just home for the summer, but played in college in the Big 12, SEC, Pac 10, or even overseas.

One of the scouts came over to me after I made a flashy play, and they said "We're going to have a free-agent open tryout.  You want to come?"  And I thought someone was pulling my leg.  But turns out he was telling the truth and that was how it all got started.  There were probably 15 tryouts in a 20 day period.  I remember the Chinese team was in town because they were getting ready for the Olympics, or the World Games.  We scrimmaged them about 6 times.  Yao Ming set some mean picks on me.

LKL Blog: You played in college though right?

Johnston: Yeah, I was a walk-on at Alabama.  I had a lot offers from lower Division 1, but I always wanted to play in the SEC (Southeastern Conference), and thought I was good enough.  I only got to play in two games in college, but I thought I was better than that.

So when I moved to Dallas I joined a gym.  I was playing with Deon Sanders, Michael Irvin, basically a lot of old Cowboys players.  They called me "White Chocolate."  They kept saying, "White Chocolate, why don't you play pro basketball somewhere, at least overseas."  They introduced me to their agents, so people knew about me a little bit.  But this gave me a lot of confidence and swagger, and that confidence was huge.

LKL Blog: So things were good, you're playing basketball with the Mavericks in the summer league, and then what?

Johnston: I was having rashes on my chest, and a lot of untimely diarrhea, and I was loosing a lot of weight.  I thought my body just wasn't used to all the practice, and two-a-days.   Then when I got back to Dallas I collided legs with somebody in a pickup game, and it hurt so bad.  So I went in the next morning to the Mavericks team doctor.  He did a compartment syndrome, which is when you have bleeding in the muscle sheets you cut it to relieve the pressure.

Well, the bleeding didn't stop, and people thought that was kind of odd, let's take him to the emergency room and do some tests.  That was August 28.  Next thing I know, it's early November.  George Bush just beat John Kerry, and the Red Sox had just won the World Series.  So there was a whole gap in there I don't remember because they had to drug induce me into a coma, because it turns out my body had 84% leukemia in it when I was admitted to the emergency room.  I had no clue.

I woke up, was hooked up to a lot of tubes, my toes were black - I had to get a lot of toes amputated, 7 to be exact - because of the poor blood circulation from the coma.  I learned that I died twice, or flat-lined twice which is the more doctor term, had kidney failure, lung disease, a lot of seizures, just a lot of bad stuff.  So leukemia took a back seat to all this other crap first.

LKL Blog: So how is it that I'm talking to you today?

Johnston: I'm a Christian and I really believe the Lord picked a guy that's pretty tough to endure all this, and I didn't know I was this tough - sounds like I'm patting myself on the back.  But my Mom and Dad did a good job raising me.  I've seen my parents go through tough times.  I've seen my family be wealthy, I've seen them be poor.  I've had friends in all circles of life.  I think all that taught me to be tough.

If you'd have asked me before all this had happened, "Hey Ray, how do you think you'll respond to making the Mavericks, then going into a coma for 2 months, then beating leukemia, then 2 years later coming back, and now you've had leukemia 5 times, and it's 2010, how do you think your spirits would be?"  I'd probably say I'd be hanging out on the couch and be pissed at everybody.  But my parents raised me to be tough, and be thankful for everything.

I'm not being a hypocrite though.  I've had days where I've been pissed-off, and no one wants to hang out with me, including myself.

LKL Blog: What's your current condition.

Johnston: The disease came back about a year ago, and the doctor looked me in the eye and said "it's not the best odds Ray, you're probably not going to live past 33," and I'm 31 now.  Then I asked how about Ray-Ray odds.  He immediately, with a lot of confidence, looked me eye-to-eye and said, "You're going to beat it.  And somehow you're going to do something really fun where I'll wish I wasn't a doctor and I was in your shoes."

So now my condition is still a question mark.  The leukemia has come back in the form of penny-size to golf ball-size tumors inside my body.  In November there were about 8 of those.  I'm on this clinical trial, I'm like the 30th person in the world on this deal.  The last scan we had showed every single one of those tumors has either shrunk significantly, like 90%, or they've been eliminated.

The drug does have some natural chemo side-effects to it, so there are days where I just sit on my couch and catch up on my TiVo.  Pretty wild, just me telling you this.  When I tell people I just feel so thankful.  It also helps put things in perspective, like stop sweating the petty stuff you wussy.

LKL Blog: So how did the band come about?

Johnston: I've never had a lesson.  I don't know how to read music.  I just listen to music and I can play it.  I discovered that my senior year in high school in art class.  When I got to college I formed a little acoustic country southern rock band, and got a good voice from a sorority girl, so I figured even if we sucked my fraternity and her sorority would come.  Luckily we didn't, and with that I gained some confidence and started singing some songs.

Then I moved to Dallas out of college.  In about 2006 I saw an amazing sax player, Keith Anderson, at a jazz club.  I asked Keith to come watch me play, he thought we were good, joined up with us.  The band is formed mostly on my ideas and my writing, and he's our music director.

But back to your question, when I told you before about the doctor telling me how long I had to live, he said "Ray, if there's something you want to do now would be the time."  That afternoon I pulled the trigger.  I said this is how we get off the ground quick, got Mark Cuban on-board.  I said we're going to record in a great studio.  We recorded on the same board the Beatles and the Who used.  Are you kidding me?  It all just kind of came together.

Oh, I also want to tell you about our partner, The Ryan Gibson Foundation.  It's a leukemia research foundation based here in Dallas.  Ryan was an SMU student who lost his life to leukemia.  They tell me he fought his disease like I do.  Not take it too serious, but at the right time be blunt about the demand needed to raise money for research.  We've done several gigs to raise money for the foundation.  We've got wrist bands that we throw out to the crowd, we just ask people to put their name on the email list.

But this band would be the same level of talent without my story.  Sometimes people see us and think we're some kind of a vanity act, but once they see us live, they say "oh, man."  So I'm really proud of the music, and the foundation for all this is the music.  To listen to it, you need to have your drink of choice in one hand, some kind of relaxing chair, or put your dancing shoes on and smile and giggle and have all your good friends around when you listen to our music.  That's what it's made for.

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Filed under: Health • LKL Web Exclusive • Ray Johnston

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Cajazz76:24:8   April 22nd, 2010 7:48 pm ET

Ray Johnston certainly has an incredible story to tell and is an incredible individual, but the other remarkable person in this story that Ray briefly eluded to is Donald Ryan Gibson..aka Gibbie..he passed away in 2001 from leukemia at the age of 25. It was his parents, Don and Carol Lynn that started the foundation, which Don is director of today. They are not just isolated to just Arkansas and Texas, there is offices in Denver and Kansas City, as well. Ryan also has a brother, Derek, who is also active in the foundation.

Chris Canterbury   April 23rd, 2010 1:40 pm ET

I had the pleasure of opening a show for Ray in Ruston, Louisiana one night... As a Christian musician, or more so a musician that's a Christian, his music and lyrics are as strong as his faith and his attitude towards life in general...

SBHNYR16   April 23rd, 2010 5:05 pm ET

Great article. You should check out his tunes – they truly are excellent. Amazing story and I can't wait to watch the series. The trailer looks phenomenal.

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