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Tennis Community Mourns Loss of Steve Johnson, Sr.
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Steve Johnson, Sr. spent his final day doing what he loved most. He was on a tennis court teaching and trying to help others improve.

Steve Johnson, Sr. - 1958-2017
courtesy, Johnson Family
After giving his last private lesson of the night, Johnson drove home to watch the Anaheim Ducks exorcise their Game 7 demons and advance to the conference finals.

He had some Oreo cookies and milk before going to bed. Another fulfilling day on the tennis courts awaited.

Chuck Kingman, Johnson's best friend for the last 30 years, sent Johnson a text message in the middle of the night - a ritual that caused Johnson's wife, Michelle, to ban his cell phone from the bedroom so she could sleep soundly.

Kingman knew Johnson was an early riser and began wondering why he hadn't heard back from Johnson the next morning.

As he prepared to get his 10-year-old daughter off to school, Kingman's cell phone rang and Johnson's name flashed on the screen. Kingman couldn't reach the phone before it went to voicemail.

Expecting to hear Johnson's usual uplifting voice, Kingman's heart sank.

It was Michelle saying to call her. There was a problem.

Johnson, a longtime tennis teacher and father of professional player Steve Johnson Jr., died Thursday morning in his sleep. He was just 58.

Johnson leaves behind his wife, a daughter, Alison, and his namesake, Stevie Jr.

Remembered as a loving father, devoted husband and loyal friend, Johnson's death sent shockwaves throughout the Southern California tennis community that reverberated far beyond.

"He had a very successful life based on the amount of people he impacted and touched in such a positive way," Kingman said. "To this day, I think he was the best tennis coach I have ever come in contact with. He just had this ability to connect with people. You never came out of taking a lesson with him just being a better tennis player. He made you a better human being."

Johnson, Sr. with his son
courtesy, Johnson Family
Johnson was a well-known figure in SoCal tennis, having coached for more than 37 years in the area. He ran the Steve Johnson Tennis Academy in Orange County.

After leaving a club in San Clemente last year, Johnson joined forces again with Kingman to work together at Golden West Tennis Academy in Huntington Beach.

Just last week, Johnson spent more than 50 hours on the court teaching with his trademark smile greeting each student.

He taught players of all ages and skill levels, from little ones whose rackets nearly dwarfed their bodies to older ones who shuffled around the court with arthritic knees.

One group of women in their 70s took a weekly lesson from Johnson for nearly 30 years. They followed him from club to club with their last lesson coming only hours before his death.

Once word of Johnson's passing began to spread, his Facebook page became a tribute to his life. Friends, colleagues and students mourned his loss by posting their memories and photos of Johnson.

"The reason it's so tragic is he was realizing more the impact he had on people," said Boise State men's tennis coach Greg Patton, a friend of Johnson's for 25 years. "This was a man who made a difference. He worked his whole life to get this platform and it became more gratifying for him as he got older. He was almost childlike in his enthusiasm to teach at this stage of his life. I am heartsick for the tennis community. We not only lost an advocate, but a guardian and an angel of tennis."

Johnson died just before sharing some family milestones. Alison graduates from Sonoma State this week and is planning a five-week European trip with her mother. Stevie is getting married next April.

"There wasn't a day that ever went by that he didn't talk about Ali and Stevie. Never a single day," Kingman said. "He was so proud of them, not just for the tennis, but Ali for graduating and becoming the young lady she has become and Stevie for growing into the man and player he is. He was just really content with his life."

Johnson, Sr. with his immediate family
courtesy, Johnson Family
Johnson married his high school sweetheart, Michelle, a professor of mathematics at Mt. San Antonio College. They remained in the Orange County area to raise a family with tennis being the centering pillar.

Johnson groomed his son for tennis success while carefully trying to avoid burnout. Once little Stevie expressed interest in the sport at age 2, Johnson handed him a Mickey Mouse tennis racket and showed him how to hit beach balls and balloons.

Johnson was able to witness Stevie develop into a national star at USC and become a top 25 player on the ATP World Tour.

Johnson proudly watched Stevie represent his country in Davis Cup and traveled with him to Grand Slam events.

Last month, Stevie captured his second career ATP World Tour singles title at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston.

Peter Smith coached Stevie at USC from 2009-12, a stretch considered one of the most dominant in NCAA tennis history.

Stevie led USC to four straight NCAA team titles and was the 2011 and 2012 NCAA singles champion. He ended his college career with a record 72-match win streak.

Before learning about Steve Johnson, Sr.'s death, Smith had a premonition early Thursday morning.

"I was taking a shower and I didn't realize he had just passed away, but I was just thinking about how great a man he was and that I will probably never have another parent like him," Smith said. "He just cleared all the obstacles away for Stevie to be great. People didn't really understand that."

Tennis has always been a fixture in the Johnson household
courtesy, Johnson Family
During the recruiting process of Stevie to USC, Smith could only offer him a 17 percent scholarship. The Johnson family considered taking out a second mortgage on the house to pay for the remainder of the tuition.

"Steve Sr. said 'Son if that is where you want to go to school, go to school there. It won't change my life at all,'" Smith said. "I recruit a lot of people with a lot of money, and they were good middle-class people and that was a big deal. They wanted Stevie to be happy."

Smith was eventually able to bump the scholarship offer to 50 percent by the time Johnson arrived on campus. The money increased to 70 percent by Johnson's sophomore year, but he was still getting less than players lower on the roster.

"Steve Sr.'s reaction was, 'My son needs teammates,'" Smith said. "I am telling you, people don't have that reaction, and he put his arm around me and consoled me because he knew I felt bad. That really enabled Stevie to focus on what was important and enabled Stevie and I to have this amazing relationship. Steve Sr. never got in the way and never minded we were close. He would call my wife all the time and thank her for me being with his son knowing I couldn't be with my sons as much. He got it."

Johnson recently made a pilgrimage to one of his favorite events - The Ojai. He could hardly walk a few steps without being stopped for a hug or a handshake.

Patton was attending The Ojai this year for the first time since 1998. As he strolled the grounds of Libbey Park, Patton spotted a familiar face.

"I was thinking about Steve and then next thing you know there he is right in front of me. It was like God put him there," said Patton, who first met Johnson 25 years ago while playing a doubles match against him and remained close confidants. "We probably spent two hours together just talking about life and tennis and how exciting things have been. I don't think you could have seen a happier man. He was incredibly fulfilled by his teaching and working with kids."

Before saying goodbye, Johnson and Patton walked through the famous picture boards at The Ojai to see all the great champions in the tournament's rich history. They laughed and shared memories about the various players.

"He gave me a big bear hug and told me he loved me and I told him I loved him - then he gave me a big kiss on the cheek. He had never done that before, but he did that," Patton said. "I realized that was our last time together and I grieve because I wish I had more time with him. But I was blessed with the time I did have."

Erica Perkins Jasper, the Chief Operating Officer of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), got to know the Johnson family when she was working for USTA Player Development from 2008-12.

Perkins Jasper oversaw most of the USTA's college tennis programming, and her stint coincided with Stevie's remarkable career run at USC.

"I feel tremendously fortunate to have been able to get to know Steve Sr. over the past eight years. His passion - for his family, for tennis, for life - was truly unmatched," Perkins Jasper said. "He was always that person that I hoped to get to sit or often stand with at matches. I loved listening to him talk and philosophize about tennis, life, and later as I had my boys, parenting. But there was nothing better to me than seeing him with Stevie. To see that kind of father-son relationship made my heart smile every time."

Johnson's passion for tennis was unwavering. He attended as many tournaments as possible, watching courtside even if his son or students weren't playing.

He was a proponent of kids attending regular school instead of homeschooling and championed the benefits of college tennis.

"He was a tough guy. I will say that about him," Smith said. "If he had an opinion, he wasn't afraid to voice it. That is what I loved about him."

Despite his overwhelming grief, Smith takes solace in knowing how much Johnson accomplished in life as a father, husband and teacher. He realizes Johnson's legacy will live on through his children and the hundreds of players he's coached throughout the years.

"I really believe he died with a smile on his face," Smith said. "It's very sad for us that we don't get to share him anymore and I know he obviously had so much more to live for. But he already did so much for his family and was in a great place."

 

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About Rhiannon Potkey

Rhiannon Potkey is a veteran sportswriter with more than two decades of experience in journalism. Potkey has covered many sports at many levels and has a passion for finding great stories. Potkey has covered the U.S. Open, junior sectional and national events, college conference championships and Davis Cup matches. Potkey is currently Content Strategist for Tennis Recruiting.
 
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Page updated on Thursday, July 06, 2017
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