Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends": Savannah State's Johnny Mathis

February 15th, 2012

In the most recent installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Savannah State great Johnny Mathis, who was a two-time all-conference selection during his time at the school. Mathis would go on to play professionally in the ABA, Eastern League and in Spain, and is currently a highly successful high school coach at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx. 

Jon Teitel: You share a same name with the famous singer. Have you found that to be a good thing or a bad thing during your life? 

Johnny Mathis: It has not been bad at all. 

JT: One of your mentors was the legendary NYC playground director Holcombe Rucker. How did you end up meeting him, and what impact has he had on your life? 

JM: I met him when I played in the Rucker League back in the summer of 1959.  His greatest impact was teaching me how to dribble despite the fact that I was a big guy back then.  He told me that one day guards would be 6'5" like me, and he turned out to be right!   

JT: You were a two-time All-SEAC performer at Savannah St. How good was the competition in the SEAC back in the day, and did you feel like you were the best player in the conference? 

JM: It was a very tough conference at the time, as there were not a lot of African-American players going to Division I programs.  I was not the best, but I thought I was one of the best. 

JT: After graduating in 1965 you played professionally in Spain. Why did you decide to go abroad, and what did you learn from the experience? 

JM: It was a great experience because it gave me the opportunity to continue to play.  I got to travel and even learned how to speak Spanish.  I also got to develop physically. I went from 190 pounds when I arrive to 210 pounds by the time I left. 

JT: In 1967 you returned to the US to play for Coach Max Zaslofsky (who led the BAA in scoring in 1948) of the New Jersey Americans in the brand-new ABA. What was it like to play for Zaslofsky, and what is your fondest memory of the ABA? 

JM: It was tough to create good chemistry at first but it got better after we settled down.  I had a reputation of being able to defend the best guys on the other team (starting from my days in the Rucker), and I guarded Connie Hawkins as well as anyone did. 

JT: After one season in the ABA you left to play in various pro leagues in Pennsylvania. Why did you leave the ABA, and how good was the competition in Pennsylvania? 

JM: I actually went back to Savannah that summer to graduate.  The Eastern League was tough back then. There were only 10-12 teams in the ABA and only eight in the Eastern League, so it was hard to find a job back then.  We had so much depth that even a great player like All-American Tom Riker had to come off the bench. 

JT: You have spent over two decades as coach at John F. Kennedy Hight in New York City, where you have won 500+ games and had the gym named after you. What is the key to being a great coach, and how much longer do you plan on doing it? 

JM: I would like to stick around as long as I enjoy it.  The key is being able to relate to the younger generation and bring the best out of them.  I enjoy coaching and teaching, both on and off the court. 

JT: You run a camp in the Bronx every summer for boys and girls entering high school. What makes your camp different from other camps, and what is the biggest thing that players should know before starting high school? 

JM: Naturally it is important to learn fundamentals, but we teach them what is expected in high school. For example, how to run the weave, things like cutting and moving without the ball, etc.  A lot of players do not understand organized basketball and how to run specific plays. 

JT: Your son JC played for you in high school before moving on to college at Virginia. How did you like coaching him, and how proud are you of his success? 

JM: I am very proud of him.  I think coaching him was one of the best things that ever happened to me and was one of my most rewarding experiences in basketball.  He has accomplished so much as a young man. He went on to get his master's degree and later played in the NBDL and overseas.  He even ended up meeting one of my old coaches in Europe!  My other son Jarrett also played for me before going to Dartmouth. 

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? 

JM: I would like to be remembered as someone who was able to help a lot of young men and women.  Each day I got up and tried to be the best human being I could be.
Mathis is on Jon's list of best pro players in MEAC history.

Bethune-Cookman: Carl Fuller (1971)
Coppin State: Larry Stewart (1992)
Delaware State: Emanual Davis (1997)
Florida A&M: Clemon Johnson (1979)
Hampton: Rick Mahorn (1981)
Howard: Larry Spriggs (1982)
Maryland-Eastern Shore: Talvin Skinner (1975)
Morgan State: Marvin Webster (1976)
Norfolk State: Bob Dandridge (1970)
North Carolina A&T: Warren Davis (1968)
North Carolina Central: Sam Jones (1958)
Savannah State: Johnny Mathis (1968)
South Carolina State: Frank Card (1969)