Even Better than Hoop Dreams
Basketball star Malcolm Johnson pivots towards new challenges
Story by Meyer Gorelick
Malcolm Johnson sits in the locker room before the 2018 California State Basketball Championship. His coach’s words resonate in his head: “Play 110 percent. Move on from mistakes, and play for each other.” Feeling free and energized, Johnson is ready.
The game goes sideways. A barrage of fouls slows the pace, but Johnson and his City College of San Francisco teammates regroup and rally. When the final buzzer blares, the Rams lose, but it is a defeat that Johnson remembers fondly because his team played with heart.
When Johnson looks back on his City College basketball career, it’s not the moments of individual brilliance that stand out to him, it’s what his team achieved.
Johnson led the City College men’s basketball team to a second place finish in the 2018 state championship and earned a full Division I athletic scholarship to the University of California, Davis. Johnson’s identity seemed clear. He was a basketball player, strong student and new father.
Johnson grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., the third youngest of 10 siblings in a close family. “We bumped heads sometimes, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. He admires his parents, who’ve helped support, inform and shape every decision he makes.
His father, Michael Johnson, played Division II basketball at the University of Anchorage in Alaska, earning All-American honors. His mother, Cheryl Johnson, worked her way through a nursing program while Malcolm Johnson was in school. After a 6-inch growth spurt, he started playing basketball in the seventh grade.
In his senior year at Centennial High School, ESPN ranked Johnson the 69th best player in California, and he accepted a scholarship to play Division II college basketball at California State, Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles.
He redshirted his freshman season, meaning he chose to sit out official competitions while still training with the team. Although he had dominated the court in high school, he didn’t feel prepared for college competition. “I was trash, I sucked,” Johnson says, laughing. His calculated decision paid dividends in his sophomore year. Better prepared, Johnson earned All-Conference that season.
During Johnson’s ascent, tragedy struck. His half brother, Brandon Robinson, was convicted on 15 counts related to three separate sexual assaults and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“Anytime something like that happens to someone you’re close with, it has a profound impact on you. I know that they were very close,” Johnson’s high school coach and mentor Hernan Santiago says.
Johnson became a target for media attention because he was a high-profile athlete with a brother in trouble. He remembers reporters calling. He felt they tried to exploit his family’s misfortune and that they claimed his brother, Robinson, was guilty before due process. “It’s a sensitive subject for me, and I just don’t like to talk about it,” he says.
Johnson’s silence speaks volumes. According to his father, Johnson’s reluctance to discuss his brother shows how the trauma has affected him.
The whole family felt the pressure. “It tore us apart. It ripped through my marriage and had a lot to do with my divorce,” Michael Johnson, Malcolm’s father says.
Robinson was the best athlete in the family. “Out of all the kids, (Robinson) was the one that had it. He was a basketball player; he was a football star,” Michael Johnson says.
During this storm, Johnson considered his future and was inspired by his mother’s nursing career. Unfortunately there was no nursing program at CSU Dominguez Hills. Johnson thought, “I don’t know what to do after this. I do know that I need to get started on nursing.”
As Johnson was in the crossroads of a decision, his girlfriend Lauren Dellinger became pregnant with their first child.
With a son on the way, Johnson left CSU Dominguez Hills after finishing the semester. He and Dellinger moved to Fairfield, Calif. to live with Johnson’s father.
Enter, City College Head Basketball Coach Justin Labagh. Johnson’s high school coach Santiago reached out to Labagh to alert him that Johnson was in the Bay Area and may want to play at City College. Labagh approached Johnson and left the ball in his court.
Johnson was on the fence. He wanted what was best for his new family. His father convinced him to stick with it. “I didn’t think he was done yet,” Michael Johnson says.
A close friend and high school teammate Alec Check was transferring to play at City College. Johnson chose to join his friend and brave the commute to San Francisco to play.
That fall, just as the basketball season began, Johnson received a full-ride scholarship to play for the UC Davis Aggies.
His father and Santiago thought Johnson had the potential to play professionally. But Johnson wasn’t sure if he was ready to commit to playing basketball in a Division I program. He knew it would be a full-time job, leaving little to no time to spend with his new family.
In May 2019, before the start of UC Davis’ summer training, Johnson made a decision. Following in his mother’s footsteps, he began to research nursing programs. UC Davis didn’t have an undergraduate nursing program and Johnson wanted to stay close to his family. He found a fit at nearby Napa Valley College.
He knew that to succeed in nursing, he would have to devote all his time to academics and any remaining time would be spent in his new role as a father. There was no more time for basketball.
“I could see how from the outside it didn’t look good,” Johnson says about his decision to pass on a full-ride scholarship, “but everyone that was inside my circle either said that it was a good decision, or that they trust me.”
For Johnson, the choice was easy: “I was OK with not playing basketball anymore. It wasn’t that big of a deal to me.”
Johnson’s change of heart was especially hard on his father. “It killed me a little,” Michael Johnson says. “Basketball brought me out of poverty and got me a free education.” As a child, he had walked to school in East Oakland with holes in his shoes and had to make do with lean meals of rice and beans.
Michael Johnson worried for his son, but didn’t want him to know it. “I was looking forward to going to UC Davis, bringing my friends, and sitting in the bleachers and supporting him. It was hard to take because of my love for the game,” Michael Johnson says.
But Johnson wasn’t sure if he was ready to commit to playing basketball in a Division I program.
He knew it would be a full-time job, leaving little to no time to spend with his new family.
Johnson’s high school coach Santiago was disappointed at first too. “It was tough, because I think he could have gone and played overseas and made a good living,” Santiago says.
At the time Johnson picked nursing over basketball, Dellinger was pregnant with their second son Knox. “A lot of people were giving her grief,” Johnson says.
There was a question of whether Johnson gave up basketball because of pressure from his partner. “I’m sure a lot of people still do think that… because I did get pregnant again,” Dellinger says, referring to their second son Knox who was born this past October.
“I did. We did,” Johnson interjects.
“Well, I was the one who was pregnant. But I was OK with him going to Davis if he wanted to go,” Dellinger says.
Had he played for UC Davis and then gone on to play professionally, Johnson would likely have learned that getting paid to play basketball is a rare privilege that comes with enormous perks and a wide array of challenges. According to the World Atlas website, out of 825 million people in the world who play basketball, only 400 will make it to the NBA. Given the limited roster space in the NBA, many elite players are forced to take their talents overseas to play professionally. And an athlete’s earning potential is tied directly to their physical health, which is put at risk every time they step onto the court.
“This is a very nomadic business. You have to be prepared to pack up and move at any time. It can be for a variety of reasons: for a better contract offer, a team’s financial issues, whatever,” says professional overseas player Michael Creppy, featured in a 2018 article on sports news website The Undefeated.
The instability would be tough for young parents like Johnson and Dellinger — nursing offered a much more stable and sustainable career.
“Malcolm knew that his career was probably going to end at Davis, and with two young kids, the sooner he could have paychecks coming in the better. It speaks to what a mature person he is,” City College coach Labagh says.
“When you have a son as kind, and caring, and wonderful as Malcolm,
you support him.”
– Michael Johnson
Johnson’s father quickly came around and threw his full support behind his son. “When you have a son as kind, and caring, and wonderful as Malcolm, you support him. I love all my kids, but Malcolm is the total package,” he says.
Johnson is unfazed by fatherhood, even though he was only 21 when his first son Nash was born. He knew if he put himself in a position to be successful, things would work out. He is grateful for Dellinger and their sons.
After his second son Knox was born in October, he reflects on how it feels to be a father again:
“I don’t feel any different. There’s just another person in this world that I love unconditionally.” After all, family and close friends are what Johnson thrives on.
When it comes to parenting, he takes lessons from his parents’ playbook. He wants his children to be as comfortable confiding in him as he is with his parents.
“If I was doing something questionable, it wouldn’t be a whooping or anything, it would be a conversation,” Johnson says of his childhood.
He has always been a good student, but Johnson attributes his academic success to his work ethic — the same ethic that made him a good athlete.
In addition to nursing school, he is in the early stages of developing a social media app with former high school and City College teammate Alec Check, but Johnson is tight-lipped about their venture.
In five years, Johnson hopes not only to be done with school, saying “Worst case scenario, both myself and Lauren will be nurses… Best case scenario, this app thing works out and I’m a millionaire.”
In the living room of their Fairfield home, Johnson sits on the couch with his father and Dellinger, admiring their babbling 1-year-old and peaceful newborn, medals and relics from his basketball past packed away in the inaccessible recesses of the attic.
Johnson and his father banter about who is the better athlete. His father needles him, “He knew he would never be as good as his dad. He couldn’t shake and bake like me!”
After some more back and forth, Michael Johnson heads out to pick up groceries.
“Buh-by!” coos Nash to his grandpa from his father’s lap.