Thoughts about pursuing a Division I opportunity entered Chaney Johnson's mind after the 2021-22 basketball season.
The Thompson High graduate, who recently signed with Bruce Pearl's Auburn basketball program, had just finished his first full season at UAH. He was an All-Gulf South Conference and All-South Region player after averaging 16.8 points and 5.6 points per game. That came a year after he made his college debut by playing in all 19 games of a shortened season.
He decided to come back and ended this past season as the GSC Player of the Year. The 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward averaged 15.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game to help his team win a GSC co-championship with West Alabama. The Chargers advanced to the NCAA Division II South Region championship game before losing to eventual national champion Nova Southeastern.
It still took time for him to make the decision to move on. He had three conversations with UAH head coach John Shulman. During the first two, Johnson said, he told Shulman he wasn't sure what he would do.
Johnson said prayer was a big part of making the final decision.
"I was still waiting on God to send me confirmation," Johnson said. "The third time, that's when it solidified, I was ready to go in the portal."
He entered the portal on a Thursday afternoon. He received three calls from college coaches quickly and didn't hear anything more for a few hours.
"Then when it hit like 7 or 8, my phone just started blowing up on me," Johnson said. "My phone went crazy. It was just blowing up consistently throughout the whole week, basically."
Most of the calls were from coaches he'd never spoken to before. Samford's Bucky McMillan, who coached against Johnson in high school, was a familiar voice, and there were a few others. For the most part, though, he was talking to strangers.
"At that point of time, I didn't know if Auburn or Alabama or those type schools would talk to me," Johnson said. "I was just talking to every school to give them an equal chance to recruit me. I didn't know what was going to be the right fit. I was chasing down coaches, calling coaches, just to know that I could get somewhere I could fit personally in."
He narrowed it down to eight schools and then, with help from family members and close friends, trimmed it to five programs. He took a visit to UAB, and Auburn was next.
"I committed that night," Johnson said. "The schools I narrowed it down to, I could have went on and visited them. I just felt like Auburn, everything was right. The culture, the campus, the players were cool, of course, who doesn't want to play under Coach Pearl? He also has an amazing coaching staff. All the puzzle pieces fit. I was like, I can't pass that up, I might as well go ahead and commit now."
Johnson has one more final exam at UAH before he moves on. He will begin his time at Auburn on May 15. He will always carry a piece of UAH with him.
"Coming out of Thompson, a pee-wee freshman coming to UAH, not really knowing so much about basketball," said Johnson, who was 6-foot-3 when he graduated high school. "I really didn't have a whole lot of confidence in myself. That first pickup session against the UAH guys really shocked me, really woke me up a little bit. There is a big misconception of DII (talent). Playing under Coach Shulman, playing around the guys, a tight-knit brotherhood, UAH has a winning culture. Coming in there, learning how to win, learning how to talk to the guys and everything just helped me out as a person and as an athlete."
Auburn is getting a versatile player who can play inside and outside. He shot 37.2 percent from 3-pont territory over his career in a UAH offense where nearly everybody is asked to shoot from outside the arc. He also is comfortable playing inside.
“Chaney's journey is the perfect example of the great American dream," Pearl said after Johnson signed. "He graduates from Thompson High School, goes to UAH to play for John Shulman, grows four inches, leads his team to a conference championship, becomes (conference) player of the year in three years, and now, has the opportunity to play at Auburn in the SEC. Chaney's hard work, dedication, length and athleticism, have enabled him to become quite the talent. He will have the opportunity to impact our team right away. Auburn Basketball just got better."
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819News.com.
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