Healing Through Hoops

More than a decade after his father’s suicide, Flathead High’s Tyler Johnson is in the final season of a spectacular prep career

It’s been more than a decade since that awful day, but Tyler Johnson’s recall is as vivid as ever.

“I remember that morning so well,” he said calmly, minutes after his efficient 23-point performance in Flathead’s 69-46 win at Columbia Falls on Dec. 16.

“I don’t, obviously, remember a lot of stuff back then, but I remember that morning detail to detail: my brother and I not going to school and stuff, and we were wondering why.

“And then we got told.”

Instead of going to school, Tyler and his older brother C.J. made an unscheduled visit to their counselor, a woman they had been seeing for treatment of anxiety. The words they were about to be told were so heart-wrenching that their mother, Kim Pettis, couldn’t bring herself to say them aloud.

The boys’ father and Kim’s ex-husband was gone, the counselor said. He had taken his own life.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, Tyler’s anxiety intensified.

“He became a kid that wouldn’t leave the house,” Pettis recalled. “He was attached to my leg.”

“I had a hard time going to school,” Johnson remembered. “I would get sick a lot, my stomach would start bothering me all the time … I’d be scared to leave the house, pretty much.”

Parenting can be difficult even in the most ordinary moments, let alone the circumstances presented by a father’s death. What do you do for a child — a kindergartner — ambushed by a horrifying new reality?

“I mean, I was struggling to try to figure out how to get him back out into the world,” Pettis said.

Pettis was and is, by her own admission, a basketball neophyte, but someone had given the family a basketball hoop, so she bought her young boy a basketball to go with it. And, for whatever cosmic or scientific or indefinable reason, something happened.

When Tyler Johnson grabbed that basketball, everything else disappeared.

“When he had that deer-in-the-headlights look, when anxiety would come, I would grab him and we’d go out and shoot,” Pettis said. “Granted, he couldn’t even make it up to (the rim), but that’s how it all got started, really.

“That was his medicine,” she added. “When he feels frustrated, when he feels any sort of thing, this is what he does for hours.”

Johnson mastered his shooting stroke by himself on that hoop at his grandmother’s house, launching shot after shot after shot. Nothing deterred him, even if it meant having to feel the ball’s curves and ridges through a pair of winter gloves.

Eventually, he scored a gym membership at The Summit Medical Fitness Center, and as a fifth-grader, he started playing pickup games with adults more than twice his age. Pickup games led to spots on travel teams, and travel teams became a summer on the elite AAU circuit and, along the way, a spot on Flathead’s varsity squad as a freshman.

Those hours of shooting had turned catharsis into prodigious talent.

“He came to the open gyms before freshman year and (I thought), ‘Oh yeah, this kid can shoot the ball and score the ball,’” said Ross Gustafson, then an assistant and now in his third season as the head coach of the Braves.

“We knew he was going to be a good player and could help us out, potentially even as a freshman.”

Johnson played in 19 games and finished third on the team in scoring (7.2 points per game) that first year, and he hasn’t stopped scoring since. He was Flathead’s leading scorer as a sophomore and then averaged just under 15 points per game in leading the Braves to the state tournament last season. The senior is on pace to surpass 1,000 career points and graduate as one of the school’s all-time leading scorers.

But while scoring has never been an issue, the rest of Johnson’s game was not always as sound.

“I think he’s come a long way as a defender,” Gustafson said. “He didn’t really have much of a clue and he really wasn’t a defender at all his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“Last year I thought he got to be a pretty dang good (on defense), rebounding the ball, all those other little things. He could always shoot, but now his game is just so much more complete.”

Tyler Johnson, center, talks with his team before the game. Flathead defeated Columbia Falls 69-46 on Dec. 16, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Johnson is a presence on the court once the ball is tipped, but until that time, the baby-faced, soft-spoken, wire-thin 6-foot-3 guard hardly cuts an intimidating figure.

One of three captains on this year’s team, Johnson chooses his words carefully and is more likely to share a poignant word of wisdom than lead a raucous cheer. His quiet confidence is a trait he shares with the other captains — point guard Eric Seaman and big man Sam Elliott — and has developed over years of playing together. Most members of the senior class (Johnson, Seaman, Elliott, Oz Allen, Dawson Smith and Clayton Jaques) have teamed up on the hardwood since junior high, and many spent this summer and fall working nonstop to build on last season’s surprising late run to the state tournament.

“I think a big plus for us is chemistry,” Gustafson said. “I really enjoy it, too, because it’s kind of nice to just sit back and give them little pointers here and there but to kind of let them run the show.”

So far, the Braves have jumped out to a 2-1 record, sandwiching a home loss to Great Falls between road wins at Great Falls C.M. Russell and Columbia Falls. The team is poised to take another step in the rebuilding project that Gustafson took over three years ago, hoping to not just advance to the state tournament but potentially string some wins together while there.

No matter how this season unfolds, Johnson would like his career to continue in college, which Gustafson believes is likely. In fact, the coach believes as many as four players on his roster this year could play at the next level — one of the main reasons expectations are so high.

“We’ve got some really good players in the program right now,” Gustafson said. “I’ll try not to screw it up; just kind of get out of their way a little bit.”

For the team’s sharp-shooting leading scorer, whatever comes next only furthers his exploration of meditation through basketball. To this day, Johnson says, finding a ball and a hoop is his sanctuary.

“If I have a hard day or something, the first thing I’ll go do is go get my basketball stuff,” Johnson said. “Go to the school and get up some shots and listen to music and just relax.”

The 18-year-old says he is no longer seeking counseling for his anxiety and has, as much as is possible, made peace with his father’s death.

“If someone asks, I’ll say (what happened), or if they ask where my dad is, I’ll just say ‘I don’t have a dad’ or whatever,” Johnson said. “But if they ask, I’ll tell them — it’s not like I keep it a secret. I just don’t want people to think, like, you should feel bad for me. I mean, it happens. People have worse stuff than that happen to them.”

His mother, for her part, sees what has happened to her sons and can hardly believe where they are today. C.J. is a senior at the University of Montana and looking enroll in medical school next year. Tyler, Pettis says, is her “hero.”

“He really is amazing, and so is (C.J.),” she said. “I count my blessings and I don’t know how it happened. They’re great kids.”