MISSOULA — Anthony Johnson captivated Montana Griz fans for two years on the men's basketball team, a career capped off with a record-setting performance in the Big Sky Conference championship game in 2010.
But Johnson was much more than just a basketball player, and those who know him well want that message shared as the world lost a father, husband, teammate and friend. Johnson suffered a stroke on Oct. 21 and passed away on Nov. 1 at the age of 37.
It's a tragic loss of a man gone too soon, but Johnson is a force who will have a lasting impact for many years to come.
And Nate DuChesne remembers recruiting Anthony Johnson to Montana well. The former Griz assistant basketball coach from 2006-09 liked what he saw from the guard at Yakima Valley Community College, but, even more, liked what he saw off the court.
"Anthony was just special. And one of the things I really liked about him is his maturity," DuChesne told MTN Sports. "He was married. And he was really looking for the right fit for him and his wife Shaunte, his family. Obviously, he had the tools that we needed basketball wise, but we're also looking for a good fit a program guy."
Anthony Johnson and his wife, Shaunte Johnson, were a package deal through and through.
They did so when they went to Yakima Valley, and again when Anthony had the Griz calling.
"We knew that we have to make certain sacrifices for each one of us to be able to make it together," Shaunte said. "And we both did that in our stories where he wasn't getting recruited to one place and I said I'm not coming without him, and then they brought him in that he returned the favor when it came to the University of Montana."
So the young couple landed in Missoula and began their new journey together.
"We just like really lived our lives, have just like that partnership," Shaunte said. "And just passing the rock is what we call it or the alley-oop, right? Sometimes it's your time to slam dunk, sometimes it's your turn to just give the assist, you know, but we always say, you know, you got to finish. And so we always made sure that we did that and kept that in mind as a couple."
And of course, for a pair of inseparable, highly driven athletes, there were growing pains, but they took the challenges head on.
"The thing that was very difficult that we were not used to, or let's just say that I was not used to, was that our schedules were opposite," Shaunte said. "And so I spent a lot of nights crying or not sleeping, because I was so used to having my guy there.
"He was so focused, and he was a genius, you know, he was. He always told us that he was not the tallest, and he was not the fastest, but he would figure it out. And that's one thing we love about who he was prior to even me being able to become his wife. He had 18 years prior to me, and he already came into the marriage with a level of understanding of who he was, which was, you know, a man of honor and a man of valor.
"He's a lover, he's compassionate. He was very dedicated, too. For us to be married since we were 18 years old, you know, tells you that he obviously knew who he was, and he knew what he wanted. And so he made that very known in our relationship of what we lived for, and what we focused on and what was going to be our mantras, what was our our goals, and where we were going to go and what we were going to do together and the type of loyalty and love that we would express."
But from travel to classes, the duo did everything together, as they were determined to make it work.
On the court, Johnson had to wait his turn to start his first year at UM in 2008, but once he got going, away he went.
"Anthony had what it took," DuChesne said. "Everybody saw that eventually, but he just had to wait for his opportunity. A lot of people don't realize his first year, it was really, really difficult for him to wait his time because he knew what he could do. But he did that. And he was he was humble about it. He didn't do anything that interfered with our team or the success that we had."
Once given the green light, Johnson turned into a Grizzly great.
A stellar two-year career was capped by a history-making performance in the 2010 Big Sky championship game, where against Damian Lillard's Weber State Wildcats, Johnson helped rally the Grizzlies from down 20 points to win the game. He scored a still-record 42 points in the title game to send UM to March Madness. Johnson was later nominated for an ESPY for his performance.
His former coach, Wayne Tinkle, remembers it like yesterday.
"The team went to go warm up at halftime, I waited til about a minute and a half left on the clock before I took the court," said Tinkle, a former Griz player who coached at UM from 2001-14, including eight seasons as the head coach, before leaving to coach at Oregon State where he's entering his 10th season.
"And as I was going through the hallway, AJ came running back towards the locker room, he probably forgot some bubble gum or something, and he goes, 'Coach, you're gonna see a different man this half.' And I said, 'Hopefully I see about 12, 13 different men out there, we're gonna need it.' And then he just went on to put on an incredible show.
"He was a beam of light, you know? I mean, he made a positive impact on everybody he came across each and every day, regardless of what he might have been feeling on the inside. He knew that he had a responsibility and a choice, you know, to make a difference in people's lives. And he chose to be a positive influence day after day."
His former teammate, Derek Selvig, who now coaches at Dickinson State, uses that film from the Weber State game to inspire his own players, many whom are JUCO products, showing them that anything is possible.
"It's just unbelievable what he did," Selvig said. "But, you know, off the floor, you could just tell how mature he was, and family and his wife was so important to him, and he put her, you know, as a priority, and you can just see that and just a great leader and just an amazing guy.
"It was it was his leadership and that honestly affected the rest of the years that I was there. Some of us younger guys, you know, obviously took his leadership and just his presence there. For those two years, obviously, we won the championship in 2010. But he was definitely an integral part of our success after he was even gone. So, it was just a pleasure to play with him. He was an unbelievable talent, and, you know, even better person."
Johnson also served as inspiration for future Griz greats, including two-time Big Sky defensive player of the year Will Cherry, who was a freshman point guard on that team in 2010, as well as future Big Sky MVP Kareem Jamar, as Johnson's impact in the program carried past his playing days.
"He's been super supportive. The next couple of years of just having me and Will, making sure that our heads was on straight, and obviously him playing in the back court," Jamar said. "So he obviously gave me tips and things to talk about. So I always appreciated that because like we didn't play together so he didn't have to reach back and do the things he did, so kind of forever indebted.
"He's one of those guys that if you're a part of Griz Nation — unfortunately, we have to be reminded by him about his greatness because of an unfortunate incident — but it's guys like that that put the work in and they leave a legacy that we should praise now and give them their flowers before they go because, we obviously, we know where things can go at any moment. So I just appreciate him. I appreciate his family."
Cherry described him as a "big brother," and the two used to goof off quoting the TV show Martin or get excited over Jordan releases, while the younger athlete took note of Anthony's love and commitment to his wife and family, but also the impact he had in the community.
From reading to schools to visiting hospitals to much, much more, Anthony and Shaunte ingrained themselves in the Montana community in which they competed, an impact that went a long way.
"He wasn't just a basketball player to them. A lot of people, you know, congratulated who he was as a person off the court," Cherry said. "And so that was one of the things that really stood out to me wasn't just the basketball, it was just how people flocked to him as a man and his character, outside of the basketball.
"He was a goofy dude, goofy dude, and so was I. That guy was my dog, man. I'll miss him."
And it's that character Shaunte wants everyone to remember, as Nov. 1, the day of his passing, was also the 18th wedding anniversary of the Johnson tandem.
The couple have three children together — Kaine-Carter, Apollo-Kahn and Blade-Milan — with a fourth due in May, and five years ago launched an organization called Inner Enso, a philanthropic company that specializes in individual and community alignment, healing, connection, impact and advocacy while prioritizing diversity and equality in communities.
The two were big in autism awareness and advocacy, and Shaunte will now focus on hypertension awareness after Anthony's passing.
Basketball was just a glimpse for most, but Anthony and Shaunte built a focused and passionate life together what went so much further outside of the lines.
"I'm just proud. I'm so proud," Shaunte said. "You'd never think that you're gonna say that you're proud of someone that only lived for 37 years, or that you're proud of someone that you only got to spend 18 years with, but we smelled the roses as we journeyed, so there's not many regrets. So I'm just proud. I love that man. There was a lot to love, there was so many people that loved him."
The outpouring of support from Montana and beyond has meant the world to Shaunte, as the love and grief for the loss of Anthony has been vast.
For Shaunte, carrying Anthony's legacy on is the goal, as she continues the life and dreams the two built together over 18 years, as he may be gone, but never forgotten.
"Love the people that are around you, take the time to smell the roses as you're journeying, and don't let life speed you up like you can defy time," Shaunte said. "Because we sure did. It was 18 years of bliss. And it was for sure years of euphoria and so you guys can make it happen and anybody has that opportunity to so just do it."