American300 Public Affairs - This week the American300 Never Quit Series returns to the home of our 8th Air Force, 2nd Bomb Wing and Air Force Global Strike Command Headquarters with country music singer/songwriter Ray Johnston. To get a better idea who Ray is we’ve shared this fantastic story written by Bill Kelly for CancerForward.org
Story by Bill Kelly
Ray Johnston made the NBA, beat leukemia and formed a group, The Ray Johnston Band. Curing cancer and getting a date with Jennifer Aniston are next on his list. Don’t bet against him. He’s a modern Odysseus whose talents and determination have taken him from an undrafted signee with the Dallas Mavericks to lying in a hospital bed in a four-month coma, and finally landing center stage at a rock concert. His journey has been documented in an HDNet television series and marveled by reporters and supporters alike.
It would be generous to say there are long odds attached to an undrafted player making an NBA roster. Practically, the chances are those of a Mega-Million lottery. After playing in only two college games while at the University of Alabama, Ray couldn’t make the developmental league. “Rightly so,” he says. Johnston wasn’t on anyone’s list of pro prospects and he knew it.
After college, Ray moved to Dallas and began a successful career as a mortgage broker, focused on career more than athletics. After joining a local gym where he’d play ball, his focus began to change. Former Dallas Cowboys Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders saw Ray’s ability when working out and urged him not to turn away from sports. “They gave me a lot of confidence,” Ray says, something that was missing during his college days.
With elite professional athletes cheering him on, Ray entered a local Hoop-It-Up tournament held outside American Airlines Center, the home court of the Dallas Mavericks. Owner Mark Cuban and team President Donnie Walsh saw Ray play and were impressed enough to invite him to try out for the team along with 20 other players.
The higher the level of play, the higher Ray’s game rose. His skills as a point guard where evident as he continually led his pick-up teams to victory during the tryouts. Out of the 20 invited players, only Ray was offered a spot on the team. “I thought I was being Punk’d.” Donnie Nelson told him flat out that he kept looking for a reason to pass him over, “but I couldn’t.” In a competitive environment, Ray had “high confidence, no pressure” and simply played much better when he played aside better players. In the span of a month, he went from selling mortgages to playing against Yao Ming and the Chinese National Team. He had made the NBA.
In the next several months, he would play with rookies Devon Harris and Josh Howard in summer league camp, making friends and impressing coaches. He was the only player who came to practice five hours early. On a team with Dirk Nowitzski, he was determined to do everything possible to earn a position.
Ray’s maverick world changed very quickly. After bumping shins in a pick-up game, his leg began to swell. Thinking it was a very minor injury, he wasn’t initially concerned. The next day, he found the bruise wouldn’t heal. His blood wasn’t clotting normally. He began to take things more seriously. It turned out that his blood was 84% leukemic.
Once diagnosed with cancer, Ray remained in a hospital for four and half months. He was placed in a medically-induced coma from August until November. It took another three to four weeks to “get his head back.” His mother was determined to make his recovery room as positive as possible. “Upbeat, upbeat” she continually told visitors before they came to see Ray.
Ray believed his parents played a monumental role in his triumph into remission. “My dad worked hard to be a success” he says. “I was subliminally installed to think I was tough and had to earn my keep.” Though they divorced when Ray was four, his parents both helped prepare and encourage Ray during the difficult treatments and procedures, including the amputation of seven toes. “Cancer strengthened the hell out of my relationship with my parents.”
While his parents bid their influence, Ray’s faith served as more motivation. He had every reason in the world to be down, but was inspired by Proverbs 17:22.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Faith made it possible for Ray to deal with a phobia that had long plagued him but he now needed to face head on: needles. He reached back to basketball and applied the mental preparation to shoot a free throw to the task of taking an injection. “They teach you to do the same thing every time. To shoot, I would dribble three times and place my finger on the air hole. In the hospital, I repeated to myself, ‘Jesus died on the cross three times; you are such a wuss for thinking this hurts.’”
Along with his parents and faith, modern medicine helped save Ray Johnston’s life. At one point in time, Ray had 26 doctors working with him. He took an experimental drug called Tamibarotene that is now in second phase clinical trials. The sheer number of talented people working with him made Ray want to win – in this case, beat the cancer.
Beating the odds of cancer drove Ray to take on new odds, now that of pursuing a professional career in music. When asked about chances of his being both a professional athlete and a professional musician, Ray responds with measure, “How do I answer that without sounding cocky?”
He points to having a similar support network in the music profession as he did in sports. When he played ball with athletes like Devon Harris and Josh Howard, it elevated his play. He calls his fellow musicians an “NBA All-Star Team of Band Mates.” Steve Jordon, Ray’s producer, has worked with Keith Richards, Stevie Wonder, and John Mayer. Ray seems to attract people willing to work hard for results that are not always certain. He believes he can lead them to success. He’s faced death five times in seven years; the pressures of the music industry don’t really scare him.
With sheer determination supporting each downbeat, The Ray Johnston Band mixes rock, jazz, county, and a little rumba to its performances. Touring the country, the band plays benefit concerts for organizations supporting cancer research. He carries a message to his audiences that is both personal to him and helpful in progressing beyond the pain he and they share. His music reflects his perspective toward cancer. Upbeat. Confident.
His doctor once told Ray he would have trouble living to age 33. After playing for the Dallas Mavericks, beating back cancer, staging a successful musical career, and fundraising for cancer research, Ray has defied his doctor’s prognosis negative, clearly living a very full life. He’s still holding out for the date with Jennifer Anniston and a cure for cancer. He says he’s just getting started with life, and he knows that in an amazing way, his cancer helped get him there.
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