Reggie Johnson grew up on Chicago's West Side. He might have enrolled at Foreman. He was recruited by Mount Carmel and Providence-St. Mel. But his mother brought St. Joseph to his attention. After checking it out, he beat a path to Gene Pingatore's door in Westchester.
"I didn't know much about St. Joseph," Johnson said. "I asked around. I had friends who were planning to attend the school. I learned of the history. I knew that a lot of good basketball players had come out of there. I knew Isiah Thomas had gone there. I knew Demetri McCamey off the court. And I heard about coach Ping."
Now the 6'1 senior guard is well familiar with all of the great players in St. Joseph history. The pictures of the All-Staters are visible in the Hall of Fame located in the hallway outside the gym with special cases for Thomas, Daryl Thomas and Deryl Cunningham. And there is a picture of the 1999 state championship team.
"It would be nice to see my picture on that wall someday," said Johnson, who is committed to Tennessee State. "But I've never thought about it, to be honest. I have never been the type of person to look at those goals. It would be nice to win another state championship. That's the No. 1 goal. I think we can do it."
Pingatore thinks his current team can do it, too. Like Johnson, however, he thinks in terms of team, not numbers. In his 43rd season, he has won 875 games and figures to surpass the state record of 881 set by Rockford Boylan's Steve Goers, who retired last May.
"I'm not thinking about retirement," said Pingatore, who is 75. "Coaching still is fun. I've got a good group of kids, a good group coming up and another good group coming in.
"I don't think about numbers, just the groups I have. I want to have a successful year this year. I want to get better and make a run at state. I have no goal to reach 900, then retire. This could be a very good team at the end of the year."
St. Joseph was ranked among the top 20 teams in the Chicago area in the preseason, then lost to Schaumburg and highly rated Downers Grove South and dropped out. The Chargers are 3-2 going into Friday's game with De La Salle. Next week, they meet St. Rita, then have a Dec. 22 date with St. Patrick before making their annual trip to the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Last year, St. Joseph was 10-17. It was Pingatore's first losing season since 2001 and only his second losing season since 1976.
"It was frustrating. We were competitive but not good enough to win. We're not used to doing that," he said. "We had guard problems. And we faced the toughest schedule I have ever faced in all my years from a standpoint of quality opponents. Fifteen losses were to ranked teams."
The schedule isn't much easier this season but Pingatore is more optimistic. His team is young -- he starts two sophomores and a third sophomores comes off the bench at guard -- but he expects to be much better. "We will be pretty good by the end of the year if we develop chemistry with our young people," he said.
Johnson and 5-11 senior point guard Avery Harmon are the keys to success. "They will control our destiny," Pingatore said. Other starters are 6'8 junior A.J. Patty and two 6'5 sophomores, Paul Turner and Karriem Simmons. Others who will get significant playing time are 6'0 sophomore guard Michael Brooks, 6'3 junior Denzel Patton, 6'3 senior Jawaan Toney and 6'3 junior Ron Lewis.
The legacy is all around them. The big trophies are in the hallway -- 1999 state championship, 1978 state runner-up, 1987 third place, 1984 fourth place. The great players are still there, too. Daryl Thomas is the sophomore coach and Brandon Watkins is his assistant. Marlon London is the freshman coach.
"They believe in the system and what they were a part of and they are teaching it to the kids," Pingatore said. "I don't jump around as much as before. I can't because of my bad hip. But we all believe the system wins--motion offense, pressure man-to-man defense, running the ball, discipline on the court. We haven't changed our philosophy."
That's what Johnson experienced when he visited St. Joseph for the first time. "It was a very family oriented school. I came from a small middle school so it was an easy jump. All the kids got along. It was a nice place to be around. Everyone embraced me when I came here," he said.
St. Joseph is on every college coach's radar. If you are a college prospect, they'll find you. And it didn't take long for Tennessee State to notice Johnson.
"I didn't get much attention coming out of grade school. After my sophomore year, Tennessee State saw me in some July tournaments and they stayed with me strong," he said. "They made me feel I was part of their program even before I went there."
Last Sept. 3, on his official visit with his parents, Johnson chose the Nashville, Tennessee, school over Tennessee Tech, Ball State, California-Poly and Farleigh Dickinson.
"I had only met two coaches prior to my visit," he said. "But when I went there, I wanted to meet the players, to see how they would react to me. It was all about team and how to get better. I even met the school president, all the top people at the school. They showed me a lot, everything they could in two days. I was swept off my feet."
With recruiting out of the way, Johnson is concentrating on his senior season. He agrees with Pingatore. "This team can be very good at the end of the year," he said.
"Those two losses at Thanksgiving were learning moments for our team.
We're getting better every day. The best is yet to come for us. I'm learning how to lead the team to wins. As a senior, it falls on my shoulders from ball-handling to decision-making. I have to push myself every day to get better."