On March 10, Cypress College held a memorial for legendary coach Don Johnson, who passed away on February 6 at 88 years old. The memorial took place on campus in the gymnasium on the “Don Johnson Court,” the basketball court named to honor Johnson in 2009.
Johnson played on the UCLA basketball team under the coaching of John Wooden with his basketball career exploding during his senior year when he became a consensus All-American by 1952 and earned all conference honors. After playing with the Bruins, Johnson began his coaching career at El Rancho High before he started the basketball program at Cypress College in 1966.
Under the leadership of Johnson, the Chargers earned two state titles, seven conference championships, and 588 victories. Johnson retired from coaching the Cypress College men’s basketball team in 1994, leaving his name in history as the coach with the most wins among the California community colleges. In 2013, Johnson’s name went into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame and currently ranks fourth on the all-time list.
Attendees in the stands looking down on the “Don Johnson Court” were filled with tears, both sorrowful and joyful, in remembrance of Johnson’s outstanding life. Dustin Ingram, Johnson’s grandson, began the memorial with a prayer and read Johnson’s epitaph which included a quote from Johnson; “what a privilege it has been to know you all.” Ingram concluded his speech with, “I pray that as we come forward today we can enjoy that he is at peace… we thank you for this day.”
The memorial continued with a favorite song of Johnson’s, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler, sung by Gina Rye just before his grandchildren Brittany and Blake Williams spoke about their missed grandfather. “He would always tells me what I needed to hear and not what I wanted to hear,” Brittany Williams stated. “I’m so thankful I had thirty two years of my life with one of the sweetest, funniest, and most passionate men I have ever seen. Grandpa, I love you and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
Blake Williams tried to hold back tears as he also spoke towards Johnson. “Seeing all these players here, he would have been over the moon… if he was here now he would really enjoy all of you guys being here. Going into coaching myself he has been an inspiration to me, teaching me.” Williams finished his speech with the touching words, “I truly miss him everyday- and everything he had taught me I will never forget. I love you grandpa and I hope I’ve made you proud as well.”
A slide show was shown full of pictures and memories of Johnson’s life which brought tears to eyes and smiles to faces reflecting unforgettable memories. Shortly after the presentation Gina Rye sang another favorite song of Johnson’s, “Somewhere A Place For Us” from the film West Side Story.
“I’ve known Don since I was four years old; Don and Collette married when I was five… I got my very much wanted big brother,” stated Johnson’s sister-in-law Ellen Kay Meryweather. She takes the audience back to stories of Johnson dressing up as Santa Claus for the children during Christmas and Frankenstein during Halloween revealing his fun, silly personality. “Hiking in the forest and fishing were rejuvenating activities for him… Don was a thinker and his conversation was always worth listening to. He was a mentor, a loving husband and father, wonderful brother…we are all fortunate to say that we have shared time with a very good man.”
Johnson’s son-in-law, Randy Ingram, then took center stage to sing “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, another song Johnson’s family cannot hear without thinking of him.
Towards the end of the memorial, others were invited to say any words about the beloved coach. Jeff Green, who was coached by Johnson from 1986-1988 stated, “Coach taught me so much…he taught me to love the game of basketball.” Along with Green, Mark Eaton who was also coached under Johnson, shared the lessons he learned from the coach who impacted his life. “Everything I learned here is what I took with me.”
The memorial ended with the song “O Holy Night,” book-ending the celebration of Johnson’s life and the many cherished memories he gave to his family, friends, and the athletes who trained under him.
Correction: The photo of the collage of Don Johnson has been attributed to Madison Patcheak- this has been corrected from the Cypress Chronicle March Print Edition’s attribution to Errica Tucker.