TALLMADGE — A little more than three years ago, Isaiah Johnson was informed of some very intriguing news.
Let’s just say it was something he waited his whole life to hear.
“When it first came up, I was so excited,” Johnson said.
So what piece of information drastically picked up the restless teenager’s spirits?
Tallmadge High School decided to include a wheelchair basketball team to its list of winter sports teams.
When it became official, Johnson, who has cerebral palsy, couldn’t wait to find his classmate, Brennan Heavilin.
“I remember talking to Brennan about it,” Johnson said. “On the bus ride home, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept talking about it and kept talking about it. I was so excited to play.”
Fast-forward to Saturday and Johnson’s smile is just as wide. For the most part, at least.
Johnson and Heavilin recently concluded their stellar careers for the Blue Devils, who were the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio state runners-up for the third consecutive year. Host Tallmadge finished 13-4 this winter after losing to three-time state champion Wooster 45-26 at James O. Maddox Court.
Although he will no longer wear the blue and gold colors, Johnson will cherish his time as a Blue Devil for as long as he lives.
“It’s very bittersweet because I love playing with this team,” Johnson said. “I love playing in this atmosphere. It’s bitter because of the loss and second place, but I’ll take this crew, this team any day.”
Johnson, who is a member of the Jr. Wheelchair Cavs team, has been Tallmadge’s rock ever since he joined the team.
The gifted senior point guard has been a potent scorer throughout his career. In recent months, though, Johnson discovered something just as rewarding.
That would be sharing his excessive wealth with his best friends.
“I love being in that position,” Johnson said. “I love being the quarterback; I love being the leader. I love getting my teammates involved; I love seeing them get buckets.”
The biggest beneficiary of Johnson’s playmaking skills has been Heavilin, another productive scorer known for doing his best work in the trenches.
Heavilin likes to play outside too. The versatile senior forward earned a bronze medal in the seated shot put at the Adaptive Sports 2018 USA Junior Nationals.
Heavilin, who was born with spina bifida, scored a team-high 13 points against the Generals Saturday.
“It was very exciting, especially since it was the last year,” Heavilin said. “I just wanted to put everything out on the court, leave it all out there and do my best.”
Like his soon-to-be future teammate, Heavilin was thrilled to get a chance to show off his basketball skills when the news was announced.
Nowadays, the two-sport standout is coming to grips with a very painful reality: He won’t be shooting hoops with the Blue Devils ever again.
“I knew Isaiah for about a year before [the team was formed],” Heavilin said. “I met everyone else when the team started. We just became very close.
“I was very excited to be part of the school, part of a team and represent our school. I’m going to miss everyone. We’re a big family.”
There were a few bumps in the road for both accomplished teenagers when they first played together.
Anyone with an able body can go to the court and knock down a few jumpers. For Johnson, Heavilin and the rest of their teammates, it wasn’t so easy. Not when your movement is determined by an unpredictable and sometimes uncooperative object that is attached to your body.
“The first few years, it was a little rough,” Johnson said. “We really had to develop. If you look back then compared to now, there’s a lot of growth. I’m so proud of every single person on our team.”
Since he has been the team’s star for what seems like forever, Johnson had a bit of a rough go against Wooster. It seemed like everywhere Johnson went, a traffic jam of chairs blocked his path.
Despite all of the unwanted attention, he still scored nine points and played a role in just about every one of his teammates’ buckets.
“I love when the coach looks at me and says, ‘OK, it’s go time; let’s kick it into another gear,’” Johnson said. “I live for those opportunities.
“It may not have [gone] the way I wanted it to, but I gave it everything I had. I’m proud of that.”
Johnson also had a touching moment with his main rival after the game.
Senior point guard Evan Heller, who plans to continue his academic and basketball careers at Auburn University in Alabama, torched the Blue Devils time and time again with a game-high 27 points for the Generals.
By the way, Heller is Johnson’s teammate on the Jr. Wheelchair Cavs.
“I told him I was thankful for everything,” Johnson said. “All these losses, everything, they taught me so much. He has respect for me as a competitor and I have respect for him as a competitor. “I told him, ‘Thank you for everything you taught me because everything we’ve been through, it made me just want to go hard.”
Johnson received a significant reward for his “hard” work. He was named the APSO Athlete of the Year during Saturday’s tournament.
“I was very happy about that,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I was hoping I could get it this year.
“Basketball brought us together and made us a family. I’m so thankful for every single one of them.”
The feeling is mutual for his tank-top wearing comrade, who likely needed a few tissues before he left the court for good.
“I’ve been trying not to cry,” Heavilin said.
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_Gannett.