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Playing it by ear.

Byline: BOB CLARK The Register-Guard

ROBERT JOHNSON kept rubbing his puffy upper lip.

Hey, it happens. Elbows fly, heads butt. Except this was before Oregon's practice.

`What's wrong with your lip?' a teammate asked.

`Uh, nothing,' Johnson replied.

As if that will temper the inquisitiveness of a teammate.

Johnson finally confided in Luke Ridnour, which had about the same impact as posting information on the readerboard outside McArthur Court. Johnson had purchased a trumpet earlier in the day. It had been more than three years since his last blast on a horn, but who could resist a toot or two? It quickly became too many.

`It's been a while,' Johnson said. `My lip got big from doing it. ... If you haven't done it for a long time, it tears your mouth apart.'

Suffice it to say, sympathy didn't flow from his teammates.

`Rid was all over me,' Johnson said.

Not necessarily unfairly, Johnson acknowledged. A trumpet? `It's not something you go out and buy like a new pair of shoes,' he said.

So what the ...

`I played it for four years in high school, for something to do,' Johnson said. `I like to try new things, and I needed another class, so I decided, `All right, I'll try band.' Basketball takes a lot of time, but I wanted to try something new.'

And in a room full of instruments at Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif., Johnson picked the trumpet.

`The trumpet just called to me,' Johnson said. `I was thinking about the drums, but they might drive me crazy.'

Uh, huh. Along with roommates, teammates, friends and family.

On that basis, the trumpet was a good choice, and it's probably not too surprising that someone named Robert Johnson is musically inclined, right? Oregon's senior forward rolled his eyes.

`Ever since I was in high school, I've been hearing that: `You know about Robert Johnson?' ' this Robert Johnson said of the blues musician. `Yeah, I know about him.

` `You listen to him?' No, I don't.'

Teammates have heard this Robert Johnson play. There was the time he sat down at a piano in a hotel lobby where the Ducks were staying on a road trip. The man can play, can't he?

`I learned some songs my friends knew how to play,' Johnson said. `I'm terrible. I know a song and a half, that's all I know.'

Wait, teammates say he can play.

`Yeah, see, I fooled them, too,' Johnson said.

His trumpet performances will be limited to select audiences, such as his teacher in a class he's signed up for this term, and maybe roommates home at the right time. Nothing in public?

`No, no,' Johnson said. `It's just for myself. It's just another thing I had to pick up, something to keep my mind occupied. I had been thinking about (playing) again but I just never had the time. I had room for an elective class (during winter term) so I took this one.'

Johnson obviously looks for challenges beyond his normal load of academics - 17 hours this term, in quest of a sociology degree by the end of spring or summer term - and basketball. What else?

`I was into puzzles,' he said. The ones with a thousand pieces, Johnson said. `I'd get almost done and run out of room and have to pick it up.'

If those pictures were sometimes not completed for him to see, there will be one Johnson is waiting to view, though with some trepidation, on this week's trip to the Bay Area. He's featured with Luke Jackson on a billboard that can be seen while driving into San Francisco from the west on Interstate 80, one of a series of promotions done by the UO for its football and basketball players.

It wasn't up when Johnson was back home for a short Christmas break, but he does know the feeling of seeing himself larger than life as his image stands alongside teammate Brian Helquist on the southwest corner of McArthur Court.

`It's weird being up there like that,' Johnson said. `If it was my choice, everybody would be up there, but I recognize it's a compliment to Brian and me.'

It could be argued that the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Johnson has certainly earned the billing, in ways not always obvious from the raw statistics. Not that his are lacking: He's averaging 9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, and his .710 shooting percentage leads the Pac-10.

But how are the other things he does measured? He usually guards the opponent's top offensive threat in the front line, and he's provided the Ducks more than a few second chances with offensive rebounds.

The Ducks simply wouldn't have made it to a regional final game last spring nor be ranked 12th in the nation now without Johnson. Who saw all that when he was toiling in the relative obscurity of his high school, and then Santa Rosa Junior College?

`When he came to Oregon, there were people wanting to know if he could play at this level,' UO coach Ernie Kent said. `We thought he would be very successful in our system.

`We saw a guy who was a great defender, who rebounded like a madman, who was a team player who could pass. He doesn't have the three-point shooting range that we like, but otherwise he was a perfect fit and we looked at the positive sides.'

More show up all the time. If last year, as Johnson once put it, `I got hit in the head about three or four times by Ridnour passes before I started looking all the time,' he's now learned to be ready. The other night, Ridnour was flying down the left wing when he went behind his back with the ball to Johnson, who put the ball in the basket.

`I thought it was going to somebody else,' Johnson said. `There was somebody there right next to me, and all of a sudden (the ball) dropped into my hands. You've just got to get used to it with Rid. If you're not ready for a pass, it's your fault because you know what he does.'

He dishes it out, just like he does when he finds out a teammate has bought a trumpet, and has a sore lip because of it.

CAPTION(S):

Oregon senior forward Robert Johnson, regularly given difficult defensive assignments, is shooting 71 percent from the field to lead the Pac-10 Conference.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Ducks' musical big man fits a busy and varied life around basketball; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jan 8, 2003
Words:1076
Previous Article:Kraayeveld may miss rest of season.
Next Article:Los Angeles prep defensive back commits to Oregon.


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