Conversation with an Illini: Martinez Johnson

By Kevin McCarthy

Martinez Johnson is a member of the wheelchair basketball team here at the University of Illinois. He sat down to talk with me, and by the end, completely inspired me. I hope reading his words can do the same for you.

Kevin McCarthy: When did you start playing basketball?

Martinez Johnson: My freshman year of high school. I tried it, fell in love, and played all throughout high school. My goal became to come and play at the University of Illinois.

KM: What have you learned during your time playing basketball?

MJ: When I was on my wheelchair basketball team in high school, some of my teammates were unable to play at the level that I could. They couldn’t even pass or catch a ball. I gained so much appreciation for the skills and body that I have. There are people that are way worse off than me. People ask me if I wish I could walk, and I say “no.” But there are people who wish they were as well off as I am physically.

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KM: What does it mean to you to be an athlete here at the University of Illinois?

MJ: It really upsets me when people don’t understand it. Yes, I’m a wheelchair athlete — but I’m an athlete. Just as a player on the football team or the basketball team is an athlete — I am too.

KM: You’re an inspiration to so many students here — how does that hit you?

MJ: Just the fact that I’m on this historic team, it hits me a lot. I look back and I’m like, “Wow.” I’m at the University of Illinois — one of the best schools in the nation, and I get to be an athlete at the same time. I’m just so blessed to be here. When people tell me that they look up to me, I laugh it off because I’m not doing anything that’s special. But, I also tell them that I look up to them too. If you go to this school, you motivate me. I want to win a championship for this University — and you’re a part of that — so I want to win this for you too.

KM: How did it feel to lose the national championship game last year?

MJ: It hurt a lot. We lost a few guys from last year’s team, so we’re kind of in a rebuilding stage — or should I say reloading stage — but guys are ready to step up. We’re ready to get back there again.

KM: Describe the feeling you get when you’re out there playing basketball.

MJ: Every time I go out there, I always feel so energized. It’s a feeling of amazement. To be a part of a family and a program like this, it just excites me.

KM: The University of Illinois puts an enormous focus on the inclusion and equality of disabled students — what’s it like to be a part of this school?

MJ: It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. Once I got here I learned that a lot of the disability programs that are offered at schools across the country started here. Even though a lot of disabled students don’t get to come here, they’re still reaping the benefits of the programs this university designed. That’s just so overwhelming — it brings a tear to my eye — to think that this school took that leap of faith to make so many changes and lay down the cornerstones for disability services across the country.

KM: Tell me about Martinez Johnson in 5 words.

MJ: Smiling — does that count?

KM: Yes, that’s one.

MJ: And at times, I’m funny. I’m energetic, calm and serious.

KM: Your initials are MJ — any coincidence there?

MJ: No, no, no. I am nowhere near the wheelchair Michael Jordan. But I’m a big MJ fan.

KM: How do you want your teammates to remember you?

MJ: As a hard-worker and a guy who would lay his life down for his team.

KM: Would you trade anything you’ve experienced in life?

MJ: No. I wouldn’t change anything, but I would like to go back in time to live things twice.

Kevin is a sophomore in Media.
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