TAMPA — Deaths have been so frequent in Orlando Johnson's life that each passing of a family member has served as something of a milepost on his personal trail of tears.
But Johnson's road took a detour that ultimately has brought him to — of all places — the NCAA Tournament, where, today, he'll lead the University of California-Santa Barbara in a game against heavy favorite Florida.
The six family members he lost before even reaching his teens cannot be there for him today. But the two older brothers who lovingly dropped everything to raise him from the age of 11 will be in the stands at the St. Pete Times Forum to watch the young man they helped mold.
"They stopped their (lives) and took me on," said Johnson, a junior forward who leads the Gauchos with 21.1 points per game.
"I just don't know how they did it. They were able to adjust. I'm glad I can pay them back by being here today and (giving) them an opportunity to keep seeing me play."
This story could have had a far different ending. Johnson, who grew up in Seaside, Calif., never knew his father. His mother died when he was an infant. When he was 6, the house in which he lived with 10 relatives burned down, killing four of them. The grandmother who then took him in died five years later.
If not for the initiative taken by older brothers Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon, both in their 20s at the time, more tragedy could have followed.
"Without those guys, man, I probably see myself bouncing around from foster homes and just doing the wrong things," Johnson said. "Growing up at (the) time where I was living in Seaside, it wasn't really good out there. The people I was growing up around got into the wrong things and a lot of them are not even living today. … I don't think I'd be the same person."
Johnson's memories are sporadic. He was much too young when his mother died to remember anything about her. But he recalls his tight relationship with his young cousin who wanted badly to tag along with Johnson and another family member the day the fatal fire broke out.
"We went everywhere together," he said. "It was weird for us to be apart. … I just pray and I'm thankful I'm here today. I know they're looking down on me."
His cousin's name was Angel.
Anyone who has watched Johnson play the past two seasons at UCSB knows the sort of player he is. Johnson was the Big West player of the year in 2009-10 and this season was named tournament MVP for the second straight time. In leading the Gauchos to the Big West tournament title last week, Johnson averaged 28.3 points and shot 51.9 percent from the field.
The tragic events that shaped Johnson's life have made him nothing if not driven. On Wednesday, before taking the floor for practice, he recalled a story from high school that seems just as inspirational today as it was then.
"I had this football coach in high school," he begins. "I'll never forget this. He said, 'Why do you want to keep playing basketball? You're a D-III player at best. … You're not going to be able to get that Division I scholarship. You might as well just stick to football.'
"I just remember saying to myself, 'Man, I'm going to get this scholarship and prove these people wrong.' "
Johnson quit the football team entering his senior season. By then, he had 13 Division I basketball offers. Clearly, there's something special about the way this kid responds to challenges.
"I don't think Orlando gets fazed," coach Bob Williams said. "The bigger the game, the better he has played."
They don't get much bigger than tonight's against Florida. But with a clutch assist from his two older brothers, Johnson already has overcome much more than a few Gators.
"A lot of people around the country might not believe in us," he said. "That's fine. The guys in this locker room, as long as they believe in what we've been doing all season, as long as they keep fighting, we'll have a chance."