Johnny Mathis just smiles as he sits in his customary seat on the Kennedy bench. His Knights had just dropped a 47-44 decision to Truman in their season opener, but Mathis still wears a grin, just happy to be around the game he loves.
Mathis currently gets around in a walking boot that covers his left foot, a walker nearby to help him navigate longer treks to the locker room at halftime and postgame, and to his car after the game as a long battle with diabetes continues.
But Mathis, a Kennedy institution now in his 32nd season at the helm of the Knights boys basketball team, continues to look at things in a glass-half-full kind of way despite his ongoing medical issues.
Basketball is what keeps this icon of the Public School Athletic League going.
“I had an amputation” on part of my left foot, Mathis said. “It was supposed to be routine, but it turned out to be major, and it’s just taking a long time to heal. What happened was I had surgery, and after the surgery they put it in a little cast, and all of a sudden it opened back up.”
If that wasn’t enough, doctors then found out the blood circulation was bad in his foot, preventing it from healing. Doctors went back in and used stents to help blood circulation.
“But otherwise it’s all right,” Mathis added, just rolling with the medical punches. “I’m getting around. It’s just a matter of this healing so I can get back into my shoe.”
The conversation then turns to basketball, a topic Mathis can talk about all day. First he touches on the loss to Truman, about two starters who could not suit up for the game, and the one new player he borrowed from the football team.
“We had most of the guys coming back from last year, but what happened is we lost two guys and that killed us,” Mathis said. “We lost Eddy (Pena) and Jeremiah (Gomez) because of grades, and that really threw us off.”
Pena and Gomez were two key contributors from last season’s Kennedy team that captured the Bronx borough championship and advanced to the second round of the PSAL’s citywide playoffs.
“But we’ll get them back” in the next grading period, Mathis said.
Then talk turned to newcomer Emmanuel Nkwocha, the bruising running back from the Knights’ football team, now playing his first season of hoops.
“He’s a very good basketball player,” Mathis said. “But this was the first time he’s playing. He doesn’t know what we’re doing yet, so we just let him play. But with Emmanuel, we’ll get better. I have no doubt about that.”
Nkwocha, who scored 10 points and pulled down five rebounds in his basketball coming-out party versus Truman, said his gridiron success always had competition in his heart.
“Basketball has always been my first sport,” Nkwocha said. “Ever since I was a little kid, basketball was always my favorite. But I wanted to play both sports this year.”
Mathis was right about Nkwocha getting better as he became more comfortable with Kennedy’s offensive system as he later posted a double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds in a 54-53 victory over Monroe in his second game, a win that help square Kennedy’s record at 1-1.
It’s just two games into the season, but Mathis sees a lot of promise with these Knights.
“I think we’ll be better by January because by that time we’ll get Eddy and Jeremiah back,” Mathis said. “And we’ll get Emmanuel to learn more about what we’re doing.”
Mathis’ Knights were scheduled to face Eagle Academy on Dec. 3 before hosting Gompers on Dec. 6. Two more opportunities to take his mind off his medical problems, at least for a while.
“I still love doing it and it keeps me going,” Mathis said. “I think it keeps me living. It got me out of a hospital bed so, yes, I still like it. It keeps me busy. Plus if I go home, I don’t do anything anyway. So as long as I enjoy doing it I’ll keep doing it.”
Johnny Mathis. Basketball lifer.