Lip on Sports: Cory Johnson is a chip off the old Rock
Once upon a time, it was a big adventure to travel to Duluth from my native Iron Range town of Hibbing. One of my top five memories in this regard happened in 1976. The Hibbing Bluejacket basketball team was to play a much heralded Duluth East Gr...
Once upon a time, it was a big adventure to travel to Duluth from my native Iron Range town of Hibbing. One of my top five memories in this regard happened in 1976. The Hibbing Bluejacket basketball team was to play a much heralded Duluth East Greyhound team led by superstar Rockne Johnson. The Region 7 title was on the line along with a trip to the Twin Cities and a spot in the State Basketball Tournament.
Spring high school sports teams were just getting together in preparation for their seasons. Jim Lip and his cousin Jerry Lip were wide-eyed freshmen Bluejacket baseball hopefuls. Infamous -- you had to know them -- Hibbing baseball coaches, brothers Matt and Dan Bergan, felt that a fun way to create early team chemistry was for the team to travel as a group to the Duluth Arena and be the loudest cheering section in the building.
The Bergan brothers made up cheers that could have only been created by Iron Rangers. The two cheers that stand out in my memory were "Crush the Rock" and "Lake Superior is polluted." Crushing rock is one of the first steps in processing taconite. Asbestos-like fibers being released into Lake Superior by Northshore Mining's predecessor, Reserve Mining, was nightly news in Duluth and Hibbing at the time. We cheered our lungs out and witnessed a great basketball game.
As Rockne recently told me, "It was Kevin McHale's coming out party." Seeing Marsh Nelson interview an ecstatic McHale immediately after that game is a moment I will never forget. This was the game that turned the Hibbing Bluejackets into "McHale's Navy." Regardless of that, the Rock established himself as legendary to a pair of young Iron Rangers.
I talked with Rockne Johnson after a recent Duluth East Greyhound basketball game. Rock's son, East senior Cory Johnson, has the same size (6'7") as his dad, and an equally brilliant game. First question for Rockne was: What did you do after high school in your basketball career? "I was at Oregon State for a year on a basketball scholarship, then I walked on at Minnesota after a year at Oregon State, and then I ended up playing at UMD for two years. I was down at the U for about a year and a half. They had Mychal Thompson, McHale, (Dave) Winey and Osborne Lockart. That was a real good team."
What is it that keeps you involved with the Duluth Amateur Youth Basketball Association (DAYBA) today? "Duluth is really in desperate need of getting a court. I'd like to get involved with it. We bid on the DECC floor about a year ago, and a local church got it. They outbid us by about $1,500 to $2000. My goal is really to pursue a dedicated facility for kids to play basketball. It is real difficult right now. Growing up I knew it was a problem, and actually, with my sons growing up, it is a problem."
I then asked Rockne if the DAYBA wanted to start with a floor and then look for a building. "Right, we'll go any way we can. We're in desperate need of a basketball court. Just for open gym and just for youth. When the season starts, there definitely aren't enough courts. All the gyms in town are multipurpose gyms so they are used for many things. Hockey has their dedicated hockey facilities and basketball is a sport that needs one also."
Rockne Johnson is currently vice chairman for the DAYBA. He also works as an American Family Insurance agent with an office on Kenwood Avenue in Duluth.
Cory Johnson has made a commitment to play Division I college basketball for the Iowa State Cyclones next year.
The late and great Northland sports broadcaster Marsh Nelson and Kevin McHale were both inducted into the DECC Hall of Fame on Sept. 6, 2003.
The 2005-2006 Duluth East boys' basketball team is not just a one man show. They have the talent and depth to make a serious run at the Minnesota Class AAA state championship.
Jim Lipovetz writes a regular sports column for the Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .