COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — On Sunday, Aug. 15, basketball fans in Columbus packed into Alumni Hall at Ohio Dominican University to watch a game.
No money was taken at the door.
It wasn’t even basketball season and not a single central Ohio high school or college team took the court.
The game was the finals of the Kingdom Summer League — a tournament of teams made up of former high school, college, and professional stars from Ohio, mostly Central Ohio.
“We’re about peace, we’re about love and we’re about basketball,” said Jared Sullinger, a former Northland High School standout who played for Ohio State and then spent five years in the NBA. “We put all those three things together and basically created this.”
Tihon Johnson graduated from Columbus East High School in 2001 and then Mountain State University in 2006. After that, he took his playing career overseas, but his love for the game in his Columbus community continued to call.
“You see the intensity. Guys were standing up, every play mattered. It was so fun!” said Johnson who dreamt up this league seven years ago. “It was a void that needed to be met, in terms of basketball. I was doing a spiritual assignment with one of my pastor-mentors and in that assignment we had to do something that was conducive to what we love and what we were good at.”
In 2014, Johnson called in some friends: Sullinger and former Northland teammate, Trey Burke who played at rival Michigan and currently plays for the Dallas Mavericks.
“Columbus is a very close knit city when it comes to basketball,” Burke said. “This is special to me to be able to put on for Northland and continue to put on for Columbus.”
“It’s all about giving back and this is the way we give back,” Sullinger explained. “We love playing basketball, we love making it a big [scene] and we love to support one another and that’s what we’re doing.”
Now, after the league’s 8th season, Johnson is hanging up his jersey and stepping off the court but not stepping away. Instead, he is taking over the Northland basketball program — something that makes his Kingdom League buddies and Northland alums extremely proud.
“It just shows perseverance. It shows resilience. It shows hard work and where it can get you. Respect goes a long way in this community,” Burke said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Northland has been one of those hubs of talent and traditions,” Johnson said. “I’m extremely excited, my family is excited, the community is behind me. We’re going to do some great things and try to restore that tradition.”
Part of restoring that tradition is instituting a culture of not just basketball success but pride off the court, which fans could see during the Kingdom Summer League. At the championship game, there was a backpack giveaway for youngsters heading to school while players worked to secure sponsors, like Reebok, which gave away shoes ahead of the first day of school.
“[Tihon] has a big heart, he’s always give, give, give and he never wants anything,” Sullinger said with a big smile. “When you’ve got somebody like that that’s so selfless, you know coming up from where he came up from, doing what he did, and making it out and doing something that’s so selfless, it’s huge for him. It’s huge for the city of Columbus because we need it.”
There was one last game before Johnson’s playing journey came to an end and it was a match up for the ages in Columbus with Sullinger and Burke’s teams squaring off for Central Ohio supremacy.
“That’s pretty much what the city wants to see,” Sullinger said. “You know it’s always fun battling against him. He made a big shots, I made a big shots and it was just a big shot type of game.”
The biggest shot came on a game-winning buzzer beater by current University of Massachusetts forward Dibaji Walker sealing the win for Johnson and Burke as fans flooded the court to celebrate with both teams and their central Ohio neighbors.
“This is a testament to a community: a common unity,” Johnson said smiling trying to catch his breath. “We all come together in the name of basketball, peace, love. Spread love is the Kingdom way. That’s our motto.”