He’s still lean and angular like the point guard he was, and Carl Johnson’s sideline attire leans toward black sweater vests, white shirts and black ties that often have a bumblebee pattern. He has animatedly patrolled the sidelines as coach of his hometown Bridgehampton High School boys basketball team for the past 27 seasons, but the buzz is about to subside. The King Bee is retiring.
Johnson played for the Killer Bees in the era before the three-point shot and coached them on the same court, one so tiny you cannot shoot a three from the corners because you’d be out of bounds. Naturally, the old-school gym has a stage at one end and is known as the Bee Hive.
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Johnson, 55, will step off the stage and out of the spotlight after Bridgehampton concludes the 2016-17 season. The Killer Bees (14-7), who have won nine state titles, will play S.S. Seward on Monday at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh in a state Class D regional semifinal, with the ultimate goal of matching Mount Vernon’s record of 10 state titles.
“Hopefully, we can go out on a good note,” Johnson said.
He has won four state titles as a head coach — most recently in 2015, when several busloads of fans followed the team to Glens Falls — and played on the teams that won the first three in school history from 1978-80 in Rochester, where Johnson recalled, “We had four fans follow us.”
However his swan song turns out, Johnson, who has a 330-218 career record, has hit all the right notes in the small, close-knit community since moving there from North Carolina at age 9. “I moved here in 1970 and I was a North Carolina fan — Dean Smith and the four corners,” Johnson said. “But the kids I met were all Knicks fans. That influenced me because that particular Knicks team was good and played well together. I tried to base my Bridgehampton teams on that philosophy. We never had size, so it was all about moving the ball and playing team defense. Everything was team, team, team.”
That mantra helped Johnson win, win, win. He was the sixth man on Bridgehampton’s first state championship team in 1978 and the starting guard on the 1979 and 1980 state Class D champs, earning Newsday All-Long Island honors in 1980.
“The first one was magical because I remembered crying as a kid watching Bridgehampton lose in the county tournament. It was heart-wrenching,” Johnson said. “I wanted to do everything I could to bring a championship home to Bridgehampton. I was in the right place at the right time and the states became a big part of our tradition.”
It’s a community’s basketball tradition he has lovingly cultivated and hopes to continue in retirement at the grass-roots level. “The time is right for me,” said Johnson, who will remain a teacher in the school’s special education department. “There’s a need to coach the kids coming up. That’s where my passion is right now. Are they getting it right? Are they being taught the fundamentals? I don’t think so. So I’ll work with the youngsters, starting around 6. That’s a good age. They haven’t been influenced so much by the ESPN highlights.”
Johnson already has had an impact on the youth of Bridgehampton. One of his former players, Nick Thomas, has been the boys basketball coach at Center Moriches since 2012 and recently defeated his mentor in the Suffolk B-CD game.
“My relationship with Coach began when I was a freshman and it extended off the court,” Thomas said. “He’s like family. He molded me into a point guard, but more importantly, he molded me into a leader. He’s been my mentor since I first stepped onto the floor.”
Thomas was the starting point guard on Johnson’s first state championship team as a coach, when the Killer Bees defeated West Canada Valley in 1996. That was the first of three straight state titles, as Johnson the coach duplicated the feats of Johnson the player.
“I just wanted to win one as a coach so my players would know how it feels,” Johnson said. “That one was my favorite because Nick Thomas and that bunch had lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer in the regionals the year before. They were determined to come back and win one. I didn’t even have to motivate them. I like to think about how special it is that Nick was my point guard, my captain, my leader. And now all those leadership qualities he had as a player are showing as a coach at Center Moriches.”
Thomas, with affection, called Johnson “the caretaker of our legacy that runs deep into the roots of our community. He’s coached fathers and sons. He’s coached against his own players. Coach has been the common denominator throughout all of that.
“I look forward to one day becoming only the second person in New York state history to win a state championship as a player and a coach,” Thomas said, adding with a sly smile, “and both of us, rightfully so, would be Killer Bees.”