Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Courtesy Dominique Murray Photography Cameron Johnson poses with a young athlete at the CJ23 Invitational.
By Alex Lehhmbeck
Just over a month ago, Cam Johnson found himself on basketball’s biggest stage. In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Johnson soared over Milwaukee Bucks forward P.J. Tucker to slam down a ferocious poster dunk, blowing up the internet in response. But the viral sensation’s career started just outside of Pittsburgh, in the small suburb of Moon Township, and last weekend he decided to give back to the community that raised him.
Johnson teamed up with his roommate and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart classmate Derek McMonagle to create the “CJ23 Invitational,” a 3v3 charity tournament at Moon High School. The duo built off of the “DMac Invitational,” an annual 3v3 tournament in Coraopolis that McMonagle started as a school project to raise funds for the Make-A-Wish foundation.
But the two didn’t have long to plan this one, making the decision shortly after the NBA Finals concluded. Johnson and McMonagle’s first task: picking a charity. They wound up splitting all of the event’s proceeds between two local organizations with special meaning for the Phoenix Suns star.
The Ozanam After School Program, which operates out of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, offers resources for both academic and athletic success. As salutatorian at OLSH and a multiple All-ACC Academic team member, an emphasis on the classroom was an important inclusion for Johnson’s tournament.
“The two big things I really like to give back to are youth academics and youth sports,” he said. “You wanna do everything you can to empower kids to learn, to show them that school can take them a really long way and give them ample opportunity. Some of these kids will go on to do great things and sports and some will go on to do great things in plenty of other areas of life.”
The other selected charity, the Kyle B. Wilson Scholarship Fund, honors Johnson’s family friend who passed away at the age of 17 in 2008. At the event’s completion, Johnson stood next to Wilson’s dad and stepmom as he presented them a check for $7,500, as part of a $15,000 donation from Finish Line.
Crafting from the DMac Invitational template, Johnson made a few changes to up the ante of the competition. He added a $500 cash prize for the winner and increased the entry fee to $150 per team. Teams from Pittsburgh and along the east coast made their donations to have a crack at the championship, something McMonagle expected with an NBA player at the helm.
“For Cam, his appeal in Moon Township and Pittsburgh, it brings natural eyes to the event,” he said. “From there, just put a solid talent pool together, see who you really want to get in this thing and make it as competitive as possible, but also remind them that this is for charity and a good cause at the end of the day.”
McMonagle worried at-first that a monetary prize might turn the tournament into something too intense, but Johnson wanted that spirit present. He got his wish, with players challenging calls from refs and more officials having to come over for certain half court matchups.
“That’s part of the game,” Johnson said. “That competitive level, it’s what we wanted. We wanted people to come out and hopefully in the future we continue to get more and maybe we can grow.”
Planning and organizing the event took ample preparation, but Johnson decided to add one
more aspect to the big day: a skills clinic for motivated hoopers under 13 years old. Johnson and McMonagle created the sign up link on Tuesday night, which went out Wednesday morning, and by Friday more than 65 kids were on board.
The clinic kicked off Saturday’s event, with Johnson immediately assigning kids to skill stations where they worked on many different facets of their game. It gave Johnson his first taste of the teaching side of basketball, something that he now sees as part of his future many years down the line when his NBA career wraps up.
“I always loved coaching, especially coaching kids,” he said. “I will 100% coach in some capacity when I’m done playing. It could be something as simple as fifth graders, or something as big as doing it as my occupation.”
As the tournaments began, one for high schoolers and one for adults, Johnson and McMonagle adjusted on the fly to make efficient use of space while also allowing teams sufficient amounts of rest. After a thrilling three-point contest modeled after The Basketball Tournament’s head-to-head approach, team DAP2KK faced off against the Crusaders in the 18+ championship.
The Crusaders had dispatched DAP2KK earlier in the double-elimination bracket, but the latter got its revenge in the finals, winning both battles to lift the hardware. Both teams featured primarily local players, making the title game a special show for those in attendance.
With his first charity basketball tournament on his belt, Johnson has already begun looking forward to next year. He and McMonagle would like to host the 2022 version in Phoenix, where they know they will find an abundance of excited participants.
But a nostalgic Johnson said the purpose of this event “was to do something at home,” something he accomplished in the gym where his high school career began.
“The coolest part for me personally is knowing where I was,” he said. “If I could go back and find little me running around here and just tell him that we’d be in this position seven, eight, or nine years later, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”