SIOUX CITY | As the snow falls fast and furious on a chilly Saturday night in Sioux City, Jim Johnson warms with conversation and basketball action as his beloved Briar Cliff Chargers race up and down the court at the Newman Flanagan Center, battling the Panthers of York College.
This is the eighth and final contest of the Holiday Classic, a 2-day extravaganza featuring eight squads.
Johnson meets the Chargers after their 110-87 victory and offers congratulations with his signature: A batch of chocolate chip cookies, created from scratch.
Johnson has been baking goodies like this for the BCU men's basketball team since 1999. "I figure I'm somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 cookies," he says.
After each home game, and prior to bus trips for a number of road contests, Johnson leaves for the team two dozen cookies or brownies. (He bakes cookies; his wife, Lynn Johnson, specializes in brownies.)
The tradition began when their son, Trent Johnson, an East High Black Raider who stands 6-feet, 10-inches, matriculated to Briar Cliff in the fall of 1999.
"When Trent played at Briar Cliff, several of his teammates didn't have a parent within 100 miles of Sioux City, so they didn't have a parent at many of the games," Johnson says. "I'd bake cookies and bring them to the game, maybe to give them a little 'touch of home.'"
He made them for all the home games and road games back then. That's 24 cookies for 30-some games. He cut back to all home games, plus select road games, a few years ago.
Charger commitment, thy name is Jim Johnson.
"Oh," he says with a laugh, setting up a line about his fanatic ways: "I've been known to drive to Des Moines after a meeting and make it there just in time to see the last five minutes of a game."
Johnson rarely, if ever, missed a game while his son was playing. His drive for the Chargers can be traced to a scene he witnessed while attending a game years ago. Seems a man went down during a game and couldn't get up. Jim Johnson saw it and made a pact with himself: "I said I wouldn't miss another game because I didn't know which game might be my last."
That was nearly two decades and a few hundred games ago.
"In a way, Jim is like a father or an uncle to our players," says Jake Shipley, a Briar Cliff assistant coach who earned All-American laurels as a junior five seasons ago. "You expect to see parents at home games, and get a word of encouragement from them, no matter how the game went. That's what Jim does: Win or lose, you get a cookie or a brownie and some words of encouragement."
Shipley then offers a testimonial: "Whether they're brownies, chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies or something else, they're great."
He laughs and recalls how Johnson sometimes teases recruits when they visit campus. "He'll come up to us (coaches) when we're talking to a recruit and asks, 'Have you signed yet?'" Shipley says.
If the recruit hasn't signed, he receives one cookie. If the student-athlete has signed, he gets two. (The chocolate chip cookie recipe, Johnson says, comes from Barbara Sloniker, executive vice president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. Sloniker tells me it's a Nestle Toll House recipe with a couple of tweaks, including the secret ingredient: Vanilla pudding.)
"Jim is a great fan and an awesome guy to talk to right after games," says Erich Erdman, a dynamic Charger guard and leading scorer this season. "His cookies and treats are delicious, but his bits of advice and support after games are what is really important to us guys."
Jim Johnson's cookies began their tasty trail with Mike Beard, then the head coach at BC in 1999. Those treats continued as Todd Barry, now retired, and Nic Nelson, BCU's current athletic director, both left indelible marks on the program, a unit now entrusted to rookie head coach Mark Svagera, who has the team shooting, defending and, well, chewing its way to a 16-2 record and a No. 5 national ranking.
"Trent worked at Briar Cliff in the Admissions Department for a couple of years after he graduated," Jim says. "He was also an assistant junior varsity coach for Todd Barry and it's a relationship that continues today."
Barry takes his seat to Trent Johnson's right on Saturday evening, mere feet from Jim Johnson and the former "First Couple" of Briar Cliff, Jim and Bev Wharton. Conversation ranges from Cone Park fun to Sioux City Journal stories to bowl victories secured by Iowa and Iowa State.
Jim Johnson's cookies occupy a spot near his mid-court seat. Not long after the final horn sounds, he makes his way toward the team and shares his gifts as the Chargers chow down, basking in the warmth of another win.
Johnson himself didn't enjoy a stellar career on the hardwood. He laughs about it. "I'm 6-foot, 5-inches, but I couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," he says. "I figured debate was more my thing."
For decades, Johnson has worked to put his stamp on a successful career in real estate development, for Urban, Inc. His basketball prowess has since been confined to off-court treats, not on-court feats. The debate team, he says, amounted to winning recipe for him.
"I have two artificial knees and an artificial hip," he says, declaring how his playing days ended long, long ago. "But, I'm still talking."
And, still baking.