As a kid growing up in Harlem, Lynbert “Cheese” Johnson learned that you have to work hard to put poverty and disadvantage behind you.
As a WSU Shocker Hall-of-Famer, retired NBA player, and manager of Whole Foods in Atlanta for 18 years, Johnson is now engaged in giving back to Wichita with UJump Inc., his nonprofit mentoring organization for “boys at the crossroads.”
The pilot program in the 2021-22 school year was in four schools.This year, it has expanded to seven schools with almost twice as many students.
Johnson said he plans to continue growing the program but is limited somewhat by the fact that a key component is his personal involvement.
“As a freshman in high school, I went to a basketball clinic on a college campus. And that experience made an impression,” he said. “I looked around me and I thought ‘you know college is a pretty good place.’ I knew I wanted to be there. But I also knew that my parents did not have the money to send me to college. It was going to be up to me.”
So he worked hard at what he did best – playing basketball. He became a City of New York playground legend and one of the nation’s top 15 high school players by his senior year. And he caught the eye of college scouts across the country, including Wichita State.
“I was thinking most likely Cincinnati or Marquette, then I came to Wichita and they really put out the red carpet,” he said. “There were players from New York and New Jersey and Chicago. I thought I could fit in here.”
A Rough First Year, a Lifetime Nickname
The culture shock from New York City to Wichita, Kansas, hit hard.
“It took me a whole year to adapt,” he said. “I kept finding excuses that I had to go back home. Then, one day I realized that my teammates were taking jobs and doing things. And I began to realize how lucky I was to be getting a free college education. My attitude changed.”
It was also that year that he got his lifelong nickname “Cheese” from teammates who noticed his wide grin on the court and thought of the photo-posing cue phrase “Say Cheese.”
He may have been struggling to adapt but it didn’t show.
He was “Newcomer of the Year” in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1976 and was first-team all conference in 1977 and 1979 and second-team in 1978. He led scoring for three of his four years and rebounding twice.
He was drafted to the NBA in the third round by the Golden State Warriors in 1979 and played one season for them and two seasons in the Continental Basketball Association.
He said a relatively short pro career made him grateful that he took academics seriously and graduated with a college degree in general studies and life experiences that left him qualified for a life beyond the pros.
“I know that a lot of the boys I work with look up to me as a sports star and they see sports as a ticket,” he said. “I want them to learn that even if you succeed at sports, even if you become a star, it is still a limited career field. What if you get hurt in your first season? You need to be prepared for life beyond sports.”
Preparing for Life One Rung at a Time
He said he also wants to help kids realize that not every kid who dreams of stardom will succeed, but if they learn how to advance one rung at a time, they can climb the ladder of success.
UJump is the outgrowth of a basketball clinic program that Johnson launched five years ago. A year later, in 2018, he decided to relocate from Atlanta to make Wichita home and concentrate on a lifelong dream of working with at-risk boys.
He says that doesn’t always mean children in poverty. One of the schools where he mentors children is Wichita Collegiate. Students for the program are identified by school administrators and teachers and must reach and hold a GPA of at least 2.5. He will accept students at 1.8, but they must make progress.
He said that every student in the program last year saw an increase in their grades.
The program is now in a total of seven schools, Holy Savior, Brooks, College Hill and Collegiate in Wichita during the day and in three Andover schools with after-school programs.
Johnson provides one-on-one personal mentoring with students, working in one or two schools a day Monday through Thursday. He takes the students on a field trip once a month to introduce them to different kinds of jobs and potential careers.
“I tell them the important thing isn’t where you start,” he said. “The important thing is to keep moving forward and upward. You need to meet people and make contacts. It often turns out it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Relationships matter and making a good impression is important.”
He arranges to take the students “behind the scenes” so they can experience firsthand how a job is done. In October, program participants were hosted by a local McDonald’s franchisee and learned what it takes to get them their burgers and fries. They have also visited WSU Tech and an aviation facility in Newton.
“I’m a big believer in experiences,” he said. “You can have someone come in and speak to the class, but by the time they walk out, half the class has forgotten what they said. When kids experience something, it sticks in their mind.”
Making Connections, Creating Relationships
Johnson said his own life has taught him the importance of connections, and the ability to operate his mentoring program is made possible by contributions from the influential people with whom he has relationships, many of them forged during his years as a Shocker superstar.
For field trips, Johnson said the kids take a chartered bus – not a school bus because most kids have ridden a school bus, but the experience of going in a chartered bus is something they haven’t had.
Boys in the program have to pledge to work for 45 minutes to an hour each day on their core education classes and to keep a notebook of what they worked on and what they learned. On the weekend, they keep a notebook on what chores they did around the house to help their family keep up with the work of maintaining a home, yard, and more.
“These are basic survival skills,” he said. “These are skills that will help them when the time for independent living comes.”
When they return to school after a field trip, each student stands in front of the class and does a recitation about what classwork they did, what chores they did and what they learned on the field trip.
“That gets them used to standing up and talking in front of a roomful of people,” he said. “They start out shy and quiet, but they learn to stand tall, speak up. And pretty soon, you can’t get them to shut up. But that ability to stand up, to make eye contact and speak clearly, that’s a valuable skill in life.”
College Not for Everyone
He said he wants to help those boys aspire to college, but realizes that a better option for many is to take advantage of technical education opportunities and lock into careers that appeal to them right out of high school.
“Part of my program is to expose those boys to jobs that they may really love,” he said. “I want them to know that a lot of options are out there, many of which they may not have even known about.”
For kids who do want to go to college, having that skill is the difference between a $12 an hour job and a $20 to $25 an hour job. And that, he said, can be the difference between success and failure at working their way through college.
At the end of the day, what Cheese Johnson said he wants is to know that he helped a kid like him get where he is today. And if he helps a thousand kids get there, well that’s icing on the cake.