Wetzlar, Germany (heinnews) – Where do you start? The unknown is right around the corner – a moment you never thought would come. But RSV Lahn-Dill face the unenviable task of trying to replace one of the best wheelchair basketball players of all time.
Since Canadian Joey Johnson arrived in Wetzlar for the 2003-04 season, RSV Lahn-Dill have captured seven of eight German league titles and seven of eight German Cup crowns, including six times winning both crowns. Lahn-Dill also collected four Champions Cup championships in that stretch – including three straight triples from 2004 to 2006 – while reaching seven finals.
But Johnson has decided to leave the club after what would be nine seasons.
“No doubt he is one of the best players in the world. In his prime and right now, he is definitely unstoppable. It’s going to be a lot different without him around here,” said American teammate Michael Paye, who has played alongside Johnson since his arrival before the 2006-07 season.
“It’s hard for me to even think about that right now. But for next season everyone will just have to take their game to the next level and really find out what roles we need to fill to be successful.”
“It’s going to be weird. There’s no doubt about it,” added American Steve Serio, who is spending his second season in Wetzlar.
“Joe Johnson is RSV Lahn Dill. He’s been here for nine years. He’s the definition of what it’s like to be an RSV Lahn-Dill player because he’s active in the community. All the fans love him, all the sponsors love him, and rightfully so, he’s an unbelievable player.”
Serio said Johnson has basically built the team.
“He was one of the first imports that came. And they were so successful when he came that he helped grow the club. It’s definitely going to be a huge loss that you can’t really replace no matter who you bring in,” said Serio of the 36-year-old Johnson.
The Winnipeg native has also helped the Canadian national team to plenty of hardware. Johnson and Canada won the Paralympics gold medal in 2000 and 2004 and grabbed silver in 2008. Johnson also captured the 2006 World Championship gold medal after Worlds bronze medals in 1998 and 2002.
Johnson is also a major reason why Canada are serious gold medal contenders at the 2012 Paralympics in London. But Serio doesn’t think 2012 will be Johnson’s last tournament. He fact, the U.S. international Serio believes Johnson still has plenty of basketball left in him.
“I think he said that his last Paralympics were in 2008. He came back in 2010 (Canada lost to Italy in 2010 World Championship) and now he’s doing 2012. The guy is just such a physical specimen and such a smart player that he can play in Rio de Janeiro (2016 Paralympics).
“He can play after that too. So he’s in a unique position where it’s kind of up to him if he wants to keep going. He definitely can. He’s probably the best player I have ever played with – just the combination of physical skills and intelligence. If he wants to, he can play for four, six or eight more years.”
Serio said playing with Johnson has been a great experience and helped his own game develop.
“I learned just from his intelligence – the way he thinks about the game. He sees two, three plays ahead of everybody else. That’s what makes him so special. The guy is such a competitor, that there is no other guy you want on your team going into a big game. He makes the game so easy for us,” said Serio.
While the club contemplates what next season will bring, RSV Lahn-Dill are still in the running for their fifth German league, German Cup and Champions Cup triple following 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010.
In addition to playing USC München in the league semi-final players and taking on arch-rivals RSC-Rollis Zwickau in the German Cup semis, Lahn-Dill are also already qualified for the 2012 Champions Cup on May 4-6 in Istanbul.
While host club Galatasaray Istanbul are a major contender as well with the home fans as well as three Champions Cup titles in the last four years, Lahn-Dill are going for history. A fifth Champions Cup crown would pull the club even with all-time winningest club BC Verkerk of the Netherlands, which won five titles from 1991 to 1996.
“It would be amazing to be top Champions Cup winners in the history. But the main thing is that we really want to send Joey out the way he deserves,” said Paye.
Thoughts about next season without Johnson can wait for later.