Pacers Rookie Alize Johnson Leads for Mom and Six Younger Siblings
Alize Johnson’s first major purchase after getting drafted into the NBA by the Indiana Pacers this year was a 2018 Chevy Suburban—not for himself, but for his mother, Chanelle. He surprised her with the brand-new car this past July, and she couldn’t help but break down in tears.
“He hasn’t even bought himself a car,” Chanelle tells CloseUp360 by phone, fighting off tears as she sits in her Suburban. “I was shocked. It was really nice, but once again, it doesn’t surprise me with Alize. That’s him. I was in awe. I used to have a little mini-van to take my kids around. This is incredible.”
As for Alize, “I wanted to reward her for all the hard work she’s put into me throughout the years. It’s not enough, but it goes to show her that I respect her, and if it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have been in this position. “
After all that Chanelle and Zay (as he’s known among family and friends) have been through together—between his challenging childhood in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and his time away from home to pursue his hoop dreams—mother and son have built and continue to maintain an extremely close relationship.
That bond has made Alize stay committed to his big family, as a leader within the Johnson household, even as he's traveled the country to become the first player ever drafted out of his hometown.
“She’s my best friend,” he says. “I talk to her about everything. She’s my ‘go-to.’ I never had a father in my life until about seventh grade. My stepdad plays a huge role in my life, but my mom has been with me every step of the way.”
Alize is the oldest of seven children. He has two brothers (David, 16; and Davion, 14) and four sisters (Davesha, 20; Destiny, 19; Davida, 13; and Alana, 9). Growing up in Williamsport, Zay had to step up early on as the man of the house, serving as a role model and watching over his younger siblings.
“I’d run to the store if my brothers needed milk or take them to the park, simple stuff,” he says, “because I was just a kid.”
Alize credits his stepfather, Adam Edwards, for making a significant impact on his life. But prior to Adam joining the Johnson family’s picture, Zay took it upon himself to help out however he could, and has maintained that habit to this day.
When Alize was in fourth grade, he made $7 per week sweeping the floors at Hairquarters Barber Shop. When he tried to give the money to his single mom, she refused—but certainly appreciated the gesture.
“He was always that type of kid,” Chanelle says. “I had no issues with him growing up. He’s a special kid. It’s difficult not to be with him now because we’re so close. We still talk pretty much every night, sometimes until the sun comes up. He deserves everything.”
Alize as a kid with his mom, Chanelle. (Courtesy of Chanelle Johnson)
Chanelle gave birth to Alize when she was just 16. She was out of school and on her own, trying to make the best of it and putting her children in position to succeed.
“Obviously, having seven kids wasn’t the smartest thing to do—teen pregnancy, that lifestyle,” she says. “I was never on drugs, but they were around me. My friends were into that type of stuff. I had to grow up fast. I realized the mess I’d put myself in, but I wanted to clean it up and make things right."
As quickly as Chanelle grew up, Alize had to do the same from an even younger age. He dreamt of playing in the NBA as early as third grade, and took the road less traveled to get there. Zay grew nearly a foot in high school—from a 5’9” guard as a freshman into the nearly 6’9” power forward he is now.
At times, that growth spurt made Alize difficult to recognize, even for his mom. Chanelle says she once mistook him for a burglar when he was lying on the couch—like Tom Hanks’ character Josh from the movie Big—though Zay isn’t sure if he totally believes that.
What both can agree on, though, is that Alize's physical development boded well for his basketball profile. As a senior, he averaged 24.1 points, 15.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, while leading St. John Neumann Regional Academy to a 30-1 record.
Still, Division I offers never materialized. Neither did the grades Alize would've needed to qualify out of high school.
Instead, in the fall of 2014, he ended up at Frank Phillips College, a junior college in the tiny town of Borger, Texas.
“It was tough,” he says. “I’d never been away from home, and I took off on a plane for the first time by myself. I landed in the middle of nowhere and didn’t know anybody.
“But I loved basketball and was willing to do whatever it took. I started taking school seriously. It gave me time to get on the right track.”
Two years later, Alize made it to a D-I program when he transferred to Missouri State. In two seasons with the Bears, he averaged 14.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, garnered two first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference selections and was named the MVC Newcomer of the Year in 2017.
As much as Alize stood out at Missouri State, his biggest break came prior to his senior year, at the 2017 adidas Nations basketball showcase in Houston. From a field of collegians that included Michael Porter Jr., Robert Williams, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo—all of whom were first-round picks in 2018—Zay emerged as the Most Valuable Player.
“NBA scouts took notice,” he says. “I got my foot in the door based on that camp. I won over a lot of people.”
On draft night this June, Alize elected to stay in Williamsport, joining family and friends to watch the event at the Trade and Transit Centre. They took pictures, listened to music and reflected on Zay’s wild ride to reach this moment.
The first round came and went, but in the second round, at pick No. 50, the Pacers came calling. Alize gave a speech with his dream fulfilled. So did his biological father, David Hill.
“It was a crazy moment,” Zay says.
“It was so scary,” Chanelle adds. “It was bittersweet because here we were in this town. No one’s been drafted out of here, and we’re sitting here actually believing he’s going to get his name called. And to hear it was huge. We didn’t care if he was at No. 60. It was very nerve-wracking. It was the worst. It was supposed to be the best day. But still, I had so much anxiety. The next couple days were a blur. It was, like, ‘What’s next?’”
While Alize managed to score his first NBA basket—in his first NBA game on October 19, no less—he has spent most of his time in the G-League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Rather than sulk in the minors, the rookie has seized the opportunity to develop his game. Through his first five appearances with the Mad Ants, he averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds, putting himself in position for an eventual NBA call-up.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent and do whatever they ask of me,” he says. “I know things don’t just happen overnight. But I’m a firm believer that everything will continue to fall into place. And that belief hasn’t failed me yet.”
Along the way, Alize has been expanding his generosity beyond his mom and siblings. He recently started his own foundation, which he’s named “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” and helped to feed more than 100 families in Williamsport for Thanksgiving.
While raising her family, Chanelle went back to school to get her GED and ultimately went to college at the same time Alize did. She graduated from Pennsylvania College of Technology with a two-year degree in human services, and is currently a director of employment services at Hope Enterprises, Inc.
And, of course, she’s always chauffeuring her children around in her brand-new SUV.
Mike Mazzeo is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.