Johnny O’Bryant Jr. sat near the end of a pew at Faith Chapel Church of God on a Monday to talk about his life as an artist, former homeless alcoholic and drug addict, ex-convict, father to an NBA player and now as an author.
On Sundays, he usually sits across the aisle, third pew from the rear — his favorite since he moving to Baton Rouge in 2011.
Some Sundays his son, former LSU basketball standout and now Milwaukee Bucks Johnny O’Bryant III, accompanies him to this church, fitting his NBA power forward frame into the pew beside his father.
“Everybody’s kind of awestruck to see him come,” his dad says with a laugh.
Just behind the chapel is a reception hall, where just recently a celebration was held to congratulate Johnny O’Bryant Jr. on his first book, “From Rags to Spiritual Riches.”
Lining the walls of the reception hall are portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, George Washington and Marilyn Monroe, among others. Johnny O’Bryant Jr. drew them all. He’s had a few art shows and has sold some of his nature and abstract scenes.
His son, who stands 6-feet 9-inches and is called “Little Johnny” by the family while his dad goes by “Big Johnny,” couldn’t attend the gathering because of a Bucks-Nuggets game. The two are close now, but that wasn’t always the case.
“It’s been hard. I’ve had ups and downs. Life shows up in recovery,” says the 52-year-old father. “But the one thing above all is that my journey has given me a spiritual awakening. I joined this church and rededicated my life to Jesus Christ and God.”
While the young basketball player was making a name for himself on the court, his father’s life was consumed by alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. In 1999, when Johnny O’Bryant III was 6, his dad went to prison on a forgery charge he attributes to his addiction. He stayed behind bars for 18 months, continuing to drink and use drugs in the eight years that followed his release.
To enter a rehabilitation center, O’Bryant, who was living in Shreveport, moved to Houston. In early 2011, his son asked if his dad would be willing to move to Baton Rouge.
“I was kind of shocked that he wanted me to come here and support him,” says Johnny O’Bryant Jr. “I thought he pretty much didn’t want me in his life because of the lifestyle I had lived.”
Though both admit it took a while, father and son eventually forged a bond.
Johnny O’Bryant Jr. estimates he saw his son play twice in high school, but after moving to Baton Rouge, he didn’t miss an LSU home basketball game. He came away from most hoarse and sore thanks to the “hootin’ and hollerin” and cheering as his son earned his way to a second-round selection in the NBA draft.
“Having my dad there helped a lot. He was someone I could just go to and talk,” says the pro player by phone. “It took some time (to grow close). He wasn’t in my life, so I didn’t really know him (well). He learned from his mistakes, put those in the past.”
As father and son came together, Johnny O’Bryant Jr. made an interesting request in 2012.
He would be receiving his one-year sobriety medallion at an AA meeting and had been invited to give a speech to other recovering addicts. He asked if his son would accompany him.
“I went, and I kind of sat back and observed,” Johnny O’Bryant III recalls. “They were asking me to chime in. At first, I wouldn’t.”
But he kept going, accompanying his father to multiple meetings.
“They’d ask me about my father, and I’d tell them what kind of guy he is. It was a pretty cool experience,” the young man says.
“It gave me courage, willingness and determination,” says Johnny O’Bryant Jr. “I was able to see that he didn’t have any prejudice and was willing to put himself out there and let the world know, the recovery community, that he was there to support me,”
The support continues today. Though his basketball schedule puts him in a different city nearly every day, the two text often.
Sober since Aug. 1, 2011, Johnny O’Bryant Jr. is studying to become a minister. He has graduated as a substance abuse counselor and mentors recovering addicts. He hopes to one day be a Christian counselor, combining his ministry work with substance abuse recovery.
His past, he says, is his greatest asset — a snapshot of what he once was and what he sees in the people he counsels each day.
And, perhaps most influential, a lesson from father to son.
“The person he’s become is amazing,” says his son. “How he’s changed his life around has shown me it doesn’t matter how you start, you can always finish well.”
“The sky’s the limit for that guy.”