Even before a heart attack took his life, John Strickland was known as one of the best.
by Matt Caputo
In the months leading up to his untimely death at the age of 38, John Strickland was on top of the world.
Over the summer, he coached the Gold’s Gym team to the NIKE’s Pro City championship in New York, becoming the first to win the title as a player and a coach.
In September, Strickland was in attendance as hip-hop heads from across the world descended on Yankee Stadium to witness two of the industry’s biggest stars (Jay-Z and Eminem) christen the new baseball stadium’s concert set-up. According to one source, Jay-Z shouted for Strick to stand and take a bow during the performance.
Less than one month after the concert, Strickland died from an apparent heart attack at his mother’s home on St. Nicholas Avenue in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. His death shook the hoops world from Halifax to Hawaii and even LeBron James paid his respects via Twitter.
Hova had already immortalized his childhood friend in song–“My homie Strick told me, ‘dude finish your breakfast’”–on his “Public Service Announcement” from 2003’s The Black Album. However, even before that, people knew who John Strickland was.
“I’ve known who Strick is since I got here in 1989,” said former NBA player Felipe Lopez, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. “He was already a legend back then.”
Strickland was crafted like a character from the pages of The New Yorker; he wore big fur coats and was a charismatic journeyman who often conducted full-conversations with the crowd. A true pro basketball vagabond, his legend was written in part on the city playgrounds, in farm team towns across America and in exotic hoop-havens.
He will be remembered not because his stats are archived by the NBA or because his photos graced magazine covers, but because of the show he put on when he played.
Strickland was as much an entertainer as he was a player. He’d often run up the court talking to both of his hands saying, “I see dead people,” after delivering a crisp pass or going to work on sluggish opponents.
“I played against him about three or four times in the CBA in 2008 and really saw why people consider him such an entertaining player. He would play into the crowd and talk shit,” said Grayson “The Professor” Boucher, who first met Strickland during an AND1 Tour stop at Madison Square Garden in 2003. “He would be talking to the crowd while he was murking people on the court. People would heckle him because he got slow and had like this crazy free throw but he would still always get it done. He was pretty much unstoppable on the low block. You don’t get any more streetball legend than him. I thought he should have been on the Tour, but he was playing regular ball year-round.”
Raised in Brooklyn and uptown Manhattan, Strickland played at Park West High School and then at Jacksonville Community College. His final two years of eligibility were spent at Hawaii Pacific University, where he averaged a double-double both seasons. Strickland helped lead Hawaii Pacific to the 1993 NAIA championship and was named an NAIA All-American twice. He holds the Sea Warrior’s single-season records in points, field goals and rebounds.
“John was one of the best players I’ve ever coached,” former HPU coach Tony Sellitto, who coached Strickland for three seasons, told the Hawaii Star-Advertiser. “Not only that, he was a great personality and an active part of student life at HPU.”
At home in New York, Strickland was considered one of the wisest players in the city circuit and one of the best passing big-men around. He played for a number of teams around the city over the years and won various titles with teams like Primetime and Fat Joe’s Terror Squad. He had a deadly lefty lay-up that no one could ever quite stop and carried it with him late into his career.
“I think he definitely was a NBA player. If he had an alarm clock that worked, he would have been in the NBA,” said Jerry McCullough, who knew Strickland from high school and later as an aspiring NBA player in various places. “He was a smaller version of Anthony Mason. He was a tough match-up.”
Strickland had his shot on Broadway with the Knicks in 1996, but he never made the team. He later went to camp with the Miami Heat. He never made the League, but found a unique place as a genuine part of folklore, with Jay-Z playing the role of Damon Runyan.
Most remember “The Franchise” as a quiet, private man off the court who’d morph into Godzilla during games–wherever he played. In more than a dozen seasons playing overseas and in the American minor leagues, Strickland once gave himself a second nickname: “MLK,” or “Minor League Killer.”
“His ability to find the open guy was incredible, he would always say he ‘saw dead people’ because his passing skills were so sharp for his size,” Lopez remembers. “He had a funny lefty lay-up that was really hard to stop.”
In 2000, he was named to the USBL’s 20th Anniversary team as the league’s all-time leader in playoff points. During his career in the now-defunct pro spring league, Strickland averaged 22 points and 7.7 rebounds in 95 games.
He played in just about every minor league that has existed in North America over the last 15 years (CBA, USBL, IBL, PBL, UBA, ABA, NBDL) and also for travel teams like the Harlem Globetrotters and even suited up for the short-lived SLAM All-Stars. He made several trips to play in the Dominican Republic and was the highest paid player in Korea when he played there.
“I was able to spend a lot of time with him in the Dominican Republic. He’s considered a great player down there. People love him because of his charisma,” said Lopez, who also played with Strickland in the CBA with the Albany Patroons. “He was very influential to his teammates because of the way he played basketball and the way he carried himself. He brought together a lot of people because of the way he was.”
In his final two seasons, Strickland played his last 36 games as a pro in the Premier Basketball League with the Halifax Rainmen. “The Franchise” had found a new home and eventually an opportunity to transition into a new career in basketball. He’d endeared himself to the fans in Nova Scotia and the crowd chanted “MVP” when he’d check into a game.
“Even with bad games, he was still ‘Strick’ talking trash and going at people. He brought that same energy every night, that was his reputation,” Lopez added. “Shape-wise, as you get older you lose things. When we met up in Albany, he wasn’t dunking on dudes as much, but he was a lot wiser according to how he used his body and his movement.”
At the time of his death, Strickland was working as Halifax’s Director of Player Development, helping the team recruit talent to bring to Canada. He was responsible for nearly 10 players from New York City playing in Halifax last season. Halifax Rainmen President and CEO Andre Levingston is currently arranging a trust account for Strickland’s seven-year-old son.
“Strick used to tell me that two hours in the gym would ‘help you live longer,’” said Lonell Shuler-Jones, a Brooklyn native, who signed with Halifax last year with Strickland’s help, his first pro job. “He was a guru, a legend. He helped a lot of the New York guys get jobs and was a mentor to a lot of us.”
Friends became worried when “Strick” didn’t answer the phone for some post-Monday Night Football heckling. Strickland was known to call his friends at all hours of the night to return a call or if he felt it was too long since he last spoke to them. When he wasn’t heard from by roughly 1 a.m. on Tuesday, everyone knew something was wrong.
He was found dead on Wednesday morning.
Although McCullough said Strickland had a recorded heart murmur, friends and former teammates said he kept in shape despite his slowing steps. Several sources consulted for this story said he never drank or smoked.
“He really could be claimed as everybody’s best friend,” said McCullough, echoing nearly everyone interviewed for this story. “He once said something to me like, ‘No matter what’s going on, I’m going to enjoy life.’ And he really did.”