Last March, University of Utah forward Britton Johnsen was making a huge impact in Texas, helping to propel his team on its incredible cruise through the NCAA finals all the way to the championship game in San Antonio. There he played in an arena packed with some 41,000 screaming fans and was watched by a worldwide television audience of several hundred million. Britton’s impressive play under pressure wasn’t surprising considering the titles and descriptions he’d earned: McDonald’s all-American, Utah’s Mr. Basketball, top-20 recruit, “a star in the making,” “breathtakingly talented,” and “able to jump out of a gym.”
This March, Britton continues to make an impact in Texas. Only now he has traded his blazing red jersey for a white shirt and tie, his audiences seldom exceed a handful of people, and his only title is “Elder” as he serves in the Texas Houston Mission.
Shortly after the NCAA finals, Britton announced his decision to serve a mission. The decision came at no small sacrifice. Many people, including Utah head coach Rick Majerus, say Britton has tremendous NBA potential, but leaving the game for two years may jeopardize his pro chances. “Coach was saying everything he could to get me to stay,” recalls Britton. “I’ve been told that if I stay for all four years in a row, I’d definitely go pro.”
Still, when asked how he’d feel if serving a mission meant giving up the NBA or even his college career, Britton quickly replies, “It would be worth it.
“I could join the things-of-the-world team, maybe go to the NBA, make it big, make a lot of money. Or I can play on the things-of-the-Spirit team. Basketball will someday end. But the Spirit is always there—if you do what’s right, it will never leave you.”
Britton is quick to shrug off praise he receives for being willing to give up so much, pointing out that everyone who serves a mission does so at some sacrifice. “Just leaving your mom and dad is sacrifice enough!” He says that for his twin brother, Brandon (serving in the Canada Calgary Mission), going on a mission was every bit as significant and every bit as difficult.
Coming out of high school, Britton was heavily recruited by several top programs. He signed with Utah so he could eventually play with his older brother, Jeff, who had played one year for Utah before leaving for his mission.
Britton began the season with great expectations—sports magazines listed him as a top-20 recruit and compared him to Keith Van Horn, the Utah all-American who had been a number-two NBA draft pick in 1997. But hopes for Britton came crashing down when he sustained a knee injury early on.
“I planned on having a great year, going on a mission, then coming back for three more years,” he says. But as the season progressed, Britton’s injury kept him on the sidelines. “The season was turning into a disaster.”
For the first time in his life, Britton began to question whether he should go on a mission. Majerus told the press that if Britton were to go after being benched all year, “his pro chances are null and void and his chance for a college career is really in peril. He can’t sit three years.”
Dejected and struggling, Britton turned to a man he looks up to more than any other—his father. “He was such a boost. He would just sit me down and help me open my eyes and realize the right thing to do. But there was no pressure. I knew he would have supported me either way.”
Still wanting more than anything a chance to play before the season ended, Britton also turned to his Heavenly Father. “I prayed nonstop that my knee would improve and that I’d have a chance to prove myself.”
Answers to prayers
In what seemed like a small miracle, just three games before the end of the season Britton began to get playing time. “Coach said I’d been working so hard that whether he won with me or lost with me, he was going to put me in.”
After being benched all season, Britton was out of sync at first. But with each game, his performance improved and his playing time increased. Astonishingly, by the time the NCAA tournament started, he was playing remarkably well. He was a big factor in the underdog Utes’ upset victories over third-ranked North Carolina and defending NCAA champion Arizona.
“This is what I got from the Lord—the chance to prove what I could do,” says Britton. In the end Britton got his dream come true: an opportunity to play—and play well—in the NCAA championship game.
Britton’s older brother Jeff, who continues to serve in the California Fresno mission, helped Britton keep the whole thing in perspective. “Jeff told me that through all this attention Satan would try to get me not to go. But he bore his testimony to me and let me know that a mission is still so much better than playing basketball.”
Another answer to Britton’s prayers also came during the NCAA tournament—surprisingly, from a competitor. Mark Madsen is a Stanford starting forward who led his team to the Final Four last year. He also happens to be a returned missionary.
Like Britton, Mark knew the thrill of playing in a Final Four game, although his team lost. The day after the loss, Mark shared his testimony at a ward in San Antonio. “I heard that Mark bore his testimony, saying that it had been one of the best weeks of his life, but that it still didn’t compare to his feelings of being on a mission,” says Britton. “Hearing this made my decision easier.”
“That was the greatest dream of my life.” When Britton says this, he’s not talking about playing in the biggest game of college basketball. He’s not describing how he felt knowing millions of sports fans were watching him. Rather, he is talking about a brief, unexpected encounter he had with the First Presidency shortly after the finals.
Back in Salt Lake City, Ute players were presenting a signed basketball to the First Presidency when an assistant coach suggested Britton discuss with them his decision to serve a mission. Before Britton knew what was happening, he found himself alone with the First Presidency in President Hinckley’s office.
“I was totally stuttering,” says Britton. “I said, ‘Going on a mission has been a tough decision, and I guess I already know what the right thing to do is, but it would be nice to hear what you’d say.’ Then President Hinckley smiled at me and said, ‘Well, what do you think I’m going to say?’”
“President Monson explained that I had been a highly touted freshman, that I had been pressured to stay, and that some people were saying I could represent the Church in other ways. Then right away President Hinckley stood up, took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said very clearly, ‘You go on a mission and the Lord will bless you.’ It was an awesome feeling.”
Not long after, Britton had a final talk with his father and his coach, then announced his decision to serve. “It just felt right; I just felt good about the decision,” Britton explains.
In the end, Britton’s coach supported his decision. “It is with regret and sadness from a basketball standpoint that Britton departs, but I am pleased because he seems to be so at peace and happy about the decision,” said Majerus. “I’m proud to be a coach of so many young men who felt so good about a religious experience that they would want to sacrifice their basketball.”
This year, Elder Britton Johnsen won’t be participating in March Madness. But he says that’s okay with him. “I get the same goose-bumpy feeling just reading my scriptures as I do playing in front of 40,000 people,” he says. “Besides, the things I’ll gain on my mission and the things other people will hopefully gain because I go will make it all worth it.”