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Ray Johnston lives his musical dream after surviving nightmare illness

Basketball career cut short by leukemia, he finds passion in music

Michael Corcoran
Musican Jason Mraz plays with Texas musician Ray Johnston, who is working as a singer/songwriter after several bouts with leukemia cut short his athletic career.

Dream. Nightmare. Dream.

That's how it's gone for Ray Johnston, who made the Dallas Mavericks as walk-on, third string point guard in 2004, then was diagnosed with leukemia before he played in his first regular season game. The potentially deadly disease has come back four times, but now two and a half years free of leukemia, Johnston is pursuing the dream of being a country music star.

"When I made my first record (2009's ‘Sweet Tooth'), I was told I had four months to live, so we banged it out," said the Alabama native, who now lives in Dallas. "With this one (‘Against the Grain,' out Tuesday), we took our time and it shows."

Produced by Ken Tondre (Kevin Fowler, Rankin Twins) at his Compound Recording Studio, "Grain" also shows a slight musical departure for Johnston, whose earlier efforts drew comparisons to Dave Matthews Band and southern rock. With such standout tracks as "Bye Bye City Lights," and leadoff single "Me, You and Emmylou," Johnston's sound is more country, more melodic. But such Austin A-teamers as drummer Brannen Temple, guitarist David Grissom and bassist Glenn Fukunaga, augmenting Johnston's Dallas players Bobby Sparks on B-3 organ and Keith Anderson on sax, keep the beat rockin' when necessary.

"Of all the things we do as a band, I'm most insecure about my songwriting," Johnston said, "and I'm most secure about our live show. But those two facets are coming closer together. I've discovered that I like collaborating. It brings things out of me I didn't know I had."

Johnston and Thom Shepherd of Kyle co-wrote the rocker "Gameday," which is being considered by the popular ESPN college football show for use as a theme song.

Although his illness, which led to seven toes being amputated, ended Johnston's life as a competitive athlete, sports and music continue to intertwine. He met one of his favorite co-writers, Thom Shepherd, at the Cotulla ranch of major league pitcher Josh Beckett in 2009 and was with Mark Cuban when the Mav's owner celebrated his team's 2011 NBA championship win against the Miami Heat by ordering an $80,000 bottle of champagne.

"Those guys are all my friends, they always will be," he said. But his hero these days is Mark Miller, who anonymously donated the bone marrow that Johnston says saved his life in 2008. The rule is that the donor, who signed up at a national registry, and recipient can't meet for at least a year. When the singer and his mother met Miller, who'd lost a family member to leukemia, Johnston's mother ran up to the young man and hugged him, a recollection that still chokes up Johnston.

Johnston's track "Supernatural" from the new album has been re-recorded with an extra verse to be used for an ad campaign for Be the Match, the national bone marrow transplant program that found the match for Johnston.

"I've got some big dreams," Johnston said. "I'd love to one day sell out the American Airlines Arena in Dallas (home of the Mavericks) and, who knows, maybe Jerry World (home of the Cowboys) after that." He laughs. "Crazy, right?"

"But if nothing ever happens like that, I'll still feel that we're a success because of a song from my record being used to raise awareness for Be the Match. Sign up for the bone marrow registry and you can save a life."