HELENA — There’s a story behind every picture.
One photo passed along to Carroll College men's basketball coach Carson Cunningham nips at a tale in progress.
In it, one little boy crosses his arms, dipping his shoulders to his right, almost as if a weight is pushing his body down.
His gaze looks outside of the camera and his face appears to be stifling a giggle. Dressed in a T-shirt, blue mesh jersey and blue shorts, it’s clear the fella plays basketball.
Next to him is his best friend, though that’s unclear from the second boy’s facial expression. Eyes dead-locked on the camera, the shorter of the two's body language is unenthusiastic.
The duo stands in front of a nondescript building in California. They are Carroll College senior guard Lorel Johnson and junior guard Ife Kalejaiye; it’s an early look at a lifelong friendship.
“It’s brotherhood,” Johnson said.
Though on that day, a sort of sibling rivalry left Johnson miffed.
The two were in elementary school and competing in a day full of events. One of those was a layup competition, and Kalejaiye had set the record. Johnson’s school only allowed kids to compete in two events, which he maintains is why he didn’t even get a chance to best Kalejaiye’s total.
Kalejaiye recalls having to chase down his ball, slowing his total output. If the ball didn’t get away from him, Kalejaiye thought, he could have made even more.
That, among many topics, are points the Californians, now three and four years into their college basketball careers, jostle each other about.
“They really are like brothers,” Cunningham said. “They mess with each other a little bit and have fun with that. Even in that picture, you can tell, it’s funny.”
It was those formative years in California that helped the two forge a mutual goal: play college basketball. A dream steeped in long one-on-one sessions at Johnson’s house, between intermissions of gaming on NBA2K.
Johnson’s dad coached them growing up, whether that was in the summer circuit or at home.
“His dad would be through the window yelling about jump stops and follow-throughs,” Kalejaiye said. “He’d start coaching us there.”
The friendship between the two was planted and blossomed in Downey, California. When Kalejaiye’s family opted to move to nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, it felt like the end for the two.
“Sixth grade,” both said simultaneously, emphasizing the time period. They crack up about it now, but then the pair felt like their friendship received a lethal injection.
“It was the end of the world,” Kalejaiye said.
“It was actually,” Johnson added, laughing. “I was so mad at my parents. My parents had nothing to do with it, but I was mad.”
Through AAU basketball, church and park and rec leagues, the two saw their fair share of each other during their middle school years. Even if 30 miles separated them, the friendship hardly waned.
Their first high school basketball season they didn’t play together. Johnson attended Warren High in Downey and Kalejaiye stayed in Palo Verdes.
The next year, Kalejaiye transferred to Warren. Both felt their best opportunity to get on recruiting radars was to transfer once again to Cathedral High School, where they finished their high school careers.
When they speak about the differences in high schools, it’s clear both believe Cathedral served as a vehicle to Carroll. When you speak to Cunningham about the guards, he recalls just how under-recruited both were, perhaps lending credence to their beliefs.
Cunningham received an email from a recruiting service on Kalejaiye. By his senior year, he had built himself into quite the defender, but a groin injury left him unsure of his hoops future.
Kalejaiye, with maybe some interest from another small school in Oregon, opted for a prep year to heal. That’s when Cunningham met Johnson while on a recruiting trip to California. Cunningham offered Johnson to come to Carroll, and Johnson, who had virtually no other interest from schools, showed up at Carroll a few weeks prior to fall training.
“I didn’t know how close they were,” Cunningham said. “I knew they were friends.”
Johnson played his freshman year at Carroll while Kalejaiye prepped. When Kalejaiye first stepped onto campus, the two felt no lost time.
“It was like he never left,” Johnson said. “I forget I had that year without him.”
Kalejaiye agrees and explains how the two developed together growing up. He tells people he became a shooting guard because of Johnson.
“I always bring it up how I’m not a point guard because of him,” Kalejaiye said. “He was always the point guard. I was always the two. I never had to worry about dribbling the ball, which is why I’m not a point guard today. I was always playing with him. I said, alright, I’ll spot up and let him run the show.”
It didn’t take long for Cunningham and the rest of the team to learn of the depth of the two’s friendship.
Each summer, the Saints take a trip led by father Marc Lenneman to Legendary Lodge on Seeley Lake. Lenneman leads discussion. Johnson, entering his sophomore year, spoke up during one of the talks in the lodge.
“Lorel said it was like having his brother and having a family member come,” Cunningham said. “And he was so excited about that. That was really cool to hear. You also realize that they’re not just friends. They’re really close. They’re basically like brothers. Lorel was super excited because he had a family member joining him on his adventure to Montana.”
The two mesh with everybody on the team, too.
“They’ve very likeable and very emotionally mature and intelligent and funny,” Cunningham said. “Everyone likes them. It’s been a great fit.”
From growing up in sun-soaked California, bleeding Los Angeles Lakers purple and gold, to both finding their way onto the court and playing valuable minutes for the Saints, their journey together finishes with one more NAIA tournament run.
Throughout their careers, Johnson’s made his presence felt with his heady point guard play and valuable defense. Kalejaiye’s been the team’s top perimeter defender nearly from the day he came on campus.
“Trying to get one for him,” Kalejaiye said. “It would be nice to go out like that.”
Cunningham looks at them, acknowledges first and foremost both are on track to graduate and love hoops. He underscores what he believes to be the largest kernel in their story.
He points out how Carroll was the last western team standing during last year’s NAIA tournament. He realizes the duo have made up the backcourt of one of the best small college basketball teams.
Even when the recruiting offers weren’t there so long ago, Kalejaiye and Johnson kept playing and improving. Now, they’re making another tournament run.
“They kept at it after so many people basically told them they can’t do it,” Cunningham said. “That really, really motivates them. It’s been awesome to see how far they’ve come and see how fantastic of college players they, especially knowing that background. They’re just resilient and have stuck with it. I think it’s a great example for other people that want to play college basketball or whatever else they want to do.”
It will be a finish worthy of a photo.