More than 12 years have passed — after the black eye at practice, re-inventing himself, being Toronto’s adopted son, seeing up close the business side of the NBA, and latching on with a fifth NBA team — and only one question remains: Where do you start?
Maybe you start on the evening of June 28, 2005, when Amir Johnson became the last high school player selected in an NBA draft, when the Detroit Pistons selected him with the 56th overall pick in the second round. Or maybe several months later, when Rasheed Wallace, then a Pistons teammate, used to batter and bruise the frail 6-foot-10, 205-pound 18-year-old at practice.
Perhaps you can start with Johnson following Wallace’s lead about playing a role to establish longevity in the NBA. That role enabled Johnson to become the Raptors’ most popular player during his six seasons there. It also enabled him to sign a two-year $24 million deal with the Boston Celtics on July 9, 2015. And it led to him signing a one-year $11-million deal to reunite with Bryan Colangelo on July 8, 2017. The 76ers president acquired Johnson in a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks, a team he never played for, on Aug. 8, 2009, when he was the president and general manager of the Raptors.
“Amir Johnson is an ideal veteran addition for our young basketball team,” Colangelo said back in July. “Amir is that iron horse type of producer who impacts a team in so many positive ways on the court. But his value will also be felt in the locker room and in our community.”
It has been.
Johnson is the even-keeled veteran whose locker in the Wells Fargo Center is right before the hallway that leads to the coaches offices and showers.
A coach’s delight, his demeanor doesn’t change whether he’s starting or sitting. And when Johnson plays, he’s the one out there sacrificing for the good of the team.
He’d rather set a hard pick to create space for Ben Simmons than call for the ball on the block. The things he does can go unnoticed by fans. But his teammates and coaches will tell you that his selflessness is a major reason why the Sixers, at 19-19, have postseason expectations this season.
“Guys that have a spirit and a personality on a day-to-day basis are priceless in the long NBA season, and he ticked all those boxes,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “He hasn’t disappointed at all. He’s a wonderful teammate. His teammates think the world of him. I’m lucky to have him in our locker room.”
To really depict an accurate description of the 30-year-old father of two you have to begin with where it all started, back in his hometown of Los Angeles
Johnson was born on May 1, 1987, the second child of Deneen Griffin and Anthony Johnson.
While sports weren’t forced upon him, it was easy to see his love for them.
Anthony Johnson was a shooting guard at the University of Arizona before his mother became ill early in his freshman year. Wanting to be closer to home, Anthony transferred to Cal-State Northridge, where he had a successful career in the early 1980s.
After college, he had a stint playing professionally overseas.
Griffin also comes from an athletic family. Her father, Clinton Griffin, is 6-foot-8 and grew up playing baseball, basketball and football in Mississippi.
“He said he got quadruple-doubles back then,” Anthony Griffin, Deenan’s brother, joked about their father.
The thing Clinton Griffin definitely produced was an athletic family tree. Anthony played tight end at San Jose State, and Amir Johnson’s cousins, brothers Kevin and Kailin Burnett, both played in the NFL.
Kevin Burnett played a combined nine years as a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. Kaelin Burnett had brief stints with the Raiders, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans. Also a linebacker, he played one season for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
Amir Johnson’s older sister, Indi Johnson, played basketball at Purdue before transferring to Southern University.
“Sports were big,” Anthony Griffin said. “When we were little, you played something.”
Anthony Johnson actually got Amir involved in basketball for a specific reason.
“He had to do something,” Anthony Johnson said. “Amir was ADHD hyper, bro. Amir couldn’t stay in the house. He couldn’t do anything because he was always running around. Always.”
So Anthony took Amir with him to his games in Venice Beach and when he played in recreational league games. Amir was the ball boy for his father’s teams. But, for the most part, he was just burning energy at the YMCA.
Amir Johnson’s introduction to competitive basketball came at the age of 9 when he started playing for travel games against kids one to two years older by design.
Johnson, who also was a standout track athlete, earned the nickname “Little Gazelle” because of the way he sprinted up and down the court. Taller than the other kids his age, Johnson never complained that his father put him against older kids as a way to toughen him up.
“If he got hit in the jaw, he just kept playing,” Anthony Johnson said.
But Johnson went on to play only two seasons of high school basketball.
He didn’t play while splitting his freshman year at two schools, Pacific Hills and Narbonne due to his family moving. Johnson enrolled at Verbum Dei High as a sophomore and had a solid basketball debut during the 2002-03 season. He decided to transfer to Westchester High School, then a national powerhouse, for his junior year. However, he was forced to sit out the 2003-04 season due to transfer rules.
A 6-foot-9 small forward as a senior, Johnson more than made up for the down time. Westchester finished the season ranked second nationally in the USA Today Super 25 boys’ basketball poll with a 25-3 season. The school captured its third state title in four seasons by beating San Mateo Serra, 66-45, in the California Interscholastic Federation Division I state championship.
Westchester was loaded with talent. Johnson’s teammates included Trevor Ariza, now with the Houston Rockets, who went to UCLA; and Gabe Pruitt, who went to Southern Cal before spending parts of two season with the Boston Celtics. But Johnson was the headliner.
He was 2005’s California Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s all-American. He signed with Louisville over scholarship offers from North Carolina and Duke, among others.
Opting for the draft
While his fifth-grade classmates all talked about being doctors, lawyers and firemen during a class assignment, Johnson announced to the class that his dream was to play in the NBA.
That’s why he ultimately decided to turn pro in the final season that traditional high schoolers were eligible to do so instead of honoring his commitment to the Cardinals.
But draft night didn’t go as he had planned. Some in the room were nervous when the teenager’s name wasn’t called during the first 53 selection of the 60-pick draft. However, the Pistons snagged him at No. 56. That turned out to be perhaps the biggest blessing of his career.
With the Pistons, Johnson went up against Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Dale Davis every day at practice. The post players, along with point guard Chauncey Billups, are still some of his biggest mentors.
But they didn’t take it easy on the rail-thin rookie. Battered and bruised, Johnson would sit in a bath tub full of ice at his place following practice. Coming home with a busted lip was also common. And one day Rasheed Wallace blackened his eye with an elbow to the face.
Wallace and the other Pistons never intended to hurt Johnson, who in some cases was 13 years younger. They just wanted to prepare him for life in the NBA, and they realized they couldn’t do that by taking it easy on him.
“It was basically a grown man’s league, and guys had to come with your hard helmet on at practice,” Johnson said. “Me being like 18 years old, I definitely stepped up to the challenge just being that hard player. That’s where I get some of my hard playing from, just going up against all those guys that were on the team.”.
Afterward, Rasheed Wallace always showed Johnson want he did wrong and how to correct it. Over time, Johnson copied some of the things Wallace did.
When he wasn’t studying Wallace, Johnson was down in the D-League, putting up big scoring efforts with the Fayetteville Patriots and later the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
While a nice feat, Rasheed Wallace informed him that the best way to remain in the NBA was by finding a niche such as rebounding, defending and pick-setting role player. And that has worked for him.
Toronto’s adopted son
The Pistons traded Johnson to the Bucks on June 23, 2009. Less than two months later, Milwaukee shipped Johnson to the Raptors. That’s where he thrived in the role that Rasheed Wallace influenced him to take. He averaged 8.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks during his six seasons in Canada.
His best season came during the 2013-14 campaign, when he produced career-best averages of 10.4 points per game, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. In a game back in Los Angeles on Dec. 8, 2013, Johnson even displayed the offensive outburst he was known for producing while on assignment in the D-League. With Toronto undermanned after trading Rudy Gay, Johnson was asked to carry some of the offensive load and he responded with a career-high 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. He added 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals against the Lakers in front of family members and friends.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were the faces of the Raptors. However, Johnson was the pulse of the team and captured the hearts of the city’s sports fans. He became Toronto’s adopted son.
They appreciated his blue-collar work ethic and that he never complained about playing through ankle sprains. Most importantly, they loved how he embraced them.
Toronto-based rap artist Drake is the Raptors’ “global ambassador.” So when his album ‘Nothing Was The Same’ was released on Sept. 24, 2013, Johnson bought two record stores out of every copy. The basketball player then handed the CDs out to fans on the streets of Toronto.
Johnson also had an annual Roll With Amir fan event, at which he took Raptors fans out to eat. There were more than 100 fans at the event during his final year in Toronto. Johnson was visible around town. Yet, despite his public desire to remain a Raptor, the team renounced his rights heading in the 2015 free agency period in order to create space to sign DeMarre Carroll.
Johnson, in turn, took the lucrative two-year deal with the Celtics. In the Raptors' eyes, the wear and tear during those final two seasons in Toronto caught up to him, and his ankle problems limited his effectiveness. He holds no ill-will for the organization.
“It’s the business side. I understand,” Johnson said of the Raptors moving on without him. “I saw that in Detroit with Joe [Dumars] saying, ‘We are going to retire Chauncey Billups. We want you here forever.’ And the next week he was traded.”
Now, Johnson finds himself being Joel Embiid’s backup. He’s content with doing the unheralded stuff. While the ankle injuries cost him some of his mobility, he wants to play another five years. Johnson’s goal is to share the wisdom and guidance that Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace and the rest of the Pistons shared with him early in his career.
“Every team I played on, we had success winning games,” said Johnson, who is averaging 4.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 15.6 minutes this season. “We made it as far as the Eastern Conference finals. That’s my main goal.”