Friday morning started like any other for Amir Johnson. He woke up at six o’clock, took his son to school, went back home to relax for a little while, went to the 76ers practice complex in Camden, lifted weights, played 3-on-3. But then things took a turn.
He heard that the Delaware Blue Coats, the Sixers’ G-League affiliate, had a game that night, and he casually asked a member of the training staff if they thought he could play in the game. In a matter of minutes the Sixers had a form for him to fill out for reassignment, and Blue Coats head coach Conner Johnson was notified that the 13-year veteran would be joining his team later that day.
“I found out this morning, and they said Amir and it’s like, ‘No, that can’t be right it’s got to be somebody else,’” the Blue Coats coach said with a laugh. “Turns out it is Amir and it’s like, ‘Ok that’s great.’ I mean if you could choose someone to come in, fit seamlessly, to bring great energy he would be at the top of the list.”
It’s not something that anyone around the team had ever heard of a veteran NBA player ever asking to do. But no matter the strangeness of the scenario, Johnson was at the newly built 76ers Field House in Wilmington ready to suit up in a nameless No. 99 jersey with the Blue Coats to take on the Maine Red Claws.
For the last 11 years Johnson has played in at least 62 games per season. Just two seasons ago, he started in 77 of the 80 games he played with the Boston Celtics. He has appeared in just 37 this season for the Sixers and a lot of those have been in garbage-time minutes.
Despite the mounting number of DNP-CD’s, Johnson remains engaged with his teammates and coaching staff, and is completely without animosity when he talks about his lack of playing time. He hasn’t asked for a buyout or a trade and said that he is happy to be with the Sixers.
Johnson had thought about going to the G-League before, this wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It was just lucky that on a Sixers’ non-travel, non-game day he found out that the Blue Coats were playing at home and he had enough time to make it happen.
“I always thought in my head that I could get some good run since I’m not playing if I could come down to the [G-League]," he said. “It was fun, I had fun out there. I just love to play basketball. When you’re having fun that’s all you can ask for. You’ve got to remember what you do it for. You do it for certain things as you grow in the sport, but as a kid you just play it for the love of the sport, sometimes you’ve just got to get back to that and play the game and have fun.”
Johnson had 15 points and 7 rebounds in 27 minutes, 11 seconds as the Blue Coats lost, 112-109, in overtime. It was the most minutes he has played since April 4 last season. In addition to getting the minutes Johnson noted that there’s no way to predict what could happen during the course of a season and he needs to make sure he stays fresh and ready in case the Sixers need to use him.
The Blue Coats coaching staff introduced Johnson to the players and talked about the veteran’s extensive career and what it takes to last in the NBA. It was a positive learning experience for the young squad of NBA hopefuls.
“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned for our guys about Amir’s willingness to come down and his attitude when he was here,” the Blue Coats head coach said.
The Sixers have just 23 games left this season before the playoffs start and with a new backup center in Boban Marjanovic, Johnson is unlikely to get many minutes but that does not stop him from being the consummate teammate, being thankful for his health. He has no delusions about his situation, and he’s okay with it.
“I try to stay positive and to show by example especially with our young guys,” Johnson said. “Stuff like this, even though you’re not playing and you’re on the bench, why not come down to the G-League and get some run and make sure that you stay ready for anything that happens? Just keep positive energy. Nobody wants a downer on the team. I just try to preach that and keep the guys together and make sure everybody knows the bigger picture.”