BOSTON, MA – The NBA season can be a long ride.
Late September through the middle of April for 14 of the league’s teams, and an even deeper run for the other, playoff-bound 16.
The past four seasons – first with Toronto, then with Boston – Amir Johnson has been a member of clubs with the latter distinction. This spring, the forward enjoyed his farthest post-season push since his days with the Detroit Pistons, as he and the Celtics stormed all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, before falling to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
During Johnson’s stint with the C’s, which culminated with the franchise breaking through for its best finish in seven seasons, and last year’s highest win total in the East, Brad Stevens noticed something about the even-keeled, upbeat vet. Infrequent were the instances in which he succumbed to the ups and downs that tend to spin around individuals and teams over the course of a gruelling campaign that goes 82 games, sometimes more.
“You’re going to need guys that can not ride the emotional roller coaster in this league, and he does a great job of that,” Stevens said before last Friday’s pre-season game at The Center, which was won by the Celtics, 110-102.
The trait was one that Stevens, now in his fifth season as Boston’s head coach, came to appreciate and value, certainly for its constructive influence on the rest of the C’s, but also for its rarity.
In the aftermath of a summer that witnessed the Celtics undergo massive, and, in Johnson’s view, unexpected change, the 30-year old Los Angeles native wound up with the Sixers, his fourth NBA team, and third in the Atlantic Division. He felt a strong connection to Bryan Colangelo, who gave Johnson his first legitimate break as a pro in Toronto, and a desire to put his talents – both on the court and off – to use with a budding organization on the rise.
On the heels of a sound 12-point, 5-rebound effort Friday in his pre-season debut, Johnson will now have a chance Monday to not only go up against his former team again, but do so on the road at TD Garden (7:30 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia+, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network). He started 168 of the 179 contests he appeared in for Boston the last two years, accounting for roughly 7.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Front of mind for Johnson on Friday, though, wasn’t waxing memories of his tenure in Boston, but looking forward towards promising opportunities in a new setting. First and foremost, he was eager to finally take the court at The Center in a red, white, and blue uniform.
“[I’m] just ready to play in front of the crowd,” Johnson said, seated in front of his locker. “Just seeing the game [Wednesday] behind the bench, love the energy of the fans, like the way our guys play. I just feel like I can go out there and help.”
And the Sixers believe Johnson, offering a gritty, rugged, hardened low-post presence, is more than capable of doing so. That the 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man naturally blends a welcomed skill package with an exemplary work ethic and demeanor makes seasoned players like him that much tougher to find.
“There’s an inner-peace that Amir must have to act the way he acts, and speaks to his teammates the way he speaks to them,” Brett Brown said over the weekend. “There’s a real poise, patience, rhythm to his days, it seems, and certainly his NBA life. I say that with complete affection. He really is a good temperature gauge for me, and for the team. He’s solid and steady. He’s been a great acquisition. He’s good people.”
Reflecting on Johnson’s impact on the vibes around the Celtics, Stevens, Brown’s counterpart, shared an example.
“Amir was the guy who walked on the plane with a smile on his face, and made sure he spoke to everybody, and patted everybody on the back – coaches, players, everybody – regardless if you won or lost. That attitude, that positivity is really important,” Stevens said Friday.
Johnson traces the origins of this part of his personality to the early stages of his career, which began in 2005 when the Detroit Pistons drafted him 56th overall out of Westchester High School in LA. He then spent the next four seasons surrounded by the nucleus of the Pistons’ 2004 title team – guys like Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace (Sixers fans of a certain vintage probably remember these names well).
Not lost on Johnson was how positive that group was.
“Every morning, it was kind of like a family atmosphere, and it just stuck with me,” he said. “We see each other kind of more times than we see our families, every day. Why be down? I feel like at least somebody needs to have a positive attitude. I guess I’ll take the lead on that. Why not let it be me?”
Fast forward more than a decade later, and leading with this type of attitude seems to be having a reciprocal effect. Just talk to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 pick, about how Johnson has rubbed off on him.
“Amir’s a great guy,” said the rookie combo guard, who at 19, is one year older than Johnson was when he broke into the NBA. “I call him my vet, my ‘OG.’ He’s a great guy. He talks to me a lot just off the court about the lifestyle. He came in at a young age. He’s a great guy. He can play on the court, and off the court, he’s fun to be around.”
And what factor can make playing professional basketball for a living that much more enjoyable? Success, undoubtedly.
Through his years in the league, Johnson has acquired a first-hand sense of the qualities and
habits that transform teams into winners. He lived turnarounds in Toronto and Boston, and now hopes to fuel one in Philadelphia.
“We’re all here for really one goal, and that’s pretty much to win,” said Johnson, who, even at his level of experience, still tries to grab hold of good advice when he hears it.
Johnson then recalled the dinner the Sixers had at Brett Brown’s house on the eve of their first training camp practice. Charles Barkley was the evening’s guest speaker.
“Charles came in and basically said, it doesn’t matter about numbers,” said Johnson. “Everybody can’t score the ball. Winning is the only thing that matters.
“If you win, everybody’s happy.”