by Lang Whitaker

Before we get to what I want to get to today, a few things worth noting…

• I know I’m coming a little late to the YouTube party, but I’m really liking the idea of just doing one video a day. Maybe something basketball related, maybe something completely unrelated (like yesterday’s video, which still makes me laugh). So if you guys stumble across a great video, send it in.

Today, we take a look at this video of reporters getting smacked down…

• I got a mess of bribe material today from teams lobbying their guys for the various postseason awards. I’ll post some pictures tomorrow. So far the Hornets are leading the swag parade. (BTW, nothing from the Lakers, even though they apparently mounted some sort of publicity campaign for Kobe.)

• People in Seattle suddenly have a ton of ammunition that Clay Bennett meant to move the Sonics out of Seattle all along. Henry Abbott breaks it down here. If the Sonics had moved to Oklahoma City without all these internal emails being released, people in Seattle would’ve been pissed, but they wouldn’t have had much recourse. Now everyone — both in Seattle and OKC — knows for certain that Bennett was lying to everyone on both sides all along. Not a good look.

(And the funniest part is the way Bennett sucks up to the Sternbot. Note to self: Remember to send glowing emails to Commissioner Stern.)

• The latest from the Garbage Time All-Stars. Pretty funny stuff…

• Tonight is the Battle For 8th, with the Warriors and Nuggets squaring off on TNT (at 8:00 p.m. EST). First team to 200 makes the Playoffs.

• Finally, let’s get to what I wanted to get to.

On the night of December 4, 2007, I was watching a late night Clippers/Bucks game. (No, I don’t know why. Just was.) And after a few Bucks baskets, the Clips called a time out to settle things down. As the Bucks walked off the floor, I noticed Jake Voskuhl coming out and giving a couple of the Bucks high fives.

At first I was surprised, because I hadn’t remembered Jake Voskuhl was still in the NBA, much less getting playing time on the Bucks. But the more I thought about Voskuhl’s presence, the more I appreciated him, because there’s a guy like Jake Voskuhl on almost every team in the League — a guy who isn’t instantly recognizable to the general public, who is probably at best a role player for his team, but a guy who makes a couple of million a year just by showing up on time and being a good teammate. There are dozens of guys like this around the NBA, guys who will play ten years in the League and retire in anonymity richer than their wildest dreams.

The next day, I had to go to a meeting with our publisher, Dennis Page. DP and I were on the subway coming back from the meeting when I started telling him about my realization from the previous evening, and I suggested we should do a feature on these guys. Dennis pointed out that maybe we should do a story on just one guy, and we kicked around doing something on a guy we started calling “Mr. Average.”

When I got back to the office, I brought up the story idea with Ben and he loved it. The more we talked about it, the more we realized that if SLAM didn’t a story like this, who would? ESPN the Mag and SI both are so heavy on celebrating the stars of the League and who’s playing well at the moment, while SLAM has the time and space to devote 5 or 6 pages to a topic like this, which may not be most people’s initial idea of an a compelling NBA story, though once you start reading it makes a lot of sense.

We started scouring NBA rosters to find the perfect guy to do a story about, our Mr. Average. Before long, we dumped the Mr. Average tag because we found out the NBA actually has a Mr. Average, though it has nothing to do with stats or fame and is only based on height and weight. I soon took to calling the story Mr. Blue Collar, meaning it was a guy who comes to work and does his job and then goes home. As we went through the rosters, we wanted to find a guy who could walk into a restaurant and not have every head turn from people who automatically know he’s a pro athlete, so that ruled out a lot of taller guys. We wanted a guy who’d been in the NBA for a long time. We wanted a guy who’d never signed a big contract, so that ruled Greg Buckner. We talked about Adrian Griffin. We talked about Joe Smith. We talked about Janerro Pargo. We talked about Anthony Carter.

And then we decided upon Anthony Johnson, who was perfect for this story in so many ways. He’s not tall, he’s not famous, he’s been in the NBA for a decade, he’s never been the main player on an NBA team, he’s never had a max contract, he’s always had to be a role player. Most importantly, he’s had to tailor his game and personality to being a role player, in order to have a long career and make as much money as he has. (According to basketball-reference.com, AJ’s made at least $12 million over his career.)

I know AJ pretty well, so I emailed him and we set up some time to hang out when I was in Atlanta over Christmas. We got together and talked, and I also talked to a bunch of coaches, agents, other players, even former players, and I wrote a feature for the mag. Then we ended up having to hold one story in that issue of SLAM because of the page count, so we held the AJ story since it wasn’t as time-sensitive as everything else in that issue.

In the meantime, AJ got traded to the Kings as cap filler in the Bibby deal, so I ended up re-writing the end of the story. It ended up being one of my favorite stories I’ve done in SLAM, because it gave me a chance to look into a celebrate an entire spectrum of players that nobody ever focuses on.

The entire story is out now in the Dwight issue, SLAM 118 (on newsstands now!. I’m not going to reprint the entire story here, but here’s the first half of it. You can go buy a damn issue and read the rest…

ORDINARY PEOPLE
Not every NBA player can be an All-Star or have a shoe deal.
But they can make a really nice living if they know their role.
Just ask Anthony Johnson.

by Lang Whitaker

Anthony Johnson is average. And this has made him a millionaire, many times over.

Even though he’s in the midst of his 11th NBA season, Johnson is by no means a celebrity. His name has never been printed on an NBA All-Star ballot. He has never had a maximum contract. He has never even received a mid-level contract. He is listed at 6-3, but he is probably a bit shorter. The most consecutive seasons he has ever played on one team came when he was in college. Despite the fact that at 33 years old Johnson is in his 11th NBA season, he says is known “like, vaguely” by most NBA fans. He has never averaged in double figures in anything (well, except for minutes).

We all celebrate the superstars of the NBA, just as we fawn over the talented rookies forging their paths through the League. But we largely ignore the NBA’s middle class, the men who have given their lives to the game, sacrificing their shot at fame in exchange for a clearly defined role, a steady paycheck and the security of knowing they’ll always be able to find work.

These men are largely unsung, but these are the guys who make the NBA go around. They’re the guys who give LeBron a pound when he comes to the bench, who yell out that Kobe’s about to get picked from his right, who let Nash know the guy he’s guarding can’t go left, who come off the bench cold to inbound a ball in a crucial situation, who make sure the rookies carry the bags to the team bus, who’ve seen it all and done it all and understand it all, but for whatever reason just don’t have the ability to see it or do it as well as LeBron or Kobe or Nash.

There are roughly 450 NBA jobs available each season. Maybe 75 of those gigs go to big-time players, who command upwards of $10 million a year. A bigger chunk of jobs go to young players who teams hope to develop for the future. But the biggest slice of jobs go to NBA veterans, role players expected to complement the superstars while helping develop the youngsters, then receive nothing in return other than large paychecks and an infrequent pat on the back.

Anthony Johnson is one of these guys. And while this story is about Anthony Johnson, it’s just as much about guys like Greg Buckner, Jake Voskuhl, Anthony Carter, Malik Allen and Adrian Griffin. They are the NBA’s middle class.

They are the NBA.

It’s the day after Christmas in Atlanta, and the Hawks are hosting the Indiana Pacers. Seven hours before tip-off, Anthony Johnson sits alone, shirtless, in the Hawks’ locker room. He isn’t early for the game, he’s late leaving the morning shootaround because he wanted to get up some extra jumpers.

Although he’s been with the Hawks for nearly a year, Anthony Johnson formerly spent three seasons playing for tonight’s opponents, the Pacers, and a biography page can still be found on the Pacers website describing AJ thusly: “Not a particularly gifted athlete by NBA standards, he is a quintissential (sic) overachiever…”
The Pacers moved Johnson to Dallas, and late last season the Hawks traded a second-round Draft pick for him.

As NBA players go, Anthony Johnson is almost completely ordinary. He’s been in the NBA for a while but still isn’t one of the most senior players. He starts some games, comes off the bench for others. He makes around $2 million a year, enough to live in luxury yet just a fraction of what the NBA’s best players make. He can knock down an open jumper, yet he is rarely more than his team’s fourth or fifth option. Still, he comes to work every day with the scouting report memorized, prepared to leave everything on the floor.

“There are guys who are veterans who understand they’re not going to have a permanent role,” explains sports agent Bill Duffy. Duffy’s company, BDA Sports, represents nearly 40 NBA players, about 10 percent of the entire League. “Those vets, they want to hang around the NBA as long as possible. They’re useful when they play but still an asset when they’re not playing. They show up early, are happy to be there, are reliable and they work hard. They’re smart enough to realize they can retire from the NBA, go get a job and make $150,000 a year, or stay in the NBA, work eight months of the year and play basketball for $1.5 million a year.”

One of Duffy’s clients, point guard Anthony Carter, recently found consistent playing time with the Denver Nuggets, his fourth NBA team in nine seasons. “Anthony Carter sat on the bench for two years in Minnesota,” Duffy says. “He went to Denver, didn’t make the team because of salary cap reasons. We sent him to Italy, and he played eith weeks, then he comes back and now he is starting for Denver. And that’s because he understands his role, which is playing 30 minutes a night and showing up on time. And he’s fine with that.”

In sports, we’re always being taught that the ultimate goal is to be the best, to be the champion. With hard work, the saying goes, anything is possible. Every player on a roster is supposed to be obsessed with self-betterment, wanting to leapfrog whomever is ahead of them in the pecking order. Yet in embracing life as a reserve player, the very nature of your job requires daily sublimation of self, an acknowledgement that no matter how much work you put in, you will always be expected to take a back seat to some of your teammates. Rather than letting his skill level confine him, Johnson chooses to let it define him.

“It can be hard sometimes,” Johnson admits. “Of course, everybody wants to play every minute of every game. But for me it’s not realistic, and if that road was paved for me, then I would be paid as such and I’d be in that position. But with that being said, you work hard in practice and hopefully the coaches take notice and kind of play you according to how much work you put in. That’s why I try to go out and work hard and try to scrap. Every minute that’s on the table, I want it to come in my direction.”

Anthony Johnson never expected to make a career out of playing basketball in the NBA. He was always a great athlete, lettering in three sports in high school, but growing up in Charleston, SC, the NBA seemed like an exotic, mysterious destination. After a solid senior season at College of Charleston, AJ was snagged in the second round of the ’97 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. Under head coach Eddie Jordan, Johnson played in 77 games, starting 62 of them and averaging about 30 minutes a night, posting 7.5 ppg and 4.3 apg.

“It was kind of easy, to be honest with you,” Johnson admits. “We were losing, they were trying to develop young guys, so they gave me the ball and just let me play. I got to play a lot, but I didn’t really learn the value of hard work and what it takes to be an NBA player.”

Regardless, Johnson didn’t have much trouble getting a job. After his rookie year in Sacto, he did stints with the Hawks, Magic and Cavaliers. “I just bounced around because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. I kind of got in the mode of, Oh, this is how the NBA works, you just show up and play. So I just showed up and played. Beside practice and games, I didn’t put in any extra work as far as shooting the ball, I didn’t lift weights, I didn’t do anything extra my first four or five years in the NBA. And it showed in my play. I was an inconsistent player, and that inconsistency opened the door for being traded a couple of times and bouncing around. Basically, I brought it on myself.”

“It’s a great life to be able to do something you love and get paid crazy money and get all the perks that come with it,” Kevin Willis cosigns, “but I think you can get spoiled.”

Willis spent 21 seasons in the NBA and went from being an All-Star with the Miami Heat to logging heavy minutes as a back-up for Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Then, at 36 years old, Willis’s body started betraying him more often. He could still play in the NBA, just not as many minutes, not as many nights in a row. Instead of clinging to the past, Willis looked to the future and became a bench guy, playing spot minutes when necessary, but doing most of his work during practice or in the locker room, staying out of trouble and teaching his younger teammates what they needed to do to find success in the NBA.

“This is just me, but when you’re making that kind of money and things seem like they’re coming easily, you lose your perspective,” Willis explains. “You can make a lot of money in the NBA, but at the end of your career, if you keep your money and you’re frugal, once it comes to a close you understand it’s not about the hype, it’s about what you’ve kept and what you can still do. Unfortunately, some guys don’t realize that until it’s too late.”

Johnson had this realization in the fall of 2001. Bouncing from NBA team to NBA team had been fine with AJ, as long as he kept collecting an NBA salary. And then one day, the checks stopped coming altogether.

“I went to training camp with Seattle,” Johnson recalls. “It was the first time in my life that I was ever cut or released. Ever, ever, period. I was out of the NBA for like two months, and that was the worst feeling in the world, watching guys I knew I was better than and knowing that there wasn’t a spot and the NBA would just move on without you.”

Even though he was out of an NBA job, Anthony Johnson had options. His brother Stephen was playing ball in Europe, but AJ opted for the D-League, signing with Coach Sam Vincent’s Mobile (AL) Revelers. Johnson played 15 games, averaged 11.9 ppg with 2.9 apg, and was second in the league in steals. On January 7, 2002, the New Jersey Nets signed Johnson to a 10-day contract. He hasn’t been out of the NBA since.

Basically, to make a long-term career out of the NBA, AJ discovered he had to become a specialist, to hone his athleticism, ball-handling and basketball knowledge and become not just a back-up point guard, but a back-up NBA point guard.

“You gotta find a niche,” explains AJ. “And if your niche is important, they’ll pay top dollar for it. I’ve carved out my niche of being a quality point guard—a back-up, but somebody that can definitely start and lead a ball club and run a ball club. I play pretty good defense and can take care of the ball and make open jumpers. I’ve carved out my niche a little bit and it’s worked out well for me.”

That’s all you’re getting. For the rest, go cop SLAM 118.