Hard work and a diverse athletic background helped Raptors forward James Johnson make it from Cheyenne, WY to the NBA.
by Adam Figman | @afigman
SLAM: Tell us a little about your hometown.
James Johnson: Cheyenne, WY, is where I came up. I moved there from California. Cheyenne is a little town, little city, the capital of Wyoming.
SLAM: When did you move there?
JJ: It was about sixth grade. We did a little bit of moving around Cheyenne, but nowhere else in Wyoming—we stayed around the Cheyenne area. My father was an orphan, and that’s where his foster parents raised him, so he felt it was a good place to raise his kids.
SLAM: You’re the first NBA player to have come out of Wyoming since the 1960s. Do you feel a little added responsibility because of that?
JJ: I know there are a lot of kids up there now that play good basketball. It’s really a small town, so that’s really all there is to do—work on your game, whether it’s basketball, football. Everybody just works on their game out there as much as they could. I felt like it was my job, like I had this opportunity, to let people know where I was from so maybe they can go get some scouts out there. We don’t really get the respect that we deserve because we’re a small town.
SLAM: Is it true you were more into fighting than basketball as a kid?
JJ: Yeah, my father was a martial artist. His foster parents had him sign up for karate, so when he got to martial arts he never let it go. He trained us as kids, and we grew up fighting.
SLAM: What kind of fighting?
JJ: Mixed Martial Arts, kick-boxing and Kenpo karate.
SLAM: You still got it?
JJ: Oh, I definitely still got it. You can’t really lose it. You just sharpen up your tools a little bit—it’s not like I’ll forget anything I learned, but at the same time you still gotta work on everything, like anything else.
SLAM: Does anyone in your family still fight?
JJ: Yeah, my little brother just tried out for the Marines’ fighting team, and he’s already a captain of that. He just got put in the Marines—he finished boot camp, and he’s on the fighting squad, so he’s the only one fighting for us now.
SLAM: Do you see similarities between approaching fighting to approaching basketball games?
JJ: Of course. In fights you’re gonna train as hard as you possibly can for that fight. Lucky for us, we have basketball games every day, every other day. You might not fight for a month, so you’re training that whole month just for one fight, and it can end in 15 seconds or it can end in the last round. You’ve got the same mentality that you would if you want to win a fight and not get embarrassed in front of a lot of people.
SLAM: At what point were you introduced to basketball?
JJ: It was about eighth grade. I was playing football—I loved playing football—and it was either karate or football, that’s all we did. At the end of that season, school was over, I was headed home and all my friends were headed to basketball practice. I never was one to play video games or anything like that, so I ended up joining it. I was no good. And then I worked hard from that summer on, and my freshman year, I made the varsity team.
SLAM: Were you a tall kid? What position were you at that point?
JJ: I was a guard. I was a 6-4 guard. I didn’t really get my growth spurt until about 10th grade.
SLAM: Did you have any basketball mentors in high school?
JJ: Not really, it was just all heart. Not wanting to have anybody better than me. My father always tried to say, when I was growing up, that I’m fortunate to have martial arts so when I did end up getting tall, I had mobility and was able to move flexibly. I wasn’t one of those tall, lanky kids that needed fundamentals or anything like that.
SLAM: Did you have a favorite player who you were always watching?
JJ: Yeah, actually, Cheyenne being only a highway from Denver, I kept up with ‘Melo. Pretty much everyone who came through Denver, we watched them, when the uniforms were still dark blue with the gold on it [laughs]. That’s when I was in high school and started watching basketball a bit. Then I fell in love with the game and played every day.
SLAM: At what point did you realize making the NBA was a possibility?
JJ: There was a lot of talk about it, but in a little town, nobody really knew what they were talking about. My junior year, that summer—sophomore into junior—that’s when I got MVP at a Nike All-American Camp, and that’s when I knew, first college and then the League was possible.
SLAM: Why’d you pick Wake Forest?
JJ: Those are the guys that gave me a chance when nobody was seeing me. I didn’t get a real look nowhere because “all the kids from Wyoming…[aren’t good]” and this and that. So I never got a positive evaluation. [Then-Wake Forest assistant Pat] Kelsey went to the University of Wyoming, so he knew there was a little bit of talent out there, looked into it, did his homework and started recruiting me—early. Before I had a letter from a junior college, I had the Wake Forest letter. After I got Top 100 Nike All-American MVP, that’s when the letters started rolling in and when everybody found who I was and that I was for real. I wanted the people who had seen me first, who weren’t going after kids that were ranked top 5, that were going outside the box for kids.
SLAM: Was there any notable place that you think was important for your development?
JJ: Yeah, I would definitely say when my older brothers would take me to the rec center with them, and they were always yelling: “Get stronger!” “What are you doing?!” “We’re losing because of you!” You don’t want to let your brothers down, and that’s why I got good. Now it’s the opposite, and I tell them the same thing when we go to the rec and play, like, We’re losing ‘cause of you!