It takes until the very end of his story for Ivan Johnson to let out a smile. Ivan’s leaning back in his assigned locker in Madison Square Garden an hour before the Hawks take on the New York Knicks back in late February, clad in a practice uniform and black Nike Hyperfuse kicks, breaking down his prolonged, exhaustive path to the NBA. And no, the tale doesn’t exactly fill his face with joy. It’s been a long ride.
Most NBA fans didn’t have a clue who Ivan was early last season, when he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page to call his own. Then in an early January nationally televised bout against the Miami Heat, he broke out, upstaging opposing forward Chris Bosh on several plays—grabbing tough rebounds, sinking improbable jumpers, beating Bosh to the hole for strong lay-ups. Charles Barkley fawned over his intensity; Reggie Miller yelled “Ivan the Terrible!” at the top of his lungs. Ivan’s name trended on Twitter. He even earned himself a Wikipedia page, albeit one with a single sentence that simply stated his age and occupation.
That void of information was no coincidence. Throughout the past half-dozen years, the big man has stayed mostly beneath the radar, moving through various basketball leagues both in the States and abroad, and when he eventually received his call-up to the big show, he didn’t exactly pour his heart out to the media. In fact, he didn’t say much at all—questions sent Ivan’s way tend not to get answered with more than a word or two. He’s not much of a talker. Which is unfortunate, because the guy has a hell of a story.
Ivan Johnson was born and raised Ivan Wilkerson—the surname is his father’s, though he was raised by his mother, Sandra Johnson—in a rough part of East San Antonio, where he quickly grew bigger than all of his peers. He began playing basketball not because he loved the game but because it was something to do, a reason to stay off the streets after school; he’d hit up the Eastside YMCA or the Eastside Boys & Club, slowly getting better and better as an oversized physical machine who just needed a little training. Ivan also played football, tight end on O and defensive end on D, but wasn’t very good—“I was fat and slow,” he says—and threw shot put, though that was really just something to do.
He became a star athlete in high school, putting up huge numbers for the hoops team, but was held back by an edgy temper that limited him both on and off the court. At Fox Tech, the downtown San Antonio high school he attended, he’d get into fights in the hallways and was constantly suspended for altercations with students and teachers alike. He’d let his frustrations loose on the basketball court—when he wasn’t held off the floor as a punishment for his in-school actions—where he was slapped with technical foul after technical foul. Sandra never attended games, unwilling to witness Ivan’s aggressive fits against the competition and the officials.
Ivan’s senior season (’01-02) was his best, during which he displayed visible signs of growth. “Ivan is the kind of kid who will try to get away with whatever he can,” Fox Tech coach Charles Cooper told the San Antonio Express-News at the time. “But he’s matured greatly since he was a freshman. As far as discipline and focus go, he’s really come a long way.”
Despite a 6-6, 230-pound body and stats that fell around 23 and 12, Ivan wasn’t presented with a scholarship to a top university—not that he expected one; his Fox Tech squad wasn’t very good (“We didn’t have the best athletes, so it was me playing against all the other star athletes,” he says) and his reputation as a bit of a hothead was well known amongst recruiters—and he went off to Cisco Junior College, a small two-year school smack in the middle of Texas. (The college’s men’s basketball program has since been shuttered.) He played nine games there but was “scholastically inegligible” to finish the season, according to a 2003 Express-News article.
Ivan spent the following year back in San Antonio. “I didn’t really like being away from home,” he says. But Cooper looked out for him, connecting the struggling big man with Mack Cleveland, an assistant coach at L.A. Southwest, a junior college in Los Angeles. Ivan left for southern California in the fall of ‘04.
He filled out to about 6-8, 270, and as a result was able to dominate the competition. Sometimes. “We never knew which Ivan was gonna show up,” says Reggie Morris Sr., Head Coach at Southwest. “Ivan’s a good guy, but it’s like Ivan can become two different people. Either he would perform at a high level, or Ivan would become more of a detriment. He would be overly aggressive, or play like he had a chip on a shoulder—he was angry—for no particular reason.” The inevitable result: “He would say things, so he’d get technicals.”
(On a lighter note, after a trip home that year, Ivan returned with a gold grill covering his top teeth. In Texas, it was the thing to do; in Cali, not so much. “We really kidded him about that quite a bit,” Morris says. “He thought he was really stylin’ with his gold teeth, and it was like, Man, get that shit out of here [laughs].”)
In the South Coast Conference the team played in, two technicals in one game meant an ejection, but also a one-game suspension. He was tossed from a conference game early in the season, and then a subsequent one as a penalty, and Southwest lost both—Morris says they were never able to win the conference as a result. And then in the playoffs, an opposing player fell on Ivan after a basket—“Not even close to going for the ball,” Morris says—and Ivan pushed the guy off of him, which resulted in a suspension from the following tilt, which Southwest lost by 2. After the loss, Ivan, having watched the action from the sidelines, cried to his teammates, apologizing for letting them down.
Having already put in two years of school, Ivan’s time at Southwest was over. Then-University of Cincinnati Head Coach Bob Huggins had flown to California and successfully recruited Ivan, but that June the Bearcats coach was arrested for a DUI, leaving both his own and Ivan’s future with the Bearcats in limbo. Instead, Ivan met with Ernie Kent, then-Head Coach of the University of Oregon, who pitched a future in Eugene, where Ivan could instill some much-needed toughness into a finesse-minded U of O program.
In most respects, the Oregon experiment failed. Ivan lived with Billy McKnight, a former grad assistant who still lived on campus (but wasn’t officially connected with the squad) and knew the ins and outs of the program as an ex-player and ex-assistant. McKnight often talked Ivan through issues he’d have with the program. “You’ve gotta understand, Eugene is a place where it’s 95 percent Caucasian,” McKnight says. “I think it was a very big adjustment for him to come up to Eugene and all of a sudden, the classes were a lot more difficult than before, and then, he had to fit in to a structure with the basketball team. I don’t think he had ever really had to do that before.”
Ivan was consistently in foul trouble, and was often benched for not understanding the technicalities of the Ducks’ game plan. The coaching staff wasn’t exactly sympathetic to his struggles. “We were impatient because we needed to move the program forward,” Kent admits. “He had such a volatile temper. That was his defense mechanism, survival skills kicking in. Maybe too much for us to handle, to that degree.”
“[Ivan] gets a bad rap if people don’t know how to deal with him,” says Morris, who stayed in touch with Ivan for years. “He did not like Ernie Kent—he made some comments to me about his frustration with Coach Kent.”
His behavior got him kicked off a road trip in early January, and though he exhibited flashes of potential—in a Pac-10 tournament game against Washington, “He backed down everybody,” Kent says. “He was a man amongst boys”—his athletic scholarship was not renewed at the end of the year. The final assessment was Kent’s: “It was a very, very difficult decision for me to make,” he says. “I felt in terms of me looking at my program and moving him along that he needed a change of environment.”
Jeff Oliver, Head Coach at the University of Southern California San Bernardino (a Div. II program), knew Mack Cleveland—who also continued his role as Ivan’s mentor well after the forward left Southwest—through a mutual friend and had been watching Ivan’s situation in Oregon unfold from afar. Oliver reached out to Cleveland to see where Ivan was headed after Oregon, and made it known that he’d love to bring the big man to USCSB.
Ivan had to take summer classes at U of O to get in good standing with the university to make himself eligible to transfer, and in doing so he physically let himself go, ballooning up to 300 pounds for the beginning of his fourth and final collegiate season. “He came down to me in bad shape,” Oliver says. “He wasn’t able to do the things he wanted to do right out of the gate. He was frustrated as a basketball player.”
The usual problems persisted during his first few months at USCSB—fighting with teammates, arguing with coaches, mouthing off to refs. Or worse. “My conversations with him were, you’re close enough, if you want to go play professional basketball, you need to start acting like a professional,” Oliver says. “Like, ‘OK, what you just did by flipping off the opposing team’s band: Do you think that is a professional act? Is that gonna help you achieve your dreams and aspirations of some day getting paid?’”
“[Ivan] seemed like he was on edge all the time,” says James Estrada, who played with Ivan at USCSB. “I just had the feeling he was like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any point.”
Things came to a boiling point that December, and Oliver went to Ivan with a simple proposal: My rules or you’re out. “I was the one coach who was able to say, you know what, you’re career is over with,” Oliver says. “I had that leverage. Every other place he kept being able to transfer, to say, ‘Screw you, I’ll just go to another place.’ But I was the last stop.”
His emotional outbursts (slightly) in check, Ivan’s collegiate career ended on a positive note. He led the team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (4.7 rpg), guiding the group to a 26-6 record and an eventual one-point loss in the Final Four of the Div. II NCAA Tournament. After the tilt, in which he put up 19 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, Ivan once again apologized to a locker room of teammates for not helping them attain a trophy.
“When he changed his attitude, that’s when we got over the hump as a team,” Oliver says. “He was fun to be around, he really was. Kind of a prankster.”
But with a reputation that preceded any and all accomplishments, Ivan went undrafted in the 2007 NBA Draft. 2007 was also the year Ivan’s mother, Sandra Johnson, passed away. He made her last name his own (by then he was known as Ivan Johnson to most, and he’s still technically Wilkerson-Johnson, but he wanted to make sure his mother’s name was permanently attached to his), and despite an uncertain future, Ivan then declared that he wouldn’t—couldn’t—give up. “I promised my mom that I wouldn’t quit until I made it,” he says. “So I just kept it pushing.”
He took a shot at the D-League during ‘07-08, playing 10 games with the Anaheim Arsenal before a trade sent him to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he finished the year. He averaged a decent 13.9 and 6.7, but not enough to entice an NBA franchise to call him up—the word that Ivan was a hothead had thoroughly sustained. “I ran through the D-League like it wasn’t nothing,” he says. “But they were still talking about [how] I couldn’t control my emotions.”
Ivan then went abroad, where there was more money to be made. He played in South Korea for two seasons—in ’08-09 for the Changwon LG Sakers and then ’09-10 for the Jeonju KCC Egis. But he couldn’t stay out of trouble. In February of 2010 he was fined 4 million won (around $3,500) for flipping off an opposing player and provoking a fight; then in early April he was fined 6 million won for flipping off an opposing coach; and then after his team lost the last game of the championship series in mid-April, he flipped off a referee and was fined 5 million won and permanently banned from the Korea Basketball League, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
He resurfaced in Puerto Rico, his favorite place to have spent time playing pro ball to date. Why? “For the ladies,” he says. Ivan also lived a few steps from the beach, which certainly beat the brutal cold of a South Korea winter. Once the season living the good life—albeit one in which he made less money than he had in Asia—concluded, Ivan threw his name back in the D-League draft and was selected 15th by the Erie BayHawks.
Ivan played some of the best ball of his life in Erie, and yet, déjà vu: His numbers were great—22.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg—but he also led the league in technical fouls, and was tossed out of multiple games for picking up pairs of ‘em. “It still was a constant struggle for him to maintain his emotions,” says Jay Larranaga, Head Coach of the BayHawks. “But he was conscious of them, and it was something we talked about a lot.” Ivan was a fan favorite in Erie, with his face covering a pair of billboards and a trip to the D-League All-Star Game to show for it. But still, even while Ivan racked up 20 and 10s against the competition—including many NBA players down on assignment—not a single GM picked up the phone to give him a chance.
Larranaga’s father Jim is close with Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, and as a favor Rivers rang Ivan to discuss what it takes to become an NBA player. “I think that had a good impact on Ivan,” the younger Larranaga says.
An opportunity to work out in an Atlanta Hawks mini-camp presented itself that June, and Ivan impressed, but days later the players and owners couldn’t work out their differences and the dreadful lockout went into effect. Not long thereafter, Ivan was given some exciting news—his first child, a baby boy, would be due in April of 2012.
With a child on the way and without a job in the States, Ivan took off for China, where he played for the Qingdao DoubleStar. He was one of two Americans on the squad, alongside Lester Hudson, a guard who would later find his way to the League. “I think people got it mixed up,” Hudson says of Ivan’s all-intense-everything reputation. “He’s a cool guy off the court.”
While in China that December, as a 27-year-old professional hooper who had never spent a single minute on an NBA team, Ivan Johnson finally got the call. Hawks coach Larry Drew had remembered Ivan’s passion during the mini-camp, and brought him back for veteran’s camp—and even offered a small, non-guaranteed contract to the forward to start the 2011-12 season. “He basically picked up where he left off [in June],” Drew says. “So I thought he deserved to get a legitimate shot.” Yes: Ivan would be a 27-year-old dealing with rookie duties from “veterans” years younger than him. Didn’t matter.
Motivated by the desire to support his soon-to-be-born son, he took full advantage of that shot, and between starting center Al Horford’s regular season-ending shoulder injury and that breakout game against the Miami Heat—which many of the people interviewed for this piece said they watched, jumping up and down on their couches and cheering excitedly into their televisions—Ivan’s role on the team was set. His $473,604 contract was officially guaranteed for the ’11-12 season on February 10.
“It was like, the hard work paid off,” Ivan says. “Dreams came true.”
His nuances continued to interest fans, be it the result of his diamond-encrusted teeth or his claim that he doesn’t watch hoops, and so he doesn’t know who any of his opponents are. (“That’s how I’ve always been,” he says. “I usually watch cartoons. Cartoons and COPS.”) But once those initial TNT-sponsored 15 minutes of fame were up, Ivan continued to succeed sans any limelight. He came off the bench as a reserve for the Hawks all season, bringing solid energy and modest stats of 6.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game (numbers bogged down by his 13 minutes-per-game average; his per-36 minute averages were 13.7 and 8.7), while mostly limiting his technical fouls and emotional outbursts. He also took some time off in mid-March to witness the birth of his first-born, Ivan Jr., and returned to the team days later.
The season was far from perfect, though. Ivan was sent home from a road trip in mid-April for an occurrence that Drew referred to as an “isolated incident.” Then in the Playoffs, when Horford eventually returned, Ivan’s playing time dwindled—on the night the Hawks were eliminated, he didn’t see a single second on the court, and then he gave a Celtics fan the middle finger after the loss.
But in a League where several teams are without a decent enforcer, a guy who can bring some aggression and energy when the pace drops in the middle quarters, there should be at least a few a few front offices in the League that’ll bounce Ivan’s name around when considering how to dole out some dollars to a big man this summer. On July 1 he’ll officially be a restricted free agent, and the AJC reports the Hawks will extend him a qualifying offer so they’ll maintain the right to match any offer.
“I’d rather have him that juiced up and have to tone him down than the other way around,” Drew says. “He has a motor that most NBA coaches love.”
Back in the visitor’s locker room at MSG earlier this season, minutes before Ivan retraces a few parts of his complicated journey—a journey that begins in East San Antonio and ends, for the moment, with a role on an NBA team, a child on the way and a warm grin on its narrator’s face—he’s sitting courtside, his arms draped over the adjacent folding chairs as he takes in the bubbling pre-game atmosphere.
The Hawks power forward’s focus drifts in the same direction as the rest of the building’s—down to the Knicks’ basket, where Jeremy Lin has just walked onto the court and is practicing flat-footed jumpers with an assistant coach. Cameramen fill the sidelines, clicking away, while fans stand in front of their seats and watch the most Googled human being on the planet in absolute amazement. On this night, Linsanity is in full force, as the point guard’s out-of-nowhere rise and unlikely journey have stolen the basketball world’s attention.
But not Johnson’s. For a minute he gazes from afar, his dark eyes wide and curious, but his mind seems to wander elsewhere quickly. He then stands up, stretches his shoulders, and plods down the tunnel and into the locker room. It’s a game night in the NBA, and Ivan Johnson has a job to do.
A shortened version of this story appears in SLAM 160, which is on sale now.