No Ordinary Joe


by Evin Demirel | portraits Ahmed Klink

He’s the very definition of a big fish in a small pond.

Grown men bounce off 6-7, 240-pound Joe Johnson on a hot, humid June day in downtown Little Rock. One skinny 6-3 guy ricochets off Johnson as he corrals a rebound and barely jumps to lay it through the hoop of a collapsible goal. No whistle from the ref, as the courtside announcer yells: “This is a big boy game!” You can almost imagine Bill Clinton, who catches some of the action from his penthouse apartment in the nearby presidential center named in his honor, nodding in agreement.

For the last two summers, Nets guard Joe Johnson has been the honorary chairman of his hometown’s Hoop Jams 3-on-3 Tournament. During the event, though, there’s about as much chance of finding him sitting in a chair as seeing him rocking a Boston Celtics Tam o’Shanter at a Toby Keith concert. Johnson, a six-time All-Star, has insisted on playing in the top division of his own tournament with a team of three childhood friends. “I’m too passionate. I just can’t go out there and watch them guys play, because I want to play,” he says. “Not only am I hosting this tournament, but I’m gonna win it as long as I’m hosting it.”

So far, so good. Johnson’s Team Jordan—which includes Carl Vault, Brandon Greenwood and Patrick Walker—is 8-0 over the last two years. It’s easy to understand how a player of JJ’s caliber can trounce opponents who played at the likes of University of West Alabama and Arkansas-Little Rock, even while giving 70 percent effort. What’s more perplexing is why a $124-million man would risk even the slightest injury as one of the few—only, as far as he knows—modern NBA players participating in his own summer tournament.

The first answer is simple: Johnson loves the game and likes sharing it with fellow Arkansans. When his uncle Tracy Johnson, who helped raise Joe, told him the Clinton Foundation wanted him on board before the inaugural 2011 event, Johnson didn’t hesitate. “I immediately jumped on it. I wanted to make it an annual thing, to come out and have things for kids to do.”

Johnson also wants to help Arkansas Baptist College, which along with the non-profit Clinton Foundation, receives some of Hoop Jams’ proceeds. Tracy Johnson attended the Little Rock college and often took his young nephew to its basketball games. As a child, Johnson also frequented its gym to play Vault, losing each time. The breakthrough didn’t happen until Johnson began attending nearby Dunbar Junior High in ’93.

This brings us to perhaps the most important reason Johnson lends his name, and game, to the Hoop Jams fundraiser. In 1993, a darkness enveloped whole communities within Little Rock, nearly bringing them to their knees. It’s taken two decades, but these communities are regaining balance. Given this, Johnson has a chance at an assist much greater than the 3,480 he’s so far accumulated in the NBA, for a turnaround resonating far longer than anything he could have accomplished on the court as the Atlanta Hawks’ former cornerstone. Or, for that matter, any bestcase scenario with the Brooklyn franchise he joined in a July 11 trade.

“Unless we do what the old African proverb says—it takes a village to raise a child—unless we as a society start doing that, we could hire all the cops and build all the prisons in the world, and as long as somebody’s hungry and hopeless, they’re also dangerous.”—Former Pulaski County Coroner Steve Nawojczyk, Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock

For a sickening while, the downtown neighborhood Johnson spent his early teen years in might have been the nation’s most dangerous. By ’93, a 20-block radius around his future alma mater Little Rock Central High had essentially become a war zone as clashing gang factions staked out territory. The cost was high: murders spiked to 76, more than double the numbers seen only three years before. With 177,000 people, Little Rock had a higher per capita homicide rate than some of the cities from which its original gangsters and drug traders had arrived in the late 80s—places like New York, Chicago and especially Los Angeles. They found a city with relatively lax gun laws and a new market for crack cocaine.

“L.A. Moe” arrived in ’87 and was credited with forming the area’s first Crip affiliate gang, according to the documentary Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock. “It’s a little L.A. out here now,” he said in the ’94 film. “When I first got here, it was real country. They would fight on weekends, but they’d be friends again that coming Monday. Now they don’t fight no more. They just go there and shoot.”

Residents slept in cast-iron bathtubs for fear of catching stray bullets from a drive-by. One of the film’s most harrowing interviews takes place in Centennial Park, a few blocks west of Arkansas Baptist College. Seventeen-year-old Bobby Banks, already the leader of a local Crip gang, lauds his lifestyle while sitting on a swing. He claims to own a home, three cars and plenty of cash. Banks’ supreme confidence was the exception. As rural Southerners, Arkansans had long dealt with disadvantages that consistently put them at the bottom of national income and education rankings. But the 80s brought a new layer of problems, mostly urban, to deal with. Many of Little Rock’s young black males, already grappling with poverty and increasingly broken homes, felt trapped and frustrated.

Even in elementary school, Joe Johnson saw another option. Compared to many children growing up in the “war zone,” he had a few advantages: a safer home neighborhood and a tight-knit family including his uncles and mother, Dianne Johnson. Still, violence touched Joe. He was shocked one evening when his mother returned home from her stint as a state psychiatric hospital nurse, fresh stitches in the side of her head. A patient had gone on a rage, grabbed a chair and attacked her and some colleagues. She was hit above her ear. “I was heartbroken,” Johnson says. “I never wanted to see her hurt in any fashion…I didn’t want her to work there but I understood that she had to do whatever it took to get the bills paid.”

By junior high, Johnson decided his calling was basketball, and he knew staying focused on it would help him navigate the land mines lurking outside Dunbar’s walls. Even on the weekends, he says, “I stayed in the gym.”

After school, he and his friends sometimes walked a couple blocks to the west, toward Arkansas Baptist College, to grab cheeseburgers at the Wheels and Grills carwash. Young teenage gang members, some of whom Johnson had befriended, also frequented there. Especially at night, the trash-infested spot was a bane for police. There were robberies, assaults, stolen cars and drug possessions. Nobody tried to pull Johnson into that world, though. “My mindset was a lot different. I was inspired at a young age to try to be somebody, to try to be somebody special. Not only for myself, but for the likes of my mother, who worked so hard for me and her. I didn’t want her to have those worries.”

Thanks to Arkansas Baptist College, Wheels and Grills and its crime problems no longer exist. In its place stands a pristine carwash named Auto Baptism, a crown jewel of a community revitalization project in which ABC has taken a leading role. In ’07, the historically black college bought the property where Wheels and Grills stood, renovated the structure and turned it into a student-run business. Ten cents out of every dollar of profit is invested into a fund that allows ABC to continue buying some of the condemned and dilapidated properties surrounding its campus. It has bought nearly 30 boarded-up homes to renovate or tear down, says Larry Bone, the school’s former director of institutional advancement.

This proactive approach toward breeding grounds for crime has been part of the master plan of ABC president Fitz Hill since he assumed the post in ’06. By that time, violent crime had waned. Still, Dr. Hill strongly believed crime could be further reduced by attacking a key root: lack of education. With this correlation in mind, Hill has marketed Arkansas Baptist College as an inclusive institution geared at inner-city black men. ABC even welcomes high school dropouts and has developed classes covering study skills, personal finance, time management, interview skills and speech to help them succeed. Money made from Hoop Jams helps cover tuition costs for those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, Hill said.

In the last six years, ABC student enrollment rose from 287 to 1,193; total revenues increased from $2.5 million to more than $20.2 million. Hill and his team have nurtured ties to local companies, churches and government organizations to sustain the community revitalization project. Hill, a former Arkansas Razorback football coach, has also used his connections in the athletic world. Besides Johnson, other Hogs involved in Hoop Jams include Pat Bradley, Blake Eddins, Reggie Merritt and Anthony Lucas. Hill’s friend Mike Anderson, Arkansas’ head basketball coach, attends the event’s opening reception each year. He enjoys catching up with Johnson, one of his players from a previous assistant coaching stint at Arkansas. “I’m so proud of him,” Anderson says. “He has become a tremendous player, but I think he’s still a humble guy. It’s reflected in what he’s doing in the community.”

Johnson shows that desire through more than Hoop Jams. This summer, like in previous summers, he’s playing in a basketball league at the Dunbar Community Center. There, he often sees former Central High teammates like Jarrett Hart and Mark Green, guys who have invested in renovating homes in the area. Johnson has chipped in to clean up the area, too. He gave $60,000 to help renovate Central’s football field and wants to start the remake of Central’s decrepit gym. “I’m sure I’m gonna be a part of that,” he says.

Johnson has two faint tattoos on top of his wrists. Both are Hindi script, and together they translate to “Incredibly blessed,” he says on a Saturday evening outside Central High. It’s a place he still gets goosebumps while visiting. He knows much of his success stems from this neighborhood, where he got plenty of opportunity to discover and hone his unique gifts.

Opportunity itself is a gift, too. That’s why Johnson joined a team to provide it.