by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
James Johnson has played in over 200 NBA games. His defining moment did not take place in any of those, but rather in the D-League, where he spent the first part of this season playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
So many times, a player has all the skills on the floor, but it is the game off the court that throws the biggest curve. The 16th overall pick in 2009 spoke about “going from nothing to something real fast” and how changes in fortune can be fleeting if one doesn’t stay hungry through the process.
SLAM: You are a fan favorite in Memphis now. What has this ride been like?
James Johnson: Humbling. Honored. I knew I had it in me but it took something else—it took me getting taken out of the League and put in the D-League. The road that God put me on, you can never stop believing, stop having faith, and I never did—in Him or myself. This is just the benefit of doing that.
SLAM: Since being drafted by the Bulls, you’ve played in Toronto and Sacramento before landing in Memphis. What have you learned from each stop?
JJ: Various things. Each team has something different to offer, each organization has something different to offer. At the end of the day, it was just mainly myself. I was holding myself back. I had to look at the man in the mirror. That’s basically what this tattoo on my neck is. Every time I look in the mirror, I see my son’s name and I know what I’m doing it for and I know the responsibilities that I have. Like anything else in my life that I did, I just take the challenge, and when I put my mind to something, I pretty much conquer it.
SLAM: Speaking of your tattoo, the Grizzlies are giving out promotional neck tattoos to the fans celebrating your role on the team. (The promotion occurred Feb. 21 and Johnson had 15 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in 18 minutes in a big home win against the Clippers.)
JJ: I think it’s sweet. Maybe it’s history, maybe it’s not, but it got a lot of positive out of it. If people don’t want to wear it, at least the organization did something great for me and I couldn’t ask for anything better.
SLAM: What if your son wants to get a “James” tattoo on his neck?
JJ: I’m not going to let that happen [laughs]. Who knows, this day and age, I can’t be a hypocrite, but at the same time I could be a good father. Not saying my father was a bad one! When he grows up he can do whatever he wants, but at the time, no, I’m not going to let him have one.
SLAM: You mentioned looking at the man in the mirror. What do you think was holding you back?
JJ: I had a lot of flaws. Going from nothing to something real fast, sometimes it can alter the person that you really are and I felt like it did. Too busy wanting other stuff or too busy playing for the wrong reasons. I went down to the D-League and got my winner back, got my swag back that I always played with because down there it’s not about the better person or the money or anything like that, it’s getting to the next level. When you’re just playing to get to the next level, that’s basically what you were doing your whole life—college, high school. When I did that, we were winning games. I felt like I was the reason why and having that mentality of just playing to win and not playing for any other reasons.
SLAM: There are a lot of hungry guys in the D-League—journeymen, overseas veterans, guys that are chasing a spot in the NBA. What was your experience like?
JJ: I just knew what my capabilities were and what I was there for. I was on a great team, I couldn’t ask for a better team. My teammates on that team were great. We were one oiled up machine. No one cared who was going to be the star and for a D-League team, that’s hard to find, because everybody’s so hungry, like you said. Having 10 guys, 11 guys who just buy in and didn’t care who scored. I wasn’t even the leading scorer on our team. But to do all the other little things, that’s what I wanted to base myself on. We had about three guys go up [to the NBA] from that team already, so to have a team like that, that’s probably the easiest thing for me. I could’ve gone to any other D-League team that had guys with their own agendas, and we could’ve lost more games, and I could’ve not been seen as fast, but thank God for the path he put me on, like I said.
SLAM: After the Draft, many players have to make adjustments both on and off the court. Is that what you referred to when you talked about getting so much so fast?
JJ: Off the court, that’s exactly what it was. I was having fun. The summertime’s not about having fun. You can take your week off, or month off, depending on who you are, but summertime is really your own individual grind time and a time for you to prepare yourself for the winter time. I wasn’t doing that. Summertime was summertime for me like I was still in school or something. I just had to learn, grow up, you’re not in school anymore. After I learned that, I started to love my trainer, love my system that I was training in, and just trying to buy into it every day.
If I’m not getting my 13, 14 minutes per game, then I’m conditioning. On my off days, I don’t have an off day. If we have an off day, I’m going to get in the gym and do something. Pretty much staying active and using my days wisely.
SLAM: Describe your game.
JJ: I’m just an all around player. I play both sides of the court…I’m aggressive on both ends and I step up to challenges and I take challenges.
SLAM: When people think of you as a basketball player, how do you want them to remember you?
JJ: I never gave up.