The Book of Joe

Clara Mokri/The Players’ Tribune

I got one of the last good MJ stories, man.

See, I came into the league in 2001, right when he had joined the Wizards. So, basically this was one of the last seasons where you could be drafted straight outta like high school or college, and the next week you guarding Michael Jordan.

Leading up to that MJ game…. My mind was tricking me, like I was fixing to play against Superman or something. I mean, just picture it. Imagine that everything you’ve been working for as a kid is literally right here in front of you like that. Like the snap of a finger. I mean, it’s like my fifth game in the league and I got MJ???? I’m starting and everything. I’m like anybody would be in that situation. Like, Damn. I’m about to play my idol.

So we tipoff and the first three quarters I’m guarding him. And listen, once the game start, everything’s fine. There ain’t no nerves or nothing like that. You kind of understand, Alright, this is exactly where I belong. I fit right in. 

But it’s still MJ, you feel me???

You gotta think, I’m 20, 21 years old. This was surreal to me.

But Antoine? Paul?

Antoine is from Chicago, and him and Jordan got history. They boys, they hung out. So Paul and Toine are talking trash to him the whole night. Up and down the court. Half the time, I ain’t even know what they was talking about. I don’t know if MJ had been hosting pickup games in the summer and Paul didn’t come or what, I just remember MJ saying: 

“Shit, I gotta come back to the NBA just to get a pickup game with you???

It was a lot of trash talking. But I can’t lie, I think Paul got the better end that night. Not only did we get the win, but he got a huge block on MJ at the end, and helped me kind of cap it off with a nice lil two-hand dunk. You know what I’m saying? Hahaha. I had 16 points, 10 rebounds, probably about three dimes. Hey, playing with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker in their prime?? Man, that’s a hell of a game for a rookie. I remember going home and rewatching the game immediately. I just couldn’t believe…. I was like, Wow, dang

MJ had 32 points that night. I think he was like 40 years old.

Guess how old I am now? 

Time really flies, man.

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
Clara Mokri/The Players’ Tribune

They think once you hit 40, you a dinosaur.

There ain’t too many guys who played in their 40s. Only like a handful, forreal. I mean, it ain’t many. It’s gonna be hard to get a real shot in the NBA at 40. 

That minute and 57 seconds that I got on the 10-day in Boston this year, I mean, I appreciate it. 

It was a moment. It was a big moment for me. It was nothing for me to get into the mid-range and — boom! — hit my lil mid-range jumper, because I been doing that since the sandbox. Since back when I was just hoopin’ at the Thrasher Boys & Girls Club off 33rd Street in Little Rock. 

Before Boston. Before the fame and the m’s. Before everything

Those instincts just never leave you.

And I’ll tell you another thing. I wish I had a 40-year-old dude in my corner that I could talk to back then when I was 23 and still had a few more years of the NBA in front of me. Someone to tell me what I don’t know.

Someone to break it down to me like: 

Aye, man, don’t worry

It’ll all work out.

I grew up in Little Rock, and for as long as I can remember it was always just me and my mom. We didn’t have a lot, but she always did whatever she could to make ends meet. She worked two jobs — she had the graveyard shift at the state hospital, then she’d come home and try to grab a few hours of sleep before she had to be at the Thrasher Boys & Girls Club in the morning.

Actually, I used to spend my whole Saturdays at Thrasher. It was in the part of town known as South End. And, man, I fell in love with the game back then, when I was about seven. There were moments when the gym was packed with lots of other kids, but on the best days, it wouldn’t be nobody in there but me. Those were the days that molded me. That was like my sanctuary.

As a kid, you see all that and you just think to yourself like, Dang, Mama gotta work her butt off. She worked hard, tired as I don’t know what. So this idea kinda take hold of you like, I gotta make life better. You know what I mean? 

That’s why I started to take my craft so serious, because I knew where it could take me. I could set it up so she ain’t gotta work no more, and that’s more motivating than anything. And for me, that’s what it was. Being an only child, it’s nothing like a son and his mother. I was willing to do whatever it took.

You know how nowadays, guys got trainers at like 10 years old?? We didn’t have all that back then. Back then, you was doing whatever your homies was doing. And all my homies was hoopin’. Hey, I’m not just another dude who’s gonna tell you they played point guard as a kid. Nahhh. I really was The Point Guard. I had a nice handle. And I ain’t just got a handle because I got a handle, you know what I mean? I really, really worked on it. That was the first thing I was able to develop as a kid. Even the days I didn’t have a hoop in the yard, I could dribble up the street with the rock.

I was probably a junior in high school when A.I. hit the scene. 

Iverson had everybody doing that crossover. 

And when I learned it?? It was over.

Back then, though, most of the hoopers I was looking up to played on that iconic Arkansas Razorbacks team. 

I could only see myself wearing red and white.

Corliss Williamson (AKA Big Nasty), Scotty Thurman, Alex Dillard, Dwight Stewart, Clint McDaniel, Corey Beck…. Them dudes was serious. That up and down 40 Minutes of Hell?? I mean, it was awesome. You couldn’t ask for nothing better than that as a kid, watching that style of play. It’s just like chaos throughout the whole game. You pick up full-court, you full-court press, and then you trap in the corners. And soon as they get across half court, you speed your opponent up to make them just play chaotic and turn the ball over and take bad shots. 

It’s funny, when Coach Richardson asked me and my mother up to Fayetteville to see the campus, he didn’t know that in my head I was already committed. I made a name for myself in that system. You have to give Nolan Richardson a lot of credit, because he made it look fun, made it look enticing. You wanted to buy in. And I really did. I played for that program for two years. Then I was drafted to the league.

It’s only 400 some guys who get to play — 400 some out of millions and millions who’ve had that dream. And I was one of the ones to make it.

Joe Johnson

When you get drafted, you think it’s gonna be like, Oh man, I’ve become a millionaire overnight. But it didn’t hit me like that right away. You get that money, but deep, deep down, you still got that lil anxiety in you, you know? 

That fear.

The average career span of an NBA player is like four, five years. I was hyper aware of that.

Nobody come into the league like, Yeah, if I get five years I’ll be good. Nah, man. You wanna be one of the best. You wanna be elite. You wanna be one of the top players that they talkin’ about.

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images, David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

But it’s not a lot of room at the top.

And it’s so crowded at the bottom, bro.

You get to the league, you just wanna do what you can to make it last.

I got traded from Boston to Phoenix right after All-Star as a rookie.

My first couple of years with the Suns, it was up and down. Come 2004, I guess the organization saw an opportunity to shake things up, and they went for it. They brought Steve in from Dallas, and they also signed Q Rich.

And I’ll tell you what, man … ’04–’05?

That team was special.

I don’t care what the history books say — Suns were the only team that mattered that year. We had Nash playing MVP ball, had Amar’e dunking on everyone in sight, had Matrix doing Matrix things, had Q raining threes. And you know I was getting buckets. We beat all the top teams, and most nights it wasn’t even close. That group was just unfair.

And that was probably the only time in my career where I really felt like, O.K. — we are going THROUGH this thing. We’re gonna win us an NBA championship. I didn’t have no worries.

But then I got injured. I broke my orbital bone against Dallas in Round 2, which made me miss our first two conference finals games. And the Spurs … credit where it’s due. I thought we was too complete as a unit to be beat. But they controlled things from the jump and took us out.

Come summer, I was a restricted free agent — and I’ll put it this way: I don’t think anyone was surprised that I wanted a bigger role. With Shawn, Amar’e and Steve, they was all gonna be All-Stars for a while. That was understood. So if I was gonna take the next step as a player, I knew I needed to find a place where I could have those types of expectations.

Atlanta made an offer, and let it be known they wanted me to be that guy. I asked Phoenix not to match. Sarver wasn’t about to let me walk for nothing, though, so they worked out a sign-and-trade.

Was it tough leaving? Yeah, man, it was. But I believed in my abilities. And I wanted to play for an organization that believed in me the same amount.

When I got to Atlanta, there was so much expected of me. 

And to reach that level I knew I was capable of, I needed some adjusting — and some more discipline. I didn’t have a lot of that. I had some of it, but I didn’t have a lot. 

Atlanta was hot. The city was jumpin’.

There was something to do every day. The big jerseys, big tall tees, baggy pants. You didn’t have to throw nothing on but a lil crisp white tee and keep it moving back then. Late nights in Buckhead, knowing we had to get up early for practice…. It’s just lil things like that, that you don’t really think through at that age. 

Man, it’s a lot of responsibilities coming with being a professional athlete at the top of your game. You know what I mean? When I get to Atlanta, for the first time it’s like, Alright, you’re the focal point. Teams are gonna be trying to slow you down, so you gotta make everybody around you better. When you’re the point guard, you gotta elevate everybody’s game. It took me a while to understand that. But I was still able to help guys be successful in certain spots and positions on the floor. As a floor general, that’s valuable. Man, that’s important. 

We improved every year until finally we were a playoff team in ’07–08.

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
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We was a young, naive group with a lot of confidence and a lot of energy. We was something to be reckoned with. Probably wasn’t the wisest team, lol, but we had crazy talent and some exceptional coaching. Mike Woodson and Larry Drew — those guys challenged us and made us better. 

So, we get through the regular season and pull the No. 1 team in the playoffs, the Celtics, led by KG, Paul and Ray.

I remember coming into the series, everybody got something to say…. Hawks gonna get SWEPT. This, that, and the third. 

Game 1 and Game 2 in Boston, they were right. 

It was so lopsided, man…. We was getting our butts smacked

But we got back to Atlanta for Game 3,  and it was like a movie. Philips Arena was PACKED. They was damn near blowing the roof off that joint. T.I. probably one of the hottest rappers in the South at this point. If I’m not mistaken, he had been gone for a lil minute. House arrest or something, I don’t know. But he was one of the biggest supporters of ours back then. Running up the sidelines seeing him posted up courtside. I just remember Atlanta coming out for these games. 

So, we beat them in Game 3, and it was like, O.K., we gotta push this to seven games. We needed to win Game 4. 

That night, a switch flipped. The only way I can explain it is like I just willed myself with everything I had. I willed myself to tap into something down deep. Because two nights later, in Game 4, we went into that fourth quarter … I think we were down 10 or 12 points, if not more. And only thing I remember saying to myself was, Man, we gotta make a push. We gotta make a move, when we touch the court I’m talking about, we got to be MOVING. And we gotta get back in this game. And before you know it, we had a tied game. 

Then we took the lead. 

I just remember the roof getting blown off that thing. You couldn’t even hear yourself thinking. It was crazy. I had 35 points, and I scored 20 in the fourth. It was insane. I just remember every time I touched the ball, I had two people guarding me because I was hot.

Now we thought we really had a series. 

That was insane — every game we played in Atlanta that series was. We were just a bunch of young, hungry guys, sick of being counted out. And suddenly the mood went from Alright, y’all’s season about to be over with REAL quick to, Oh, them Hawks might be a problem.

We gave them a scare, man. We was able to push them to seven games. Obviously, they won the series — and the title. But I look back on that season, and we had some guys. Some young guys who had really came into their own like Josh Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia. Those guys played huge. Josh Childress. We had guys who played big in the biggest moments. 

And those were some special times. That was a high point for the Hawks, and for me too. Being on a playoff-bound team, hoopin’ on a big stage. You gotta think: This was everything I ever wanted. 

Unfortunately, over those next few seasons, we ended up hitting a plateau.

I’m not sure what changed. But after year seven, it felt like it was just time for guys to go separate ways. It started with me, then Marvin got traded, and the next thing you know, it was just a trickle-down effect. 

But there’s obviously a lil more to the story. 

Everybody knew when free agency hit in 2010, it was gonna be chaos. The Hawks offered me the max extension, and I took it. I understood what was going on. There was a major shift happening in the NBA that summer. We couldn’t have known it back then, but over the next few years, things were gonna change. That contract I got?? That’s like the going rate now. You don’t need to have no credentials behind your name to get that type of contract. But anytime you’re one of the first, you always gonna catch smoke. People are gonna talk shit — that’s just part of it. It is what it is.

And you know what?

I’d take it again in a heartbeat

This the real shit they don’t tell you though. The truth is, there were times where I got too in my head. The role I took on the Hawks came with a lot of extra pressure. You get that kind of number by your name, suddenly everybody’s like, “Why aren’t you leading the team? Why aren’t you this or that?”

Everything becomes your fault, your responsibility.

And I can be a man now and say that some of it was my fault. But that’s a 40-year-old man talking. If you asked me back then? Which a lot of people did in the media, I probably deflected more of that responsibility than I would today.

That’s why I always say you have to have older people around you. Especially guys who’ve been through the wars and the battles that you’re currently in, or going through, or gonna face, who can help you through those crossroads. 

I didn’t really have that. There were plenty of guys that I had played with that I could have asked for help, but I’ll be honest, I really never reached out or sought guidance. I came up in a different era. A different NBA. We didn’t talk about things like the mental side, like they do now. That wasn’t a part of the culture yet. 

So, I just kind of dealt with all those challenges in the best way I knew how: I didn’t say nothing to nobody.

I remember I was a Brand Jordan athlete, and we were doing all type of functions, and hanging out, and vacations, and I never, not once, pulled MJ to the side and was like, “Man, I’m having this problem, how should I deal with it?” We had so many lil powwows as a group. But as a hooper, I never wanted to … I don’t want to say be disruptive to what we were doing, but I just tried not to make it about me during those times, you know? Because he would get all the Jordan athletes together, and we would all hang out, and just chill and enjoy the moment. But I hate that I never took advantage of those opportunities to ask questions and pick his brain.

I’m not a guy who’s gonna just go up to a dude and be like, “Hey, man. I’m having a hard time with this, this, and this.”

Nahh. I was so closed off, closed in, in my own shell, dealing with it how I deal with it.

But I wish I would’ve sought a little advice here and there from guys who had been through them wars, guys who knew how to lead.

Most people had no idea about the things that were going on in my life. 

I came up in a different era. A different NBA. We didn’t talk about things like the mental side like they do now. That wasn’t a part of the culture yet. 

Joe Johnson

Back in 2009, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. For a whole decade, for most of my NBA career, she was battling. It would go into remission and she would feel great. There would be no signs of the cancer, and then all of a sudden it would come roaring back. 

But the last time that it came back, at the end of 2018, it happened at such a rapid pace I didn’t see it coming. It was like it just took over. 

I remember it was Christmas Day, back in Little Rock, and she had opened up some of her gifts. Probably about an hour later, she was like, “I think I need to go to the hospital, baby. I just don’t feel right.” 

So we took her to the hospital … and it was like from that point on, everything was downhill. She was in the hospital all the way from December 25 to about February 8 or 9. We already knew that she was about to pass away. 

She knew it, too, and she asked the doctor if she could just rest at home and basically be with me. And that’s what it was. 

Probably about her last two weeks of her life, it was just me there, with her in bed. Basically what happens with multiple myeloma, it just takes over your body and eats away your bones, joints, all that until you go limp, like until you can’t do anything. She went from walking and talking, to being completely unresponsive, all in the span of two weeks. She was losing weight at a rapid pace, and her mobility was gone. If she needed something she would just kind of look at you, and you would have to guess what it was that you think she needed. 

She couldn’t even get out of bed, and it was just ... man

That was the toughest, toughest time I’ve ever been through in life. My mom was gone. I was out the league. I didn’t have that sanctuary to fall back on. I was really hurting.

But you know what? As hard as it was, I’m grateful that I got to spend my mother’s last days by her side. Our last conversations were just her telling me how much of a blessing I was to her, and me telling her what a blessing she was to me.

She laid there until her heart stopped. After she passed, I called the coroner people and they had to come put her in a bag. Carry her out of the house. I had to watch all this. You think that don’t do nothing to you as an only child???

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

Going through something like that moves you, whether it moves you to a place where you feel like you shouldn’t be here, or it moves you to a space where you feel like you’re going to conquer the world.

Every night I would just lie in that dark room staring up at the ceiling. Just asking, Why?? Why my mama?

But we’re not supposed to ask that. We’re not supposed to ask why or how it happens. It all happens in divine order. It’s a higher power to it. 

It was like, Damn, she’s really gone. Now I gotta figure out this shit on my own. 

I remember Jannero Pargo hit my line outta nowhere like, “Man, we gotta join the BIG3!!”

This was in 2019. Me and Pargo hooped together in college.

He made it sound easy, like hustling dudes on the pool table or something. We’d put our work in during the week and basically just be kicking everybody ass on the weekend. 

It wasn’t no question. We knew if we signed on to this thing, we were gonna win. That’s basically how it was, you know what I mean? And Pargo said we could also pick up our other college teammate, Sergerio Gipson, who was playing ball overseas at the time.

That was like a lifeline for me. That BIG3 thing came about, and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

I joined for therapy. I was excited at the chance to compete with my college teammates again. But I also just needed to be around other people, you know? I needed to be in an environment where I could have fun and keep my mind off other things.

When the league was about to start, Pargo was walking me through it like, “This dude last year was the MVP, this dude the year before, he won the scoring title.” And I’m making lil mental notes in my head like, O.K. MVP, scoring title, championship, da-da-da. I’m already thinking like, we gotta get all this my first year. We needa win the whole thing. 

Through the toughest time of my life, I was just working my ass off. 

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
David Becker/Getty Images for BIG3

And by the end of the season, we were at the top. The 2020 season got canceled because of COVID. But when we came back this past summer, I came out and broke my own scoring record, and I averaged a double double. Still won MVP even though we didn’t win it.

I’m just having the time of my life.

The camaraderie in the BIG3 is amazing, man. It’s probably better in the BIG3 than in the NBA, because we all have so many stories that we can talk about now. (I keep saying we need a show lol. The locker room chronicles would be crazy.) It’s no-holds-barred in there. I love it.

In January, just a couple months after my MVP win in the BIG3, my agent hits me like, “I might have a gig for you.” A team had about seven or eight guys that were gonna be out with COVID. 

“Boston might want you to come in in the next day or so.”

Well, we hang up, and he calls back in about 30 minutes. He wanted to know if I could make a flight at 6:30 p.m. I looked at the time — it was three o’clock. Three hours later, I was on a plane headed to Boston.

I got to the facility that morning for the mandatory COVID testing and bumped into Jayson, so we got to chat a lil bit. But that was it. Before the first game, I didn’t really see anybody. But they let me shoot around in the gym a little bit after I tested. For about 45 minutes, I got shots up alone, and I can’t even lie to you. That was a moment. Shooting in there by myself like I did at Thrasher back when my mama had to take me to work with her. On the first pro court I ever touched when the Celtics drafted me 20 years ago. 

It didn’t feel strange, though. 

This time, I knew I belonged.

Think about it, man…. It’s like I said — the average career span of an NBA player is about four, four and a half, five years. 

And I was able to squeeze out 18.

I’m proud of that.

Joe Johnson | The Book of Joe | The Players' Tribune
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I wouldn’t have seen this at 14, 15 years old. 

My son, Gavin, is 15 now, and I find myself looking at things more and more from his perspective, trying to see through his eyes. 

So, my son, he love basketball, right? But he hasn’t hit that growth spurt yet, so he’s a little anxious for that to happen. And I remember what it’s like to be 15, so I definitely understand.

But I tell him, longevity in this game is about work. If you get up every day and run you about a mile or two — just something like that alone. You don’t even have to touch no basketball. Man, do you know the endurance that that’s going to put on your body when you touch that floor? That way in the third or fourth quarter, when everybody tired and hunching over grabbing their shorts, you standing up like it’s the first. 

That’s the part that you don’t understand yet at that age. That’s the part that I had to learn. It’s gonna be days when you ain’t gonna feel like doing shit, but those are the days you gotta get your ass up and do it. That’s the recipe.

The bottom line is: You can’t take this game for granted. The NBA is a prestigious fraternity. It’s only 400 some guys who get to play — 400 some out of millions and millions who’ve had that dream.

And I was one of the ones to make it. 

If that’s all I ever did — buy my mama a house and make it to the league — then that would be alright with me.

But guess what?

I not only made it … I made a career out of it.

I made a life out of it.

And until they tell me not to, I’m still gonna be out here hoopin’.