If he receives a second straight ten-day contract from the Boston Celtics, as Doc Rivers thinks he will, maybe Chris Johnson will be able to afford a square meal. Or a weight room membership. Or a personal trainer.
I kid, of course, and I’m kind of a jackass. Johnson does not have a normal NBA physique, nor did he take a normal path to the League. You can read more about his long journey here (CelticsBlog), but I’ll try to offer the short version. He began his professional career in Turkey, where his team actually forged his signature in order to release him. Johnson thought about taking matters to court, but decided against it and signed in Poland instead. He finished his first professional season there, and, thankfully, “it was better than Turkey.” With all due respect to Semih Erden (God bless his soul), Johnson really seemed to hate Turkey.
Prior to this season, Johnson was invited to Boston Celtics training camp. He did not make the team, but impressed at least one person — Danny Ainge. After seeing Johnson (and, likely, drooling at Johnson’s airplane wingspan, trampoline vertical leap and impressive motor), Ainge gave him a bit of advice:
“Ainge pretty much told me and my agent to pursue the D-League because he felt I could play in this league,” said Johnson. “And that’s what I did. The Dakota Wizards drafted me and I played there.”
One problem: his wife couldn’t make the trip with him. Born in New Zealand, her visa expired in December and she was forced to leave the United States. Which makes me doubt The Proposal, in which Sandra Bullock married Ryan Reynolds so she could stay in the States, but I digress. Johnson misses his wife (or, at least, I hope he does) but uses “a lot of Skype.”
In the strangest comparison you’ll hear today (and I’ve made it once before), watching Johnson play for the Celtics reminds me of Rudy. Not that Johnson’s five foot nothing (though he may be a hundred nothing) or that he hardly has a speck of athletic ability (au contraire, he’s actually Freakadelic), but Johnson plays with that extra passion that set Rudy apart.
On a team of players who generally play quite hard (most nights, at least), Johnson’s effort easily stands out. He’s not the most talented player on the floor, but he’ll beat his opponent in transition every time. He’s not the perfect defender, but, boy, does he fly from one side of the paint to the other in hopes of registering blocks. I get the feeling Kevin Garnett goes into Doc Rivers’ office before every game, and the following scene ensues:
Garnett puts his jersey on Rivers’ desk, saying, “I want Chris Johnson to dress in my place, coach.”
Rivers replies, “Don’t be ridiculous. Johnson’s already dressing, and even if he wasn’t, Georgia Tech — err, I mean Golden St. — is one of the best offensive teams in the league.”
Rivers continues, “You’re an All-Star and our captain. Act like it!”
Garnett does not waver. “I believe I am.”
Garnett then leaves, and every other player follows Garnett into the office to offer his own jersey for Johnson. Rivers is flummoxed, mostly because Johnson dresses anyway. The players do not need to do this.
Fast forward a day or two, to the game. Johnson looks at Sasha Pavlovic, who has been deactivated. Johnson says something like, “I wish you could be there with me.”
*End rambling story.*
In many ways, Johnson’s an NBA-caliber player. (Which would make sense, considering he’s playing in the NBA.) I already told you about his work ethic and impressive physical tools, and Danny Ainge swears Johnson can shoot from outside. But Johnson does have one quite visible flaw, one that Chris Kaman exposed with a series of quick post ups in Los Angeles: his weight.
“If we can figure out a way to get him on Baby’s weight program,” Doc Rivers told Chris Forsberg, “he’d be terrific.”
In all honesty, Johnson will likely head elsewhere after his second ten-day contract expires. Shaq and Glen Davis, presumably, will return soon from injury, and a crowded Celtics frontcourt will become more so. Johnson figures to become the odd man out, behind his more celebrated (and more well-rounded — in more ways than one) teammates.
But these are the players you root for, the ones who jump around the NBA’s fringe for years, just hoping for a chance. Fandom is why I still think about Orien Greene (on a rare occasion, but still), all these years later, and why I sometimes wonder how Milt Palacio’s doing. Fandom’s why Marty Conlon will never be forgotten (sadly), and why Ricky Davis (for whatever reason) still has a soft spot in my heart.
Chris Johnson’s a Boston Celtic, now, and years later, even if he doesn’t make it with the Celtics, I’ll hear his name and begin to reminisce. I’ll remember the time Chris Kaman backed him down with such ease, just like I’ll remember Johnson’s alley oop from Rajon Rondo. I’ll remember how my friend labeled him a skinny man’s Chris “Birdman” Anderson, which made sense. Mostly, I’ll remember how hard he played. These are the things you remember, down the road, after a player plays for your favorite team.
Maybe Chris Johnson has only ten days left in his Boston Celtics career. Maybe everything will work out perfectly, and he’ll skype his wife sometime this month to tell her he signed for the rest of the season. Wherever Johnson goes, wherever his basketball journey takes him next — well, at least it won’t be Turkey.