In a scene reminiscent of one of those Kevin Costner sports movies, Joe Johnson stripped off his Celtics green warm-ups and walked slowly to the scorer’s table for his first NBA game in 3½ years.
Johnson is 40. Most of his NBA brethren are long retired, coaching their daughters’ AAU teams, working as television commentators, or navigating corporate America. Two members of Johnson’s 2001 draft class already have had their numbers retired.
Johnson doesn’t want to stop playing. He still loves the game enough to play every day, to work out with his 14-year-old son, to play high-level runs during hot Los Angeles summers. Most athletes retire because their bodies won’t allow them to continue or they tire of the relentless and meticulous preparation required to play.
In other words, they get tired of those hard days that Johnson relishes. His ears perked up when the NBA began allowing teams to replace players in COVID-19 protocol with players on 10-day contracts without salary-cap penalty.
That enabled Johnson to get his chance, and he entered the Celtics’ 111-101 win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night with 1:57 left and the TD Garden crowd chanting, “We want Joe!”
It had been 20 years since Johnson, a seven-time All-Star and 2001 Celtics first-round pick, had played a home game in Boston. The crowd was aware of the ill-advised trade that sent him away, as well as his accomplishments after he departed. They went into a frenzy when he stepped on the floor, perhaps remorse for his departure and gratitude for his return.
One minute, 35 seconds in, Johnson dribbled around a Bruno Fernando screen, got Cleveland’s Justin Anderson on his backside, and launched a 18-foot jumper that swished. Mission accomplished.
“It was exciting, it was fun to get that type of ovation from the crowd,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s kind of surreal to have them chanting my name like that and then come in the game and be somewhat effective. It’s fun. At my age, you try to relish every moment, enjoy the process, and live in the moment.”
A handful of ex-players, pushed out of the league because of their age or just circumstances, rejuvenated their hopes of one final chance, one last shot at glory. Johnson signed with the Celtics on Wednesday. The Hawks signed once-banished Lance Stephenson. Brandon Knight returned to the league with the Mavericks.
There is another group of players waiting for that call, realizing the Omicron variant is ravaging the NBA, and the league has no intention of postponing the season.
Johnson never wanted to retire. He last played in the NBA with the Rockets in 2018. Then there was little interest.
Johnson signed with rapper/actor Ice Cube’s Big3 half-court league and was the MVP in 2019. That prompted a training camp invitation from the Pistons, but Johnson acknowledged his body was not prepared for competitive five-on-five games with players who were in kindergarten when he was drafted. He was in good enough shape to play three on three, where play stops after every basket. But this was different.
Spending the last two years working himself back into basketball shape, Johnson said he was basically focused on developing his 14-year-old son, Gavin. Forty-year-olds aren’t in high demand in the NBA. There are players such as Jamal Crawford and Monta Ellis who would love to return for one more run. Others have joined the Big3, hoping to impress NBA teams.
It was mostly a fruitless mission until last week, when the NBA turned into a free-agent extravaganza, with teams plucking players from the G-League, and even the streets, to fill rosters. The Celtics may desire Johnson’s presence for longer than 10 days.
He has considerable credentials, a mentor who could have a positive influence on players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, an Atlanta native who grew up watching Johnson starring with the Hawks.
“We need some guys to kind of get the energy, the tone, the pace, the maturity level, to where it needs to be, and I’m all for it,” Brown said. “We played together [this summer] in Los Angeles and he looked great, man. He’s in good shape, shooting the ball well, can still score it, as you seen on the last play. He’s still got a lot in the tank, if you ask me. I’m happy to have him on board, to hear his voice, his advice as I’m maneuvering through the year, as our team is maneuvering. I think it’s great.”
Brown doesn’t make off-the-cuff statements. Everything he says comes with considerable thought. He made sure to note that these inconsistent Celtics could use another veteran voice.
There’s a reason why the Heat have kept Udonis Haslem all these years, and it’s not because of his midrange shooting. He is a leader, mentor, sage, and locker room authority who commands respect. Celtics center Al Horford is a leader by example, but Johnson could become that calming presence that could have a profound impact on the careers of Brown and Tatum.
This may be an opportunity for the Celtics to improve the culture of their locker room immediately, and the good thing is Johnson likely wouldn’t seek any major on-court role. He’s been out of the NBA for three years, so a role of any capacity would likely suffice, especially if it would help the franchise’s two cornerstones.
“I’ve probably talked to everybody on the squad, before and after the game, this team, we, are trying to find an identity,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to come together as a squad and pile up as many wins as possible. It’s a great group of young guys and I just try to go in and be vocal. What I tell them about some of my experiences or throughout the game, whatever I see I try to convey to guys like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, [Dennis] Schröder.
“I’m going to try to do whatever I can to help these guys, help this organization, help this team get wins, man.”
Johnson already feels invested in the organization that drafted him 20 years ago. Maybe the Celtics should consider investing in Johnson for the long run.