Each time James Johnson looks in the mirror, he’s reminded of the most important thing in his life.
Written across his throat just under his beard line is “Naymin 3.9.13” in honour of his son, who was born six weeks premature and struggled for survival in pediatric intensive care in the first days of his life.
“I put that on my neck so that every day I look in the mirror it’s a reminder that I have to go to the gym and grind for him,” Johnson said.
Naymin will be a robust two-year-old soon enough, health concerns long past, but Johnson only gets to see him intermittently after he divorced from his mother, who lives with the child in Ohio.
"I miss them every day. It’s life, but sometimes it happens like that. I’m just trying to move forward every day. I just wish the best for (his ex-wife) and my son. It’s life. She made her decision and I made mine, it happens to everybody, there’s just a different kind of telescope in this relationship because I’m in the NBA."
All he can control is what he’s doing on the floor in his second stint with the Raptors, and that he’s doing admirably.
Johnson’s first go-around in Toronto didn’t end well as his unwillingness to bend to the wishes of head coach Dwane Casey led to a clash in practice, Johnson being removed from the starting lineup and eventually traded to the Sacramento Kings.
Two years later, Johnson found himself out of the league: a gifted athlete without focus; a free agent without a contract, exiled to the D-League to start last season. There were offers to go to Europe, but he persevered, inspired in part by Naymin.
"I didn’t want to go to Europe. I dug myself into that hole and I wanted to get myself out of it," he said on Saturday night after the Raptors’ slump-busting win over the Boston Celtics. "I thought going overseas for the money would have been a cop-out. To me, I love playing basketball and I love to be in the NBA.
"It’s more than just money. The NBA is a fraternity and it’s a privilege to say you’re in the NBA."
So he stayed, a father determined to make good for his son. He was called up to the Memphis Grizzlies in the middle of last season and his impact was so significant—the injury-riddled Grizzlies went on a 16-9 run after he arrived—that the team held a throat-tattoo giveaway night as a tribute, surely an NBA first.
He signed a two-year, $5-million contract with the Raptors this past summer, but even then there were bumps, with Naymin at the heart of it. Johnson was charged with domestic assault after a fight with his then-wife where he was accused of slapping and choking her in an episode that ended with Johnson taking his infant son and running from the house. The case was dismissed when his wife didn’t pursue the prosecution.
"I don’t condone all of that stuff,” Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said in an interview earlier this season. “It’s something we take very seriously. But we had James Johnson here before and we really did our due diligence on him as a person and player. You talk to the experts—lawyers, James, agents, people who have dealt with him, all that stuff; we looked at the police report.… (But) as a team, we try to do our due diligence and build a good culture and you try to treat individuals fairly."
For Johnson, the Raptors have become a new family; he's valued for his bubbly locker-room personality and for what he can do on the floor as well.
"Not seeing (my family) is the toughest part. I got so much on my mind, but you have to let that go," he said. "That’s why I love basketball so much. You forget about all of that and everything that’s going on in the outside world when you’re playing or hanging around with these guys. It’s a blessing to have the support of the guys on this team that know I’m not like that."
On the floor, Johnson’s impact has been undeniable.
He’s got the best defensive rating among Raptors regulars, and he showed in his start against Boston on Saturday that he can provide a spark at the other end, too, as he finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. He’ll likely get the start again Monday night against Detroit, and it would make sense for Casey to consider moving Johnson into the small forward spot permanently and moving Terrence Ross to the bench after DeMar DeRozan returns, though Casey is loath to disrupt one of the NBA’s strongest second units.
Johnson wants more, but understands he was brought to Toronto to fill a role.
"You always feel like you can do more than what your role is. But that’s my role, filling in for a great player like DeMar. When he comes back, I don’t expect to get his minutes or take his spot or anything like that. He’s an all-star and those are big shoes to fill. So I’ll do the best that I can, then keep the second unit rolling when he comes back."
Regardless, Johnson is already part of Raptors lore. A second-degree black belt from a family of martial-arts experts (his father is a sixth-degree black belt and runs a martial-arts studio; Johnson himself has a 20-0 record as a kickboxer), he is famous among his teammates for being able to kick the rim.
More recently, he unleashed his athleticism on the Detroit Pistons with a leaping, leaning, baseline dunk over Andre Drummond.
It may rank as one of the 10 best dunks in Raptors history, and is certainly in the top five of those not featuring Vince Carter. Johnson cemented its place in the collective consciousness with his post-game description—"I cocked that joint and banged it on him"—which captured the event nicely.
Drummond was so embarrassed that he knocked Johnson to the floor with a bodycheck, which may have been risky given Johnson’s martial-arts training, and which at the least should add some spice to Monday night’s return match.
"Hard fouls are part of basketball," said Johnson. “(But) at the end of the day in the back of (Drummond's) head he's probably still a little bit nervous. But it’s over with and you try to move on. He’s not worth... me getting fined or anything like that."
It is the mature response—the side of Johnson the Raptors were confident would emerge as he learned from the highs and lows he’s experienced to this point in his career. They’re hopeful the best is yet to come.
And every time Johnson looks in the mirror, he’s reminded he's got every incentive to make sure they’re right.