1-on-1 with Amir Johnson: On the improved Celtics, his Raptors ‘goon squad’ & more

Boston Celtics centre Jared Sullinger (7) and forward Amir Johnson (90) react to the ball under the defensive boards. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Amir Johnson was a key starter on the 2013-14 Toronto Raptors team that reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and, because of his blue-collar playing style and the way he embraced the city and its people, left the Raptors last summer as one of the franchises all-time fan favourites.

Johnson, now with the Boston Celtics, is back in Toronto this week as part of the NBA’s Campus Pass event being held Tuesday afternoon at Ryerson University from 4-5 PM ET. Admission is free, and Johnson will be signing autographs and greeting fans, who will be able to take part in skills competitions and other events to get you geared up for the fast-approaching 2016-17 NBA season.

But before that gets underway, I caught up with Johnson to talk about his Toronto tenure, Boston’s busy off-season and the brewing rivalry between his old and new club, and which of his Raptor teammates would comprise his ‘goon squad’.

Sportsnet: You’re now a little over one year into your Celtics tenure. I know you had successes in Detroit with the Pistons but you really seemed to find yourself as a player here in Toronto as a Raptor. What has the adjustment been like over the past year?

Amir Johnson: You definitely realize that it’s all a business. You know, I’m going into my 12th year now, so the basketball part of it all wasn’t hard to adjust to. And to be honest, as a person the way I carry myself is always with open arms, so to come into a new team and adjusting to the players wasn’t hard either. Being a fun guy and going to a new city and actually embracing the culture and how they do stuff there, experience it all and adjusting to it was pretty much clockwork. It comes easy for me. It’s been a fun experience so far, and the hope is my second year is even better.

Do they do zombie-walks in Boston?

They don’t! I haven’t really experienced too much off the court in my first year, I was more focused on my team. In my second year here I’ll get out a bit more and do more stuff around Boston.

On the court you’ve got an interesting roster with a lot of young guys. Have you talked with your coaching staff at all about how you fit in and do you anticipate your role changing at all this season?

Not yet. We definitely have a solid team of young guys and a few vets. We need to learn how to blend that together. We definitely have the pieces to fill every spot right now so we have to find a way to put the puzzle together. I know coach Brad [Stevens] is definitely a brilliant coach and is going to put us in the right position to be successful for sure.

For me I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve always been doing my whole career: play hard and be that one guy who hustles every last second he’s out there.

It’s certainly a great formula to finding minutes and getting yourself on the court. Earlier this summer a teammate from last year, Jared Sullinger, signed in Toronto, which could have freed more minutes for you in the rotation. But the Celtics ultimately made a big splash by bringing another big man, Al Horford, onto team. Where were you when you heard about the signing?

I don’t know man, I was probably somewhere with my daughter. It’s definitely a great pick-up for us. Danny [Ainge, the Celtics GM] had told me before the off-season that he was going after the biggest free-agents, so I knew that was in the cards. The biggest free agent this summer was Kevin Durant, and then of course after that was Al Horford. So I wasn’t surprised, and I’m happy we got him.

There were a lot of changes in the Atlantic division this summer. How do you see the division shaping up this coming season?

I think the East, period, has gotten a lot better this year. It’s at a point now where so many teams look so different that we jus have to let it play out. I just know we have to focus on ourselves first, make sure we establish the chemistry, and then see where everybody’s at. On paper a lot of these teams look like they can be great and have new faces on their rosters, but if you don’t have that chemistry you just don’t know if it’ll work out.

You guys seem to already be in a good place as far as that’s concerned— I saw you posted a bunch of photos from [Celtics point guard] Isaiah Thomas’ wedding recently and I’d imagine that kind of stuff probably goes a long way.

Absolutely man, especially for me. My personality never changes. I’m always going to be there if a teammate or friend needs me. I’m always showing up to camps or other events guys have going on during the summers. That’s just me.

And obviously that was you here in Toronto, and that camaraderie helped play a role in turning the franchise around. What was it like watching the Raptors make their conference finals run a few months back, led by so many players that you were teammates with here? Was it hard to watch? Or, in a way, rewarding?

Actually I thought that was really cool to see. I kept thinking of all the success we had to that point, building a staircase to where we were, just getting better and better. I was thinking of all those years I was here, losing CB [Chris Bosh], getting to the playoffs, doing all of that stuff and then to see how far we made it… It made me smile, man. I called all the guys who I was with and told them ‘Congrats’. I was happy for them.

I mentioned Jared Sullinger earlier, who may be filling a similar role in the Raptors’ starting five that you once held. What can the team and its fans expect from him?

He’s an all-around kind of player. He’s going to rebound for you, a great scorer. He was a big contributor to our Boston team and I can see him fitting into that Raptors team perfectly. He can do it all, especially at his size, man, it’s amazing what he can do. There were games for us where he was getting 15 and 15 for us, or 20 and 20, just balling. Man, it was amazing.

So tell me about what you’re doing at Ryerson later today.

It’s the NBA Campus series and we’re just trying to get excitement going again for the basketball season. I’ll be there from 4-5 and the event is totally free. Fans can come and participate in shooting skills competitions, and the Larry O’Brien trophy will be there so people can take pictures with it. I might just grab it and take it with me.

Ok, last question, unrelated to anything, but I’m just always curious about this kind of stuff. So Alvin Robertson, a member of the first Raptors team in ’95-96 is considered one of the all-time “back-alley” teammates in league history.

If you had to pick four former Raptor teammates to be on your “back-alley” team, who would they be?

Hmmm… So basically, my goon squad?

Yes, exactly.

I’m going go with DeMar. You saw it with his defence, he just got better and better every year, that’s why I throw him in there.

Oh. Reggie Evans.

Of course.

James Johnson.

Smart. Always choose the guy with the black belt.

Yup [laughs]. Um… Who else? Alan Anderson. He’s locking guys up.

So I need one more guy…You know what? I’m going to go with Rasho Nesterovic. Rasho man, he was a big body and although he wasn’t as athletic it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to let anybody get to the basket, man. He had his signature hammer foul, that’s what I called it. He might not block your shot, but he’d get you with that hammer foul.

Remember, you can catch up with Johnson this afternoon at Ryerson University in Toronto from 4-5 pm ET at the NBA Campus Pass event. Admission is free.

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