How Amir Johnson became the Raptors’ heart and soul

Frank Gunn/CP

As the Toronto Raptors filed into the visiting locker room at the Staples Center on Dec. 8, word began to spread amongst the players that Rudy Gay—the highest-paid player and second-leading scorer of the then 6-12 team—had been traded. On a night that also marked the return of Kobe Bryant from a torn Achilles tendon suffered seven months earlier, the Hollywood spotlight shone brighter than normal. But it was a local kid, Amir Johnson, who stole the show.

From the opening tip, the Raptors’ 26-year-old power forward, who had led a team meeting moments before hitting the court, set the tone. He flashed to the basket, collected rebounds and put-backs at will, and showed off the 454 Big Block engine that’s defined his game since his playing days at Westchester High, a school 23 km away from the Staples Center. Without having a single play drawn up for him, Johnson netted a career-high 32 points, going 14 of 17 from the floor and grabbing 10 rebounds.

Apart from being a career night and ultimately the moment his team’s fortunes changed for the better, it also marked Johnson’s return to the starting lineup. A week earlier, after a string of lacklustre outings, Johnson met with Dwane Casey in the coach’s office to go over some film. “Well, coach,” Johnson said over lunch, “how about if I came off the bench?”

“I felt like I didn’t have it going at the time and it would be good if I switched it up,” he says today, sitting courtside at the Air Canada Centre following practice. “I was thinking, ‘What can we do as a team to be successful and start winning games?’ Tyler [Hansbrough] was playing well at the time so I proposed to take myself out of the lineup to see if I could get it going again on the second unit.”

Casey, who jokes that he was moments away from suggesting it himself, knows it was a turning point for his player. “It was a good move for our team,” he says, “but also a good move for him to get back to being himself, which he did in that Lakers game. And he hasn’t looked back since.”

Neither have the Raptors.

Since Johnson’s breakout performance, Toronto has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. What’s more, the Raptors have a playoff spot virtually locked up, marking the first time in six years the club will be playing meaningful games as the snow thaws.

And while it doesn’t hurt that they play in the woeful East, it’s been a surprising shift for a team shrouded in uncertainty heading into the season. Back then, so-called fans cheered openly for a spot in the draft lottery in the hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins, and reports swirled that new GM Masai Ujiri was making every player, save for promising centre Jonas Valanciunas, available in trade talks.

But since that night in L.A., the Raptors have been playing an entirely different brand of basketball, one that, in the 51 games Rudy Gay wore a Raptors jersey, they simply weren’t capable of. A team-first commitment, tough defence and tenacious effort on both ends of the floor—the characteristics on which Amir Johnson has built his reputation. “I look at Amir as our spiritual leader on the court,” says Casey. “When Amir is in tune and focused, being aggressive and physical, everybody follows suit. He sets the tone as far as who we are and how we’re playing.”

There’s no question his teammates have raised their game of late, too. DeMar DeRozan, the second-highest-scoring two guard behind Houston’s James Harden at nearly 22 points per game, is proving his worth as a bona fide go-to scorer. Kyle Lowry, reportedly moments from being traded himself shortly after the Gay deal, is playing with a level of determination and moxie that his teammates feed off. Valanciunas is getting increased playing time and continues to get better every minute he’s on the floor. And, to Ujiri’s credit, the pieces that came over from Sacramento in exchange for Gay—John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and Chuck Hayes, mainly a collection of expiring contracts from which little was expected—have provided much-needed depth.

The new guys are also seeing Johnson in a different light. “Prior to coming here, I’d always known about his toughness and athletic ability,” says Patterson, “But when I got here and saw him play, I realized the impact he has on his team as far as leadership and the energy he brings every single game.” And, as Casey witnessed soon after arriving three years ago, Johnson didn’t just turn it on when the clock was running: “I noticed his approach in practice. He was hard-nosed and always where he was supposed to be. You didn’t have to say ‘Giddy-up’ to him. A real self-starter, so I fell in love with that.”

It’s a playing style that dates back to his days at Westchester, where Johnson put in one of the more impressive high school careers in the city’s history. By the end of his senior season in 2005, Johnson, playing under revered coach Ed Azzam, had led the club to both city and state titles and passed on a scholarship to Louisville to declare for the NBA draft.

Though the league was starting to cool on the trend of drafting high-schoolers (players like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Bryant, it turned out, were a rare breed. Who knew?), Johnson had earned fans in high places. None more so than Hall of Famer Larry Brown. The then-Pistons coach had heard about Johnson’s defensive principles and commitment to hard work (for extra credit, he was the T.A. for the cheerleading squad. “Best class I ever took,” Johnson says, though he admits he mainly used the time as an excuse to be in the gym to work on his shot). Brown knew that Azzam put his players through extensive, pro-calibre workout regimens, so when the NBA draft rolled around, Brown told Pistons GM Joe Dumars that he wanted the club to select Johnson with their first-round pick. Instead, Dumars drafted another power forward, Jason Maxiell. “I was angry with Joe and [the front office], to be honest,” Brown says. And though the Pistons picked Johnson late in the second round, 56th overall, Brown and the team parted ways just before Johnson’s rookie season began. “I worked him out when he first came to the team and fell in love instantly,” says Brown, now head coach at Southern Methodist University. “I’m just sick that I didn’t get to coach him.”

Still, the 2005–06 Pistons, a veteran group returning a core that had appeared in two straight NBA Finals, were a perfect fit for a wide-eyed rookie willing to sit back and take notes. “I didn’t know anything, man,” recalls Johnson, flashing a big aw-shucks smile. “I was just in high school, man, having my mom wake me up, trying to get me to school early in the morning. Then all of a sudden I was in the NBA. I was star-struck.”

Practising with all-stars like Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson and Ben Wallace, he kept his eyes and ears open those first few seasons. “It was one continual learning process—as if my college days were playing out in the NBA.” And there were plenty of moments for a self-professed hoops junkie to absorb from the sidelines—like, says Johnson, LeBron’s 48-point outburst in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007. “I was just really a fan,” he admits, “but I couldn’t wait for my turn to play.”

Now, in his ninth season and fifth in Toronto, it’s arrived. In a few months, he and his teammates will likely make their first post-season appearance wearing the Raptors’ red. “We’ve been having a lot of player meetings since the new guys came in and we talk about playing hard,” says Johnson. “We’re playing like a team and sharing the ball. Nobody has one bad bone in their body on this team. Everybody plays for each other and plays hard.”

It’s a simple formula, and, as Johnson and the Raptors are proving, it works.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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