Hawks rookie from school(s) of 'hard knocks'
ATLANTA — If you still aren't aware of Ivan Johnson, allow this quote to be your introduction to the Hawks forward:
"I don't really watch basketball, so I don't really know who anybody is. So when I match up with them, they're just another player."
That was the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Johnson explaining why and how he goes hard at his opponents, whoever they might be. The night of this quote, he was facing Minnesota All-Star Kevin Love. So, if you let Johnson tell it, he doesn't know Kevin Love from Kevin Garnett. Well, maybe not exactly ...
"I know the major players, like LeBron, Wade, Kobe," he explains. "But all the extra ones ... I don't know them."
All the "extra ones." This guy is something else.
And did we mention Johnson wears iced-out, platinum grills — while he's playing? That might be a sports first, a player competing with platinum and diamonds in his mouth.
"I'm from the South," Johnson said. "That's what we like."
He grew up in San Antonio, and grills are as big, if not bigger, in Texas as anywhere else.
"I always lost rings, necklaces, earrings. I ain't gonna lose these,'' Johnson said. "This is permanent."
He also noted that his grill "protects my teeth from all the sugar and junk food."
And it's not dangerous.
"It's diamonds, man," said Johnson, with a sly grin. "It's all smooth."
Though Johnson came to the NBA out of nowhere, he's come from everywhere.
His journey qualifies as one of the more peculiar routes to the NBA.
He started his collegiate career at Cisco Junior College in Texas, before transferring to Los Angeles Southwest JC. His play there got him a scholarship at Oregon, where he played only one season. Ducks coach Ernie Kent didn't renew Johnson’s scholarship because of behavioral issues.
This became somewhat of a trend.
After he finished up college at Cal State San Bernardino in 2007, Johnson — undrafted by the NBA — hopped around the D-League (at Rio Grande Valley and Anaheim) before stints overseas in Puerto Rico, China and South Korea.
In South Korea, Johnson's temper continued to get the best of him and he was kicked out of the Korean Basketball League and banned for life for making an obscene gesture at a referee. A KBL official told the Korean Times, "Taking action against Johnson was inevitable since he had a record of frequent misconducts in the past."
His last pre-NBA stop was with the D-League's Erie BayHawks, whose coach, Jay Larranaga, benched Johnson for getting too many technical fouls.
"He's playing so good and his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA and we said, 'In order to make the NBA, you have to get your emotions under control,'" Larranaga said at the time.
"It was my emotions for the game," Johnson explained recently. "I hate losing. If I see another player not playing like me, I'm going to try to talk to them. And some players can't handle how I talk to them. When I do talk to people, it's an aggressive way on the court and some people can't handle that."
Johnson eventually got his emotions in check and was a First-Team All-D-League selection.
About that time, Atlanta's scouting personnel had their eyes on him. After watching him in the D-League Showcase, the Hawks invited Johnson to their minicamp right before the lockout began. Hawks general manager Rick Sund said Johnson was "one of the better players we saw." So, he got another invitation to training camp.
"When he was here in the minicamp, he was so strong," Sund said. "He was the epitome of what you wanted in a power forward. We needed to add some toughness, and he's a physical player. And he's got great hands, and he's got a pretty good basketball IQ. We pretty much knew a few days into training camp that he was an NBA player."
And although the Hawks were a bit wary of Johnson's somewhat checkered past, Sund said he digs Johnson's obstacle-ridden road to the NBA.
"I like guys that go through the school of hard knocks to make it into the NBA," he said.
So, here is Johnson, a 27-year-old NBA rookie — and already a fan favorite.
The crowds see him come in, hustle hard, stare down a few opponents and give Atlanta not only production, but also some aura.
Hawks coach Larry Drew, impressed since Day One, has mentioned his mission of finding more minutes for Johnson, which could come Wednesday when the Hawks take on the Trailblazers at 8 p.m. on SportSouth.
The biggest moment of Johnson's embryonic pro career came over the weekend against Minnesota. He got his first double-double (10 points and 11 rebounds), but it was his two clutch free throws that iced the game for Atlanta, coming back from 18 down to get the win.
After the game, he wore a self-satisfied smirk when talking about his big free throws.
"It don't matter if it's the end of the game or beginning of the game," he said. "I'm going to knock them down."
Then he flashed all that ice in his mouth. Hawks fans sure have a fun one on their hands this season.