By Holly MacKenzie
TORONTO -- On the night the Toronto Raptors secured the Atlantic Division title, Amir Johnson was scoreless from the floor in 17 minutes of action. The Raptors clinched in the least climactic way possible: After losing to the New York Knicks, they returned to the locker room to wait for the Atlanta Hawks to defeat the Brooklyn Nets and seal the division title for them.
It was Johnson's first game back in over a week, as the Raptors training staff had convinced him to rest one of his ailing ankles. His performance showed the week off hadn't magically cured his body of the aches and pains that come from a season of punishing it.
Seated in his locker donning a crisp, red "Atlantic is Ours" t-shirt the league had supplied, Johnson was happy. That he'd had one of the worst nights of the season individually meant little to him. Similarly, on those nights when he has been brilliant for a Raptors team that is more dependent upon his dependability than many realize, his own performance isn't what he finds important. What Johnson cares about is sharing success with the other players in the Raptors locker room.
To encounter Johnson is to embrace him. Serving as a guest judge on Top Chef Canada, shaving the Raptor claw into his hair -- and dying it red -- or taking over the Raptors practice court for pick-up ball with Drake and Justin Bieber one day, and Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Dallas Green the next, Johnson is always up for adventure. It's that attitude, his man-of-the-people spirit and sincerity that's made him Toronto's adopted son.
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Johnson is in his ninth season in the league. As the last player to be drafted straight from high school, the 6-foot-9 Johnson will only turn 27 this May. Selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 56th pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, Johnson spent four years as an apprentice to Detroit's well-seasoned front court veterans.
Playing behind Antonio McDyess, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace -- who nicknamed Johnson "Slim Wallace" -- the baby-faced Johnson played sparingly in his first two seasons. Upon realizing he wasn't going to be getting reps during games, Johnson requested to spend time in the D-League.
While many players bristle at the thought of being sent to the minor league, Johnson didn't care about the less-than-glamorous accommodations or schedules. He just wanted game experience. Seven years later, Johnson uses his success story whenever a younger teammate is in the same predicament.
"They feel like it's a downsize," Johnson said. "They feel like they're good enough to play in the NBA, but what they've got to understand, it's something to help you get better. When you keep working out and are not really getting playing experience, you've got to go down."
Johnson has never been afraid of putting in extra work. Summer league is generally a requirement for rookies and sophomore players, but he chose to make appearances in each of his first five seasons. Even today, come July, you'll find him sitting on the sidelines at the Thomas & Mack Center watching his Raptors teammates.
On Dec. 8, the Raptors were in Los Angeles to face the Lakers. There was some pre-game hype because Kobe Bryant was returning from his torn achilles. The story shifted significantly when, with players already at the arena, Toronto traded big-name forward Rudy Gay to Sacramento in exchange for a deeper bench. With the team shorthanded when the game tipped off, it was Johnson who saved the day.
Scoring a career-high 32 points, Johnson made 14 of his 17 field-goal attempts. He added 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in front of family and friends. The best part, to his mind, was Toronto snapping a five-game losing streak.
With a 6-12 record at the time of the trade, the Raptors were expected to bottom out for a shot at one of the top picks in the 2014 draft. Instead, they are 40-21 since then and have a shot at the third seed in the East.
"It means a lot," Toronto swingman DeMar DeRozan said. "It means a lot because guys out here are just relentless. Nobody cares who does what, we all want to see each other succeed because we understand if one does, we all do."
Not coincidentally, this is the philosophy that Johnson has been practicing all along.
"He's the guy who is dependable at all times," Patrick Patterson said. "He doesn't get enough credit for what he does. He doesn't put up the big superstar numbers, but it's his effort, his intensity, his ability to make big plays, whether on the offensive or defensive end. His humility, he's not cocky. He does all the right things you need from a person at his position."
Johnson and DeRozan are the only two players who were with the Raptors prior to last season. Both from Los Angeles, incredibly loyal and new fathers to baby girls, the two have been suiting up for Toronto for the past five years.
"We've done grown, man," DeRozan said. "Me personally, with Amir, I had a relationship with Amir years before I was ever thought of as being a player in the NBA. Just from being home, looking up to him when he was the man in L.A. at Westchester [High]. It's definitely crazy to see how far we've both come. It's going to be interesting to see how far we go from here."
DeRozan has become the face of the franchise, while point guard Kyle Lowry has matured into their leader on the floor. But Johnson is the pulse of a Raptors team that has captured the hearts of Toronto sports fans.
"The main thing is his spirit," veteran swingman John Salmons said. "His presence, he just has a good presence on the court for us. His rebounding, his defense, finishing at the basket, making the right plays in pick and rolls. He does so much for us, little things that people sometimes don't realize."
Although Johnson may not receive the league-wide acclaim that some of his higher-scoring teammates do, within the Raptors locker room, his contributions are recognized. The screens, extra effort and constant communication are valued by teammates who understand how important Johnson is to their success as a whole.
"He's very vocal," Raptors swingman Terrence Ross said. "When he's in the locker room and sees something, he definitely voices his opinion. He's just as loud as Kyle and DeMar. He talks about what he sees on the court."
Despite losing count of his ankle sprains long ago, Johnson never complains. Like clockwork, he sits at his locker after games, the messiest in the room, with shoes -- mostly his, some stolen from DeRozan -- strewn around him. Feet submerged in an ice bucket, he talks to reporters pushing their own deadlines because his candor is worth it.
Johnson said his motivation to play through damn near anything stems from the simple fact he wants to always be there for his team.
"It's like, if you see somebody in trouble, your mindset, first reaction is to go help them, see what you can do," Johnson said. "That goes on and off the court. If its a family member, anybody. If I see somebody in trouble, if I see somebody down, my first reaction is I've got to help them, by any means possible."
That dedication has endeared him to Toronto fans who expect passion from their players and embrace blue-collar work ethic above all. As the Raptors head to the postseason for the first time in six seasons, DeRozan is thankful he and Johnson are getting to experience it together.
"It means a great deal because the person Amir is on the court and off the court to the whole city [of Toronto] and country of Canada is big," DeRozan said. "He lays his heart on the line every time he steps out there. No matter if he's hurt, or if he barely can walk. He feels like he's obligated to always be out there with his teammates and give it all he's got. You've got to appreciate a guy like that. I really respect that because he could have every excuse in the world, but he will never bring it up. Ever."
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The night before the Raptors clinched the division, most of Johnson's teammates were taking it easy at home, watching the TNT Thursday-night doubleheader. Johnson was having dinner with fans. Hosting his fourth-annual Roll With Amir fan event, Johnson and a group of 50 fans were spending their evening at Medieval Times.
In addition to gifting the fans with tickets to Toronto's game against the Philadelphia 76ers the day before, Johnson posed for photos at Medieval Times after giving out gift bags of hoodies and t-shirts. DeRozan showed up to support the event, his fiancée and daughter in tow.
"I always make it a given to go there and support him because that's big," DeRozan said. "That's him spending his own money and time, taking fans out. That's a dope thing to do. That's Amir."
Johnson's best friend, known around Toronto as Veezy, sits baseline beside the Raptors bench every home game. Since crossing paths back in Los Angeles as teenagers, the two have been joined at the hip. Veezy has been with Johnson every step of his NBA career assisting with off-court details and fan events.
"Some of the stuff I do off-court, it can be pretty random," Johnson said. "When I'm working out I just start thinking about what I can do to have some fun, make someone laugh and have a good day."
In Johnson's first year of his annual Roll With Amir event, his idea of fun was getting Veezy to dress up in a bunny suit and stand on street corners across the city. Bunny Veezy had tickets for the event in hand, waiting for fans to collect them. Johnson, on a West Coast road with the team at the time, watched the fan response via social media.
"When he came here [to Toronto], he got a chance to play and display what we all knew he could do," Veezy said. "It's been really exciting just watching him evolve, going from Detroit to the D-League to here. Toronto is a great city. I love it. Especially the fans. We don't see our parents every single day, so [it helps that] everybody has embraced us, supported us. It's like a family here."
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When the Raptors announced Drake as the team's global ambassador, Johnson was especially pleased. When Drake's most recent album, "Nothing Was The Same" dropped, Johnson bought two record stores out of every copy. Armed with baskets of CDs, he posted up on the street and handed them out to fans. In August of 2012, during Drake's annual OVO Fest, it was Johnson that Drake brought out on stage while Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo watched from the side. Over Johnson's time in Drake's city, the two have developed a friendship rooted in their mutual appreciation for Toronto.
Whether it's fashion week or a zombie walk, whenever there's an event in Toronto that Johnson can fit into his schedule, he's there. For this year's zombie walk, thanks to the help of a makeup artist, he transformed into the most realistic undead near-7-footer you'll ever see. With a group of dancers, he organized a flash mob set to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" on Toronto's busiest street. As onlookers grasped for their phones to capture the moment, Johnson blended in with the brain-eaters surprisingly well for someone of his stature.
"This city just keeps on having different stuff," Johnson said. "Nuit Blanche (an all-night street art festival), with the installations in the street, that was awesome. I just keep hearing about stuff and I do it. Caribana (a festival of Caribbean culture and traditions held each summer) was awesome. I had a float [in the parade] there. That was cool. Everything that's going around in this city, anything I hear about, I try. Why not, you know?"
Some other Johnson sightings: Throwing out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, hanging out at Google Canada's headquarters and suiting up for the Drake-affiliated OVO Bounce basketball tournament. He also orchestrated the team's Harlem Shake video last season and is a frequent fan at Toronto Blue Jays, Maple Leafs and TFC games.
"He knows everybody in this city," Terrence Ross said. "He knows everything about everyone in this city, he knows everything about the city. He loves Toronto. Loves it. He might be Canadian."
Each summer, Johnson and Veezy try to knock three destinations off of the to-visit list and include a summer cruise as well. Dubai, India and Alaska are on the itinerary for this coming offseason. A quick scroll through Johnson's Instagram feed shows photos of him posing with tigers, chilling with elephants and zip-lining in Belize.
"Not a lot of people get to say they see the world with their best friend," Johnson said. "When I was young, I thought it was just California, that's it. I'm blessed to see different parts of the world now. Never would have thought I'd be seeing different parts of the world."
Whether Johnson is climbing the Great Wall of China or sprinting up and down the court, he immerses himself completely. During the season, this means putting his body through the wringer. Over the summer, it means slowing down, expanding his horizons and getting out of his comfort zone.
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When Toronto signed Johnson to a five-year contract worth more than $30 million back in the summer of 2010 there was only one certainty: He wouldn't get complacent. At the time, it seemed like then-Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo might have overpaid for a player who hadn't yet figured out how to stay on the floor without fouling.
A year later, the contract would look just fine. Now, it's nothing short of a bargain. While no one was expecting Johnson to become one of the most crucial players on the Raptors roster, his dedication to the game was a given. He has never known any other way.
"I was always told as long as you work hard, harder than your opponent, you will feel good about yourself," Johnson said. "You'll feel like you got something accomplished. That's stuck with me throughout my career. I feel like as long as I work harder than the other guy, I can feel like I had a good game."
Nine years into his career, Johnson recently admitted that this season has been a long one for his body. Playing through nicks and bruises on more nights than not, he reluctantly agreed to get some rest before the playoffs. Still, there is no slacking in Johnson's approach.
On the days his ankles will allow it, he is often the last guy on the practice court. Shooting threes, working on free throws, or perhaps hidden in the weight room getting in extra maintenance work, his mindset hasn't changed since those days in the D-League.
"When you see guys diving on the floor for loose balls, picking up the level of intensity, bringing more energy, that causes everybody else to step up their game and play like they're playing," Patterson said. "He understands what his role is, what he needs to do for us to win games. He puts up a conscious effort every night and he's never satisfied. He's always working hard and is the last one in the gym. He's that guy. The one you see who is living and breathing and bleeding basketball."
For Johnson, the mission every day remains the same. Through sickness and health, banged-up legs, a bruised back or wobbly ankles, his job is to show up.
"Every day when you work out, you ask yourself why you do it," Johnson said. "To get better and know you work hard. I love it a lot. I love the teamwork. I love how we come together and work together as a team. That's one thing I love. I love being a team player. I love helping a teammate. I love knowing I've helped diving the floor, taking a charge, or setting a screen. I love that part.
"And I love to win, of course."
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Holly MacKenzie is an NBA writer for various print and online outlets. Rookies and pass-first point guards are her kryptonite and the draft class of '96 holds a special place in her heart. She tweets under the Twitter handle @stackmack (yes, it was inspired by Stephen Jackson).