The longtime NBA veteran is providing leadership to the USA National Team at the FIBA AmeriCup Qualifying Tournament.
Joe Johnson is relishing the moment.
On this day, he was in his San Juan, Puerto Rico, hotel room, waiting for the next day’s practice with the U.S. team preparing for the FIBA AmeriCup Qualifying Tournament. He also knew that back in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, there were several inches of snow on the ground. Meanwhile, the weather in San Juan was, as he put it, “like Miami in May.”
And just like that, you know why Johnson is enjoying life and his basketball career.
Johnson is 39 years old and hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2017-18 season. His last attempt at extending his run in the league came in 2019, when he was in training camp with the Detroit Pistons and cut before the season began.
“I think it is more gratifying at this stage and point in my life,” said Johnson, who averaged 16.0 points and 3.9 assists per game in his NBA career. “I’ve been out of professional basketball for over a year now, but I keep myself in great shape, I’m in the gym every day, and I train like a pro. When (USA Basketball) called and I got this opportunity, there was no way I would turn it down.”
Also motivating Johnson was his last experience with USA Basketball. That came in 2006, when the U.S. World Cup team went 8-1 but had to settle for the bronze medal after being upset by Greece in the semifinals.
“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta try — someway, somehow — to redeem myself a little bit, even if it’s only a couple games,’” Johnson said. “Let’s go have fun.”
That is Johnson’s goal as the U.S. enters the final two games of AmeriCup Qualifying already having clinched a spot at the FIBA AmeriCup 2022. The 4-0 U.S. squad faces the Bahamas (1-3) on Friday and Mexico (2-2) on Saturday to wrap up Group D play. (Watch on ESPN+) The AmeriCup is part of the qualifying process for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Johnson is under no illusion that, if he performs well this weekend, his phone will start ringing with offers to return to the NBA. But that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the competition.
“What comes from this? I don’t know what,” Johnson said. “My agenda is strictly just for the love of the game, to come play for the love of the game. I didn’t come here to try and put on a hell of a performance and to have somebody say, ‘Oh … we might need to go look at Joe.’ That’s not my take. I’ve enjoyed my (17) years in the NBA. I had a great time.
“Now, with that being said,” he continued, “if an opportunity comes and I feel like I feel it’s worth it, hell yeah, I’ll play again. No doubt.”
If this is the last time you see Johnson in a major five-on-five competition, he still might pop up in the Big3 league. In 2019, he was captain of the Big3 Triplets team and named MVP after leading the league in points, assists and 4-point shots.
Johnson is fine with whatever happens — or doesn’t happen — in his basketball-playing future. He has another focus: son Gavin and daughter Justice.
“I have two kids that I have to look at to take care of, and they are watching my every move. My son is 14. Now, he’s not getting younger, he’s getting older. He’s with me every day. I’m teaching him the game. I’m giving him the blueprint. So, I don’t mind that I can’t play pro ball. I’m going to teach him. He has aspirations of playing in the NBA one day, so I’m gonna give him everything I got or that I know that can help him along the way. That’s my pride and joy. That’s my best friend. My daughter is 7. She’s my best friend. If I’m not working out or hooping, that’s who I’m with.”
And that’s why Johnson, as the sun begins to set on his competitive basketball career, sounds like a man on the beach in Miami in May, not in a snow drift in Little Rock.
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.