An hour before tip-off on a rainy Saturday evening in Portland, a throng of local television and print journalists are waiting deep in the belly of the Rose Garden for a rare pre-game press conference. For the first time since he unexpectedly retired on the eve of the lockout shortened 2011-12 NBA season, Brandon Roy is going to grace them with his presence.
Roy, arguably the most important Blazer in a decade and the favorite player of a generation of Portland fans, is in town with his new team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. He wouldn’t play Saturday—the knees that cruelly shorted his career as a Blazer have not improved at all, and his much anticipated comeback has been limited to five games—but with this being his final chance to appear in Portland this season, he felt it might be in his best interest to make an appearance at the Rose Garden and let the home crowd at long last show him home much they love him.
Down the hall in the visitor’s locker room, not 200 feet from where Brandon held court, another former Blazer sat by himself on a folding chair, headphones on, watching a video on his phone. If there’s a professional basketball spectrum, and Brandon Roy and the highly paid, press-hounded, maximum contract guys are on one end, Chris Johnson is on the other. But that doesn’t mean coming back to Portland wasn’t special for him, too.
“It feels good,” Johnson says. “[Portland] was the first team that brought me into the league on a 10-day [contract]. Obviously this place is really special to me, because that’s where it started.”
While Roy’s return to Portland was largely a symbolic gesture, Johnson is still trying to make a career for himself. A 10-day contract is the NBA equivalent of a working interview. For a guy like Chris Johnson, it’s a lifeline. Johnson went undrafted in 2009 after playing four years at Louisiana State University, the alma mater of Pete Maravich and Shaq. He spent his first professional season in Poland, and has been up and down between the NBA and the Development League since breaking in with the Blazers in January of 2011.
Johnson began his 2012-13 campaign with a training camp invitation from the Minnesota Timberwolves. His season is going to end there, too. The Wolves guaranteed his contract for what remains of the season at the end of January. But his journey through the months that make up the grind of the NBA season has not been normal.
The Timberwolves waived Johnson prior to the start of preseason. It was a move based on roster space. Still, being cut before the season gets underway isn’t exactly the news a now 27 year-old aspiring professional basketball player wants to get.
“They told me I did a great job,” Johnson says of the Timberwolves coaching staff. “It’s just a number’s game. They needed a guard at the time.”
After this most recent dismissal, Johnson had a choice, the same choice he’s faced a number of times throughout a professional career that has featured stops with four NBA teams, a team in Turkey, his first team in Poland, a team in the Dominican Republic, and two teams in the Development League.
“I was just training trying to decide if I was going to go overseas or to the D-League,” Johnson says of the time immediately following being waived out of Minnesota.
Because of his relative success in the NBA, Johnson decided to stay at home, signing with the Santa Cruz Warriors. The D-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, that team’s home games are played in the Kaiser Permanente Arena, a stadium that holds 3,500 fans.
The choice to stay on this side of the Atlantic was an easy one for Johnson, though. From Santa Cruz, the jump to the NBA seemed doable, only a phone-call away.
“It’s a different kind of ball over there, it’s a different kind of situation,” Johnson says of the professional leagues in Europe. “I felt that if I went to the D-League it was a good chance that I would get a call up.”
His former Blazer teammate, Nicolas Batum, agrees.
“When you’re a young player it’s easier to come [to the NBA] from overseas. When you’re like 24, 25, 26, it’s tougher,” Batum said. “What I like with CJ is this guy never gives up. He got waived last year by us. You know he kept work. He said, ‘I don’t want to go to Europe because I want to be back in this league.’”
Batum, who came over from France as a 19-year-old prospect and has worked his way up to being the second-highest paid player on Portland’s roster, has stayed close with Johnson over the years. Their wives are best friends.
Nic admits, though, that he’s never had to deal with the kind of professional obstacles his friend has faced—fighting to stay on a roster 10 days at time; going into full Panic Room mode in a locker room in Santo Domingo—but he was the first person to text Johnson when he found out about his signing in Minnesota.
“CJ is a good player. He did a great job [in Portland],” Batum says. “I’m glad [Minnesota] signed him.”
There’s a ripple of applause from the Rose Garden crowd for Johnson when he checks into the game for the first time Saturday night. The appreciation comes in no small part from the role Johnson played in Portland’s first round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks back in the 2010-11 season—the same Dallas series that is a key element of the mythos of Brandon Roy. Johnson appeared in four of the six games in that series, and picked up a memorable flagrant foul against Dirk Nowitzki and a key block on his now-teammate J.J. Barea.
When Roy appears on the JumboTron during first quarter, the entire stadium stands and claps for over a minute, as expected. After all, Blazer fans had come to watch a meaningless game on a weekend night just so they could stand and cheer for Brandon one last time.
The difference in homecoming receptions reflects the different lives the two men have as professional basketball players. Brandon Roy is being paid millions from the Blazers not to play and making an additional $5 million in salary from the Timberwolves for 2012-13. Johnson is making less than a half a million dollars this season. His contract for next season isn’t fully guaranteed, but if he stays in Minnesota—something he failed to do in Portland or New Orleans—Johnson will make just under a million dollars for his efforts in the 2013-14 season.
For Chris Johnson, the NBA remains both the reality of his working life and his goal for the future. Each game is a chance for him to prove that he belongs.
“I still see it as like a 10-day. That’s just my mindset,” Johnson says of his future as a professional basketball player. “You never know. Anything can happen anytime. You have to look at it that way. Like, control what you can, come in every day, bring all the positive attitude and bring a lot of energy.”
Johnson might not be making the kind of money that allows a guy to smile about a medically-induced retirement at age 28, like Brandon Roy, but he’s a testament to the fact that, in a professional sport populated by the prematurely rich, there are athletes in the NBA just trying to figure out how to make a living playing basketball.
“I’m actually happy with my path. It’s different. It just shows the hard work and everything that is put into it.” Johnson says. “[If] you have success, you can look back and say the path that you made it on is that much sweeter.”