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An ode, a few parables and a heartfelt thank you to unsung hero Amir Johnson

To Amir Johnson, my favorite Raptor of all time.

To Amir Johnson, my favorite Raptor of all time.

As a Raptors blogger, I hold a dirty secret: I missed most of the Vince Carter years.

I started watching the Raptors in full earnest in 2004, which is to say I caught the tail end of Vince’s tenure, when he was half-human, half-injured. Every night, I expected to witness something great — the stuff of Vince’s legend — but I was usually disappointed. What I actually saw was a nonplussed superstar, playing so far below his capabilities, while wearing either a scowl or a wince. By the end, the man at the core of the franchise, wearing a purple No. 15 jersey, did not want to be here. He wanted to be gone.

I’m not here to beat the dead horse with Vince. I know I missed the good years and he’s been gone for a decade. He’s apologized and MLSE has indoctrinated us with “forgive Vince” propaganda. But all the things that they say about the man is true: he built up the franchise with his individual greatness, and he tore it all down with his contempt towards the end. He loved the city when it was smooth sailing, but the love turned out to be conditional. When the franchise went south, so did he, gingerly limping his way to New Jersey only to return every year to haunt the franchise with buzzer-beaters and rim-rattling dunks.

For a time, the No. 15 jersey represented the superhero-turned-villain, a cold reminder of how it felt to be left holding the bag. But then came Amir Johnson, the unsung hero who redefined everything it meant to wear the 15. He couldn’t fly like Vince, but he was a hero all the same. That jersey was soaked every night, because the man who played in it — out of Westchester High — gave it his all. Vince defined No. 15 as greatness. Amir redefined No. 15 as loyalty. And for this humble franchise in the north, connected by a one-way street of talent fleeing south, what would you rather have?

I know my answer. And I know I’ve only mourned the departure of one of them.

***

Amir Johnson, my favorite Raptor of all time, signed with the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. He left quietly while the fanbase was busy partying. Not only was it Canada Day, but the Raptors had just signed DeMarre Carroll to shore up the wing and rumors flew every which way about Wes Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge. It was a time of jubilation (finally, we have someone to replace Ross!) but then came the hit.

And later, the finishing blow.

That it. After six seasons together, that was the end. It came abruptly and without fanfare.

Although if we’re being totally honest, we knew that the end was coming for some time. Reporters hinted at his exit for months and his contract was up. The franchise needed to upgrade weak spots on the roster and with Patrick Patterson waiting in the wings, Amir became expendable. Towards the end, it became almost painful to watch Amir because he was in so much pain. Through gritted teeth and a pair of perpetually twisted ankles, Amir did everything in his power to be on the floor.

Incredibly, he missed just 13 games over the past three seasons. That’s just the kind of player he is. He’s a no-nonsense, no-flash, hard-working soldier. That’s why Boston paid him a handsome figure of $24 million over two years. His attitude and his work ethic is something every player should aspire to. He’s going to be a great presence in that Celtics locker room full of rookies and blossoming youngsters.

Amir being in Boston doesn’t change anything. I’ll still be rooting for Amir and the Celtics were dead to me anyway, so I can’t hate them more than I already do.

***

I don’t have a lot of basketball-savvy friends. When I watch basketball with others, it’s usually in the company of strangers to the Raptors. They can usually spot the obvious (DeMar and Lowry score a lot!) but they miss everything in-between the baskets. And that’s why they miss out on the bulk of Amir’s value.

We’re no strangers to what Amir does. He simply does whatever he can to help the team win. He sets crafty screens to get his ball-handler open. He rolls to the basket to collapse the defense, but he also knows when to short roll against preset defenses. He’s a good passer out of the high post and he plays a mean two-man game with a heady guard. Defensively, he’s a brilliant help defender and always willing to protect the basket, often at the expense of his body and his ego.

But I don’t want to sell him short. He can score a little bit too, so long as the team needed him to. I clowned him for years about that catapult jumpshot of his, but what can I say? It works. He’s most deadly around the basket. Before the ankles left him, Amir would routinely use his athleticism to finish over top of defenders. But even without the hops, Amir still remains effective, armed with a deep bag of tricky flip shots and awkward layups. He shot 57 percent from the field during his time in Toronto and even last season, when he was most hobbled, he still ranked sixth in the NBA (and first on the Raptors) in shooting accuracy.

To put it plainly, Amir does what is best for the team. He’s one of the smartest, most selfless players I’ve watched. He cares not for his own personal glory, not for Sportscenter Top 10, not for numbers. He cares about winning.

***

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It just so happened that Amir played through some extremely rough years with the Raptors. He saw the tail end of Chris Bosh’s career, the recent turnaround and the “Andrea Bargnani, spiced with a dash of Hedo Turkoglu and a pinch of Linas Kleiza” platter of shit in-between. Amir did it all with a smile and a positive attitude, on and off the court.

I ask you this: which other Raptor has done more for the community that Amir?

Who else rolled with fans and took them out to dinner? Who else visited schools on the regular to see the kids? Who else bought up all of Drake’s CDs and handed them out at Yonge and Dundas? Who else loves the city so much that he sticks around throughout the summer? Who else shaved the goddamned Raptors logo into his head?

No other Raptor has ever shown Toronto and the fanbase the kind of love that Amir has. And unlike other athletes that feign love for show, you know it’s real with Amir. He loves the city and he’s more than happy to rep the team.

“Toronto is part of me,” Johnson told reporters before training camp two seasons ago. “I’ve been around, the people are very kind, I love it here. I walked around downtown a little bit, and I got kind of a humble feeling, everybody was so polite and so cool. That’s when I first started loving Toronto.”

***

There wasn’t always love from the fanbase. Amir wasn’t always a $12-million per year player. He earned it.

When he signed his five-year, $35 million deal back in 2010, opinion was split. Those who favored advanced stats knew Amir was a bargain at that price. But others saw 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds and wondered, “Great, yet another overpay. Classic Colangelo.”

It also didn’t help that he had big shoes to fill. He was stepping into the massive void left behind by Chris Bosh, a future Hall of Famer and a five-time All-Star with Toronto. No one expected him to match Bosh’s standards, but he still had to live in that chasm. Before, pick-and-rolls with Jose Calderon were easy money. Bosh could catch lobs, finish through contact or pop out for easy jumpers. At 23, Amir wasn’t nearly as skilled.

At the time, Amir was a member of the “Yung Gunz,” a trio formed by DeRozan, Amir and Sonny Weems (who now plays in Russia; Ed Davis also kinda joined this group down the line). The three clowned each other after practice and played with youthful exuberance. Here were three fresh-faced, college-aged Americans in a new land, at a time of flux for a franchise without hope. They had fun, they had promise, and quite honestly, they were all that we had for a long time.

Of the three, I though Weems had the best chance to make it. He was bigger than DeRozan and had a tighter handle and a more accurate jumper. Don’t get me wrong, I liked DeRozan too (how could you not love that breathtaking athleticism?). Of the three, I saw Amir with the longest shot at succeeding. He couldn’t post up, wasn’t really a shooter and picked up fouls at an absurd rate.

But he just kept his nose to the grindstone, turning experience into IQ, reps into results. In the end, he ended up turning that overpaid contract into a bargain.

“I told Bryan (Colangelo), ‘I’m going to continue working. I’m going to continue getting better as a player and a person,’”

– Amir Johnson to reporters in 2010 after signing his deal (via Eric Koreen, National Post)

***

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I’ll always remember Amir by this image.

This was shot on December 20, 2013. Pictured above is pure joy and jubilation after the Raptors’ stunning overtime victory over Vince Carter (remember him?) and the Dallas Mavericks. The win came during the Raptors’ annual Christmas/New Year’s roadtrip and shortly after the Rudy Gay trade. The team was to be dismantled, but instead it sparked an 8-2 finish to the end of December and two straight Atlantic division crowns.

The Raptors were in tough against the Mavericks that day. They were coming off a two-point loss to the Charlotte Bobcats in which Kemba Walker faded away from 18-feet to beat the buzzer. I would know: I went with a friend to the game and it was like the air was sucked out of the ACC after Kemba hit that shot.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early 41-22 lead and Dwane Casey was spent for options. With his starters struggling, Casey emptied the bench — the return for Gay — and it sparked a comeback. They quickly cut into the deficit and trailed by just three points at halftime.

From there, the starters took over. The Raptors fought tooth and nail against a far more talented and accomplished team right down to the buzzer.

DeRozan and Amir managed to send the game into overtime. With 20 seconds left, he caught a pass from Amir and drove hard to the hoop with Shawn Marion on his hip the whole way. DeRozan eventually pulled up at the baseline and nailed a tough fadeaway over Marion from 10 feet away. Then, on the ensuing possession, the Mavericks went to Dirk Nowitzki on the block after running through some baseline screens. Amir fought through the screens to stand up Nowitzki from 18 feet out. He bodied Dirk and forced him baseline, before crowding his signature fadeaway. It rimmed out and it was on to extras.

Overtime was a dogfight. Neither side managed to pull away by more than two points. Jose Calderon nailed a three but DeRozan countered with an and-one to give the Raptors a one-point lead. But the Mavericks still had one last chance to win.

They went to Monta Ellis and Dirk in the high pick-and-roll, which forced the Raptors to switch. A tired, ragged Amir switched onto Monta and stayed in lock step, before forcing him into an awkward running jump-floater from the elbow. It drew back iron and bounced straight back towards Ellis. But before the ball could escape to give Dallas one last chance, Amir skied for the rebound and tipped it towards the sidelines, then chased after it as time expired. He laid there spent, after 39 minutes, after 15 points and a game-high plus-11, after guarding Dirk freaking Nowitzki all game, after defending Ellis and after the tough loss to Charlotte. Amir just laid there on the court, with a crazed smile on his face as his teammates mobbed him.

It was pure joy and jubilation, a just reward for all his hard work. And when I think about it now, the same crazed smile comes over my face as well.

***

Amir wrapped up his last day as a Raptor by wishing fans a happy Canada Day. Then, as the nation celebrated its 148th birthday, Amir quietly slipped out the backdoor, signing with the Celtics with little fanfare. There were no comments about his dissatisfaction, no rumors about him wanting to leave the franchise, nothing of the sort.

After he made the deal, Amir thought only to thank the fans, to show the city, the nation, the fanbase and the franchise love, one last time.

1 ❤️ T.O #OhCanada

A photo posted by @iamamirjohnson on

See you later, Amir. We’ll miss you tremendously.

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