Joe Johnson is a basketball player.
Always has been. Always will be.
That’s why the 17-year NBA veteran, who spent six of his best seasons with the Hawks, didn’t stay out of the game once his days in the league were over. Johnson has a team in Ice Cube’s Big3 League. The 3-on-3 league travels the country, with stops in different cities, over a 12-week season that culminates in a championship in September. The tour is at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena on Sunday for Week 3 of play.
“I’m still playing,” Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’d play at the Lifetime Fitness or rec center. It don’t matter. I just enjoy playing. I don’t take off from the game. It’s a love and passion I’ve developed from a young age and, to be honest with you, I don’t think it will ever go away.”
Johnson left the NBA following the 2017-18 season after playing with the Jazz and Rockets at the age of 36. He was a seven-time all-star, with a run of six straight with the Hawks. Johnson appeared in 1,276 career games, including 1,091 starts, and averaged 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists. His averaged more than 18 points each season with the Hawks, including a career-best 25.0 in 2006-07.
After he left the NBA, Johnson didn’t retire to the tropics. He continues to split time between his home in Atlanta and his native Little Rock, Arkansas. His children attend school in Atlanta. Johnson now faces on-court challenges from his 12-year-old son.
“He keeps me going,” Johnson said. “The competitive nature that me and him have, whether it’s outside on our goal shooting or playing 1-on-1, that keeps me going. I have to stay in shape for that because I know as he gets older, he’s going to keep trying me. I’ve got to keep him in his place.”
However, Johnson received many messages from former players, wondering if he would join them in the Big3. He finally decided that the league could fill the competitive void and he started his own squad. He captains Triplets, which includes former Arkansas teammates Jannero Pargo and Sergerio Gipson along with for NBA players Al Jefferson, Chris Johnson and Alan Anderson. The team is coached by Lisa Leslie.
The Triplets are 2-0 as Johnson leads the league in assists and his second in points and rebounds.
“It’s not really an adjustment,” Johnson said. “It’s really just pick-up basketball on a big stage. Playing 3-on-3, it’s hard to double team but you have to give up something. For me, I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
Johnson is not the only former Hawks player in the league. Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Anthony Morrow, Stephen Jackson, Deshawn Stevens and DerMarr Johnson are among the participants. Johnson said he enjoys the reunions, including Smith who he refers to as a little brother.
Johnson looks back fondly on his NBA career. He is sixth on the Hawks all-time list for total points (10,606) and points per game (20.6).
“I had a great run,” Johnson said. “I had my fun in the sun. I not have any complaints. Obviously, I didn’t win a title. I do understand that not everybody is going to win a championship. Just enjoy the moment. It’s very prestigious. I didn’t take any of that for granted.”
Remaining in Atlanta, Johnson has kept tabs on the Hawks. He likes what he sees from the rebuilding team.
“I’m a basketball junkie,” Johnson said. “I stay glued to the TV whether it’s watching NBA League Pass or what have you. I think they have a great young team that I think is going to take another year or two before they are really contending. But I look forward to seeing their growth. They definitely have talent.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com