Sports Opinion & Analysis

The Curious Case of Joe Johnson

In NBA on November 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm

By Jeff Weyant

The biggest mystery in the world, other than how Ted Mosby met the mother of his children, is what’s going on inside Joe Johnson’s head. On NBATV Rick Kamla likes to call him Joe Cool because his on court demeanor is glacial and that’s generally true: he does everything the same way whether it’s the opening tip or the final shot clock. But the glacier metaphor suggests there’s a lot more below the surface that we don’t see. This naturally begs the question: is there anything under the ocean swells for the Brooklyn Nets shooting guard or is it just a blank slate?

The Joe Johnson Storyboard was banal and predictable in the beginning: he was a young, talented player who eventually found a home and a role in the Suns organization where Mike D’Antoni turned him into a three-point bomber (last year in Phoenix: 47.8% in the regular season and 55.6% in the postseason). After nearly making the Finals (and sustaining an injury along the way – warning: not a fun video to watch) Joe Cool balked at what he considered low-ball offers from Phoenix in the nascent days of his restricted free agency. This led to Johnson respectfully requesting that his current team not match the offer sheet from what he hoped would be his new team, the Atlanta Hawks. The Suns obliged and Joe packed his bags.

In doing so, he followed the footsteps of another cool dude, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who as a young man disobeyed his father’s commands and ventured beyond the castle walls to glimpse the wider world. Legend tells us that upon finding only destruction and despair the young man wept. We don’t know if Joe Johnson shed any tears during that first season in Georgia but one imagines there was a pang or two of regret.

Of course, can we begrudge him for leaving a talented and improving organization primed for continued success? For most people, the answer is yes. But what if something bigger’s going on? After all, the most American thing anyone can do is head for the frontier and found a new civilization. From an early age we’re instilled with an empire state of mind, right? Inside the classroom and out, we’re raised on Huck Finn and Jay-Z, so it’s not shocking that a young, talented, American player wanted to chase unknown pastures in the next valley. For how was Joe supposed to create his own kingdom if he was caught up in the machinations of someone else’s?

“Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that ball in your hand?”

So he leaves and grows and improves and makes the All-Star team a bunch of times, leading to widespread speculation that he might be a superstar. But then the Hawks disappear in the playoffs every year. And Joe Cool is too cool. Have you ever seen him celebrate a basket? Searching YouTube for anecdotal evidence one finds a wild buzzer-beater from his youthful Atlanta days that culminates in the usual whooping and hollering but that was five years ago and since then it’s hard to recall or find a moment on an NBA court where Joe Johnson raised his hands and let it all out. Of course this isn’t a prerequisite for NBA stardom or even NBA benchwarming-dom, but it’s a pet theory of mine that just as the Great Buddha went from a content, rich man’s son to a legendarily stoic seer, no longer naïve about the ways of the world, so, too, did the fiery Joe Johnson of this clip gradually evolve into the Joe Cool of this clip. He saw that wider world, all the destruction and despair, and wept.

Or maybe not. Maybe this is just who Joe Johnson is. Maybe normal narratives and Hollywood character roles don’t apply, like he’s from a different universe where principles, desires, and logic manifest themselves in strange and incomprehensible ways.

Or maybe he’s just a human being and normal narratives and Hollywood character roles don’t apply to his life the same way they don’t apply to anyone’s life.

“Hope I don’t miss the season finale of Bones!”

Take the famous FreeDarko print: Joe Cool is waiting patiently, with gym bag and jersey, at a crowded bus stop. He could be thinking about last night’s episode of Two Broke Girls or he could be thinking about nothing at all. Once a flashy up-and-comer, he’s now a blue-collar sphinx. He puts his pants on one leg at a time. His gamer tag on Xbox Live is probably JoeJohnsonBrooklynNets. Irony has never occurred to him.

And like the sphinx of the crossroads who confounded and was confounded by Oedipus the King, Joe Johnson speaks in riddles, even when he’s not speaking at all. Take for instance his selection of a jersey number: upon leaving Phoenix he was plenty vocal that he wanted to be the man, the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of the game, and yet he wore #2 every year in Atlanta. Considering the massive emphasis in the NBA on numerology (nearly every Wiki page for NBA superstars has an awkward line – never in the same place from page to page – explicating that player’s jersey numbers through the years), the fact that Joe Cool settled on #2 for his call sign now that he was #1 is a bit perplexing. Of course it’s perhaps relevant that Google searching failed to uncover the significance of Johnson’s own number selections. But then numerology, much like irony, may not exist for him (and this is totally fine).

The Great Sphinx of Egypt is slowly being eroded by the dry desert wind of Time and what’s being revealed, gradually but surely, is more of the same: below the surface of the Sphinx is just more Sphinx. No hidden symbols. No secret doorways. Just Sphinx-ness. Consequently the Sphinx is not a riddle but what it offers are, because to qualify as a riddle there must be an answer, some key that unlocks the arrangement of words producing a glorious, clouds-parting moment of effervescent wisdom where all mysteries are revealed and the walls of Jericho come atumblin’ down. Joe Johnson, similarly, offers little in the way of answers: after several years of being eroded by the sports equivalent of a dry desert wind – Twitter and its attendant miseries, insights, and gratifications – we seem to know as much about what makes Joe Cool cool as we do about the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

“Hey Napoleon, don’t shoot my nose off. Kthanks.”

Which brings us to the present day where Johnson is awkwardly co-piloting a newly-christened Nets team alongside fellow on-again-off-again superstar Deron Williams. Everything old is new, as Avery Johnson has adopted aspects of the Mike Woodson playbook, meaning he’s trying to convince everybody – maybe even Joe himself – that his $119 million man is worth every penny and he’s doing so by isolating him repeatedly at the end of every half. It kind of worked out during a home game two weeks ago against the Boston Celtics on TNT: Joe Cool down the stretch, isolated on six or seven consecutive possessions, hit a few dagger jumpers, missed a few dagger jumpers, traveled, snagged a pivotal rebound, made a dumb foul, split a pair of free throws, and then watched as Deron Williams mercifully took the rock and iced the game with four free throws of his own. Brooklyn was victorious and everybody dispersed: Johnson to the showers and Williams to Craig Sager’s outstretched microphone.

I don’t know if Joe Johnson is a superstar. I don’t really care how well he performs this season. It doesn’t matter to me if he makes the Hall of Fame. What I love is that Joe Cool is an enigma, hard to guard, harder to understand. In a time when reporters are almost too good at their jobs – we know everything about everybody and understand sports events before they happen – it’s nice to know that there’s still a sphinx or two left in the world, the kind of people you see at a bus stop twice a day every day and years later still don’t know what they do for a living.

And so the best description, finally, that I can muster for Joe Johnson is that he is exactly the opposite of Metta World Peace, about whom all things are known whether we were curious or not. In contrast, I don’t know if Joe Johnson is married, what he does when he’s not playing basketball is obscure at best, and I have no idea who he is deep down where nobody can see him but himself. And for that I’m thankful.

Stay cool, Joe.

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