Somewhere above, Diane Johnson smiled.
Her son Joe Johnson had always been one of the best in the world hitting game-winning shots, but had never before made one for a pro basketball title. .
On Sunday, though, Johnson capped the greatest season in his professional career in grand fashion with a three-point dagger over the outstretched arms of Stephen Jackson (at 5:21 mark below). The Little Rock native led his Triplets team, which also featured former Razorback teammates Jannero Pargo and Sergerio Gipson, with a virtuoso performance. racking up 28 points.
Although Johnson had been a seven-time NBA All-Star, even earning an All-NBA third team selection, this was his most impressive season. He led the BIG3 three-on-three league, the world’s second-most talented basketball league, in points and assists and was named league MVP.
Being out of the NBA this past season, Johnson used the game as a way to heal after his mother died from cancer. “I use it as therapy,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “My mom passed away in February, and being an only child, it was tough on me, so I just needed something to do to keep me busy. And the BIG3 was it.”
Johnson’s Upbringing In Little Rock
For most of Joe Johnson’s childhood, it was just he and mom. Outside of a five-year span in which his four uncles lived with them, “she was my world. It was just me and her coming up,” he said. “My pops was never around, so my mom, she played that role. She did everything.”
I remember visiting Joe in his swank 300 Third Tower apartment in downtown Little Rock a few years ago to talk to him for an article with SLAM. He showed me all the awesome memorabilia he’d collected over the years, stuff like a keepsake signed by LeBron James and a collegiate Jerry Rice jersey his friend Mike Miller had given him.
The thing that stood out to me to the most from our interview was the depth of love and respect for his mother. She worked up to three or four jobs at a time during his youth, and one of them was in the psychiatric ward at the Arkansas State Hospital. To say she “gave it her all” isn’t cliche in Diane Johnson’s case:
“He was shocked one evening when his mother returned home from her stint as a state psychiatric hospital nurse, fresh stitches in the side of her head. A patient had gone on a rage, grabbed a chair and attacked her and some colleagues. She was hit above her ear. ‘I was heartbroken,’ Johnson says. ‘I never wanted to see her hurt in any fashion…I didn’t want her to work there but I understood that she had to do whatever it took to get the bills paid.’-Evin Demirel, SLAM
She was always the strong one, and no doubt her ability to absorb these kinds of (literal) blows and keep going played a role in Johnson’s stoic demeanor.
Diane also wanted to protect Joe, which is why she didn’t tell him she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008 until two years afterward. At that point, Johnson was starting his stint as a centerpiece of the Brooklyn Nets, but he couldn’t focus well on his new role while tending to his mother.
He flew back to Arkansas to stay a week with her in a hospital, then moved her in to live with him in the New York metro area.
“My son really stepped up. He was there. I can tell he was hurting and I couldn’t help him,” said Diane in 2010, fighting back tears. “He was there. He’s been there for me all through this and continues to support me in anything and everything I do.”
“I think it is (hard on him),” Diane added. “But Joe will never tell me. He’ll be strong. He’s always been my backbone, my heart. So he would never tell me, ‘Mom, I can’t handle this.’ Even if it bothered him, he wouldn’t tell me.”
Johnson never did open up publicly about the difficulty of this time, but he did share with Katharina Harf, the co-founder of the non-profit Delete Blood Cancer.
“He talked about how hard it was to learn that his mother was sick,” Harf told the New Daily News. “She waited a while to tell him because she’s always the strong one, and has always been a very strong force in his life. So obviously his world got shattered when he found out his mother was sick.”
Soon afterward, however, the cancer went into remission. For a few years, things looked good. But multiple myeloma, a cancer of blood plasma cells, is a terminal disease. And, sure enough, it returned with a vengeance in 2017.
Diane’s health dovetailed during 2017-2018 season, Joe’s last in the NBA. He didn’t play in the NBA during the 2018-2019 season, which in retrospect was a blessing in disguise. “It was not even possible for me to play even if teams were calling. With her being that sick, I spent a lot of time in Little Rock last year,” he told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears.
Diane Johnson passed away on February 23 in Little Rock.
“I have my moments when it is tough on me, it is hard on me,” Joe Johnson said. “When I go home to Little Rock, I still stay in her house, and there is nobody there but me to check on it. So it is still tough, but I just try to keep myself busy.”
Some of that is through training on his own, some of it training with his 12-year-old son and helping mentor the next generation of great Arkansan basketball players. He occasionally checks in on the young players of the same AAU program he played for growing up, now called the Joe Johnson Hawks.
But nothing feeds the competitive fire like playing against the best players in the world.
Dominating the BIG3 was a significant accomplishment, something that one day may help push Johnson into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But it pales in comparison to playing a role on an NBA championship contender.
Joe Johnson Returns to the NBA?
Joe did not leave the NBA in the way he wanted. He only played sparingly with with the Houston Rockets during their epic showdown with Golden State in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Joe barely had an effect in Houston’s Game 7 loss.
“The only thing that keeps the NBA fire in the belly is how it ended in Houston,” he told Spears. “That just does not sit well with me. So if an opportunity [to return] comes along and I feel that it is worth it, yeah, I take that chance.”
Well, after leading the Triplets to a 8-1 BIG3 record and title, it looks like Joe Johnson will have his opportunity.
He has already gone through a private workout with rising Eastern Conference power Philadelphia. The 76ers currently have 19 players under contract and can have up to 20 in the offseason. They are projected to cut that down to a 15-man active roster for the start of the season in late October.
Joe will also work out with other top NBA teams, as well. He has workouts planned with Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons and good ol’ Brooklyn.
The Clippers, who project as potentially the best defensive team in the NBA this upcoming season with Paul George, Kahwi Leonard and former Hog Patrick Beverley, may be the best fit. Joe’s main weakness at age 38 is his lateral quickness, but playing on such a defensive powerhouse — and specifically with George and Leonard — could help cover for “Iso Joe’s” deficiencies.
Another tantalizing possibility is the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers currently don’t have a roster opening, but it’s easy to imagine that LeBron James would want Johnson to finally play with him if one opens. James tried to court Johnson to Cleveland years ago, but Johnson chose Brooklyn instead.
LeBron James sat courtside during Johnson’s title-winning shot on Sunday. He embraced Johnson afterward. It’s not known if he tried to convince Johnson to join him, or whether he was scouting him as a opponent playing for the Clippers.
Either way, Johnson would be in prime position to play for a strong title contender, and become the elite champion we Arkansans know he’s always been.
Diane Johnson, meanwhile, will keep smiling down no matter what.
Watch LeBron embrace Joe after the 5:18 mark below: