For these last few painful springs, I wanted Joe Johnson to be Michael Jordan.
At times, it seemed like he was off to a pretty good start – better than most of us. The man has started in an All-Star game. He has thrown up multiple 30 point+ games in the playoffs, and even cracked the 25 ppg average in 2007. He’d steadily improved in each of the six seasons before that.
All Joe had to do was keep improving, just a little bit per year, and by now he would have even eclipsed M.J.
But Joe didn’t keep improving. In fact, his production has just as steadily tailed off in the last five years. And while he’s still been good enough to be a six-time All-Star, he’s also been widely disparaged for not playing like a 12-time All-NBAer.
This was never more evident than on Thursday night in Boston. All Joe had to do was channel a little M.J., and the Hawks would be on their way back to Atlanta for Game 7 with all the momentum in the world on their side. A win there and the next opponent, Philadelphia, would present the Johnson-era Hawk’s best opportunity yet to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the most part, Joe spread the ball around in the close-fought fourth quarter. He allowed young guns Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague to take the lion’s share of the shots that brought the Hawks back. Still, Joe had his chances. He missed a six-foot hook shot with 6:18 left; with a minute left, the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead, he crossed up seven-footer Ryan Hollins and fired up the kind of long jumper with which M.J. made a living plunging through the heart of opponents. It clanged off the back of the rim.
Joe had another chance to get his superstar on with a little more than nine seconds to go, his team down 81-79. From the wing, he crossed up Paul Pierce and sort of blew by him. But there wasn’t much separation. And as Johnson tried to explode to the basket, to flush the ball home or at least draw a foul, he simply could not get his Jumpman sneakers high enough off the ground.
Pierce swatted the ball out of bounds, and Joe wouldn’t have another chance to redeem himself as the last few seconds of the Hawks’ season ticked away.
It kills me that my high school classmate can’t help get his Hawks over the hump, that his legacy is slowly becoming defined by coming up short. That he’ll soon be 31 years old, and if hasn’t been M.J. for a spring by now, he probably never will.
But, really, none of us get to taste what it’s like to be the best in the world at what we do. We may try our very best for years, but at some point reality swallows up that dream and leaves us with an irksome, possibly painful, realization that our future is limited. Granted – none of us will be paid like a Joe Johnson relative to our chosen profession. But deep down inside, we know he represents the absolute ceiling on the kind of success we can realistically aspire to.
There shouldn’t be shame in failing to channel Jordan. In fact, I now realize that shouldn’t even be the goal. If it’s a title Joe wants, then it’s the right mix of teammates he needs. As he figures out where and how he wants his career to end, he should aim to be the next Paul Pierce.