South Jordan • Britton Johnsen dunked over LeBron James. He was released by his all-time favorite coach just before boarding a flight to celebrate his NBA homecoming. And he’s continually mistaken for Shawn Bradley, who’s only eight inches taller.
That’s probably enough material for a movie — not even including Johnsen’s basketball adventures in five other countries, his temporary employment that stemmed from one of the darkest days in NBA history or his work that’s far removed from a lavish NBA existence.
So where to begin? In other words, who’s “Brett Jensen?”
That’s what a boy once wanted to know, puzzled by the autograph from the person he believed was Bradley. Anyone who knows the 6-foot-10 — that’s tall, but nowhere near 7-6 — Johnsen recognizes him as his own person and a phenomenal athlete, part of a select group of Utahns who have played in the NBA. And he can talk. That ability serves him well in each of his three jobs: development officer for the South Jordan-based Cause for Hope foundation, Utah Jazz radio analyst and private basketball coach.
“Eventually,” he said, “I’d like to hone in on one thing.”
So there’s no clear-cut script for the rest of his life. But was there ever such a thing for Johnsen, who turned 35 last week?
He went from being a McDonald’s All-American at Murray High School to playing in the NCAA championship game as a Utah freshman and then suffering through a senior season that he labels a “nightmare,” thanks to a hand injury and mononucleosis. Undrafted by the NBA, he got an opportunity with Orlando that immediately led to a signature moment in James’ pro debut with Cleveland’s summer league team in 2003.
In front of 15,000 fans in Orlando, Johnsen intercepted James’ pass near mid-court and drove for a dunk as James tried vainly to cut him off. Johnsen strutted for a few steps as the arena erupted.
It’s all captured on a grainy YouTube clip of a local newscast, posted several years later — but not by Johnsen, as he’s been accused.
Johnsen’s performance in the summer helped him make the Magic roster. He started three games, including a season-opening win over New York. Johnsen was anticipating his return home in mid-November to face the Jazz as his triumphant moment, having made it in the NBA after the disappointing end of his college career.
“His whole life, he wanted to play at the Delta Center,” said his wife, Lindsey.
But that afternoon in Los Angeles, Magic coach Doc Rivers — whom Johnsen greatly admires to this day — told Johnsen he was being waived. (Orlando signed guard Derrick Dial to replace him.) His wife met him at a downtown hotel, launching “an hour of tears,” by Johnsen’s account, before they joined in a long-planned, subdued party at his childhood home.
Two postscripts: Rivers was fired the next day, following the Magic’s 10th straight defeat. And after playing for Fayetteville of the D-League, Johnsen re-signed with Orlando in March and finished the season.
Released by New Orleans the following year, Johnsen was playing for Idaho of the CBA when he walked into a hotel in Yakima, Washington, and glimpsed highlights of an infamous brawl at Detroit. The incident resulted in suspensions for four Indiana players — notably Ron Artest, now known as Metta World Peace.
The fallout was the Pacers needed bodies, and Johnsen was summoned to Indianapolis. He took the court after a Thanksgiving dinner of White Castle hamburgers and played 11 minutes in a win over Minnesota, recording two points and three rebounds and effectively guarding Kevin Garnett.
He played with former Weber State guard Eddie Gill and Scot Pollard, another Murray native, and met Pacers executive Larry Bird, his idol.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had told the replacement players, “You’re not going to be here long.” That warning actually gave Johnsen the freedom to relax and just play, creating his best NBA memory. The stint lasted six games, before Anthony Johnson’s suspension ended and Jeff Foster got healthy, so Johnsen went back to Boise — about $45,000 richer. That’s when his NBA career ended, although he didn’t know it at the time.
Other opportunities surfaced, including one with reigning champion San Antonio in 2005 and another with a Jazz team filled with guaranteed contracts in ’08. Before knee injuries forced him to retire in 2012, Johnsen played internationally. There was always pressure to perform as the one or two Americans on a team and there were scary moments, such as the night in Greece when Johnsen and former Utah State forward Spencer Nelson were on opposing teams and a beer bottle landed between them as they lined up for a free throw.
The money was good, but “got smaller and smaller as my knee got worse,” Johnsen said, and he regrets not further pursuing an NBA career.
“I wonder if I made that decision too early,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that play the journeyman game.”
Johnsen was exposed to the NBA lifestyle long enough to need the reminders of reality that come when he takes Cause for Hope sponsors to Nicaragua and Guatemala. The foundation works with families in poverty, mentoring them toward self-reliance. He’s gone into huts with dirt floors and one light bulb, meeting families trying to provide one meal a day.
“When you get back home, you’re not looking at things the same way,” he said.
The foundation gives him perspective. His work with the Jazz’s pregame and postgame shows reconnects him to people from his NBA past. And coaching, including this week’s Johnsen & Johnsen camp with his older brother, Jeff, makes him think about his family’s future. Houston, who’s 9, “dreams of playing in the NBA,” Lindsey Johnsen said.
So did her husband, and he got there.
About the series
What if you could play one year at the highest level of a sport? How would you view that experience and how would you spend the rest of your life? Utah high school graduates Fui Vakapuna, Zach Sorensen, Brad Sutterfield and Britton Johnsen each realized a lifelong dream, and then his opportunity was gone. These are their stories. To read about their stories, visit sltrib.com/sports
About Britton Johnsen
O Age • 35. Prep • Murray. College • Utah.
NBA • Orlando, 20 games (2003-04); Indiana, six games (2004-05).
Family • Wife, Lindsey; son, Houston (9); daughters Scarlett (6) and Goldie (2).
Jobs • Development officer, Cause for Hope foundation; radio analyst, Jazz; private basketball coach.
Notable • Johnsen’s second stint with the Orlando Magic came when he replaced Desmond Penigar, the only former Utah State player of the past 40 years to have appeared in the NBA.
The 6-foot-10 Britton Johnsen is often mistaken for former NBA player Shawn Bradley, 7-6. Rather than protest, he usually signs autographs, poses for photos and engages in conversation as Bradley, a good friend of Johnsen’s. By extension, that connects the 6-2 Brandon Johnsen — Britton’s twin brother and Murray High teammate — to Bradley, who’s 16 inches taller.