He played 17 seasons in the NBA, just turned 38 years old about a month ago, and is currently lighting up all comers in the BIG3 league, but Joe Johnson can’t shake the feeling that his days in professional basketball didn’t quite wrap up the way they were supposed to.
“To be honest, I’m not at peace with how my career ended,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Especially in Houston, not even getting a chance to play in the postseason for whatever reason. That’s the only memory that really sticks in my head.”
Considering the demise of his NBA days pretty much began with being increasingly phased out of the Jazz’s rotation during the 2017-18 season, it would be fair to wonder if “Iso Joe” has less-than-fond memories of Utah ahead of his return to Vivint Smart Home Arena this Saturday for the BIG3′s first-ever appearance here.
However, he insists that’s not the case.
“Man, I loved it. I honestly look forward to coming back there this weekend,” Johnson said. “I got some really good friends in Utah. Obviously, the coaching staff was great for me, the players were great. And I loved the city.”
BIG3 IN SALT LAKE CITY
When • Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena
Format • The BIG3 basketball league features 12 teams of former NBA players competing in 3-on-3, halfcourt games to 50 points. The league also features a 4-point shot area. The SLC event (Week 6 on the league’s schedule) will feature three matchups: 3’s Company vs. Killer 3s; Ball Hogs vs. Triplets; and Bivouac vs. Aliens. Former Jazz players Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson and DeShawn Stevenson will be among those competing.
Tickets • Prices range from $15 to $375 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.
TV • CBS Sports Network
When he signed a two-year deal with the Jazz in July 2016, there were high expectations all around. Here was a seven-time NBA All-Star (admittedly on the back end of his career) choosing to come to Utah. From Johnson’s perspective, he was picking a team he viewed as having the potential to make a deep playoff run. He made an instant impression by scoring 29 points in his first game with the team. He would go on to hit the game-winning shot in the Jazz’s playoff opener against the Clippers.
However, by the next season, frustrations were mounting behind the scenes. The team famously got off to a 19-28 start. Johnson, meanwhile, had seen his minutes and points each decrease. He was upset at seeing his chances to compete for a title slip away.
So, as the Jazz were in the nascent stages of what would turn out to be an incredible 29-6 stretch run, a three-team trade was worked out, with Utah sending Johnson to Sacramento, where he’d be bought out by the Kings days later and could sign with the Rockets, figuring he’d get a chance to contribute to a big postseason run.
It didn’t quite happen that way. But he’s still full of admiration for how the Jazz closed that season, and for how the franchise treated him.
“I love everything that happened there, all the guys, coaching staff, organization; everybody was great,” Johnson said. “… I was thinking, ‘Man, we’re gonna just barely get into the playoffs.’ And I was happy for them, but where I was at in my career, I wanted to go further and I wanted to have a possibility to win a title. Obviously, Utah extended their winning streak, wound up getting like [48 wins], and they knocked off the Thunder in the first round, and then played us in Houston in the second round. It was fun, man. I enjoyed seeing the process of those guys compete.”
Now, he’s enjoying competing in the BIG3, playing halfcourt, 3-on-3 games to 50 points against rosters stocked primarily with former NBA players.
Johnson said he was dealing with some family issues when the invitation was first extended for him to join up, and he didn’t think he would wind up playing. Former University of Arkansas teammate and BIG3 vet Jannero Pargo kept in his ear, though.
Meanwhile, rapper and actor Ice Cube, the co-founder of the BIG3, called Johnson up to let him know how much he was wanted: “Just because he’s not on an NBA roster, that doesn’t mean you don’t wanna see him play basketball,” Ice Cube told The Tribune. “He’s still one of the most skilled players that’s ever played the game. Who don’t wanna see that?”
Johnson finally decided he couldn’t let the opportunity to play competitive basketball again pass him by.
“I waited until the last minute, like literally two days before the deadline — and I told ’em I would play. And I use it mainly for therapy purposes — I still love to play basketball,” he said. “I think the thing you miss the most once you’re not playing in the NBA or playing a team sport, you miss the camaraderie that you have with the guys. And we have that.”
Johnson was selected as the captain for the expansion club Triplets, and two of his draftees for teammates were a couple of guys who played with him on the Razorbacks back in the day, in Pargo and Sergerio Gipson. The roster also includes another ex-Jazz player in Al Jefferson, and a pair of former NBA wings in Jamario Moon and Alan Anderson.
Johnson, though, is undoubtedly the star of the team — if not the entire league. He is first in the BIG3 in both scoring (21.8 points) and assists (4.2); he’s also third in rebounding (9.0). The Triplets won each of their first four games before finally dropping their Week 5 contest, 50-47 to the Power squad that features the league’s other MVP frontrunner, Corey Maggette.
Asked if he was surprised how easily Johnson seemed to be dominating the competition, Jefferson, himself a BIG3 rookie, laughed.
“I’m really surprised that people are surprised,” Jefferson said. “… You look at Joe, man, he looks like he could still play in the league right now. I’ve never had so many layups in my life! … I think you could see Joe 10 years from now and he’d still be playing at a high level, especially in the BIG3.”
For now, Johnson is just excited that BIG3 is giving him a chance to re-visit Salt Lake. He’s stayed in touch with some from the Jazz organization, saying he regularly texts and sometimes calls Joe Ingles to chat. He’s planning to stop by one of his old haunts, Bikram Yoga SLC, where he “was a regular.” Mostly, though, he’s eager for the opportunity to show off the BIG3 and let people know what a good time it is.
“Just every weekend getting a chance to come out and compete, I don’t think you can ask for too much more than that,” he said. “… Guys playing super-hard, super-intense, super-physical — everybody’s trying to compete and trying to win. I think it’s gonna be great. Utah’s a great sports town, they love basketball, they’re definitely gonna love the BIG3.”