Already Missing Joe Johnson: His legacy as an Atlanta Hawk

How do you say goodbye to someone that changed your life?

He’s not gone, you know—at least that’s what I keep telling myself. I’ll still see him twice a year, but now in that ugly gray uniform (is Brooklyn keeping the old color scheme?). Only this time I’ll be rooting against him, and I don’t know if I can do that. Say what you want about Joe Johnson—I know I’ve said a lot—but the man changed everything for Atlanta Hawks basketball. Don’t let me remind you of the season us fans (and the team) suffered through before his arrival, because 13-69 is a place I never want to be again.

Let’s also not forget that Joe wanted to come to Atlanta. He asked Phoenix not to match his offer sheet because he wanted to come to our city, play basketball for our fans, and do jello shots with Luda and TI in our strip clubs (So I don’t get sued by Joe Johnson: there is no evidence of Joe ever doing jello shots with Luda and TI in Atlanta strip clubs… Also, I keep saying “our” even though I no longer live in Atlanta, but once an ATLien always an ATLien). He wanted the culture, the atmosphere, and the challenge, and I truly believed he embraced it until the end.

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I’ve always called him ‘Methodical Joe’ (at least when I wasn’t calling him ‘Smooth Joe’). He’s not a loud player, if you know what I mean. I’ve seen him get amped up before, but he’s usually a silent assassin; the guy who cans a game-clinching three and turns around with the same “fuck you” expression on his face that he’d been carrying the previous three quarters when he was iso-ing the team into oblivion. It’s just the way he carries himself, and that rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way.

We said he wasn’t a leader, we said he was overpaid, we said he didn’t have heart—we knocked him for everything unsubstantiated, but for the most part, refused to appreciate the load he often bore. It was only 7 years ago that his only help was Al Harrington (yes, at one point, Al Harrington was the second best player on an NBA team. The fact is soon to be added to Ripley’s Believe it or Not/ sarcasm’d) and he was forced to put up ridiculous numbers on a nightly basis only to give the team a measly 26 wins for the season.

We didn’t truly appreciate Joe until 2008. (We’ve all heard the story, we all know the story, and I don’t care if you don’t want to hear the story, because the story needs to be shared whenever remembering Joe Johnson.)

The Hawks, who squeezed into the playoffs with a pathetic 37-45 record, managed to grab the 8-seed and a date with the league-wide favorite Boston Celtics. After 2 blowouts in the first 2 games of the series, I was ready to close the books. Truly, I was already thinking about next season and preparing myself for a sweep. I already hated the Celtics, so I figured they might as well just get it over with and assert their Big Brother-esque dominance over us once again. Only Methodical Joe had different plans. With all of that methodicalness, he punched the Celtics square in the mouth and delivered what is, in my mind, the second greatest playoff performance in Atlanta’s history.

After leading the Hawks to a Game 3 victory, Johnson saved most of his magic for Game 4. With Atlanta trailing 2-1 in the series, Joe decided to take matters into his own hands. He scored 35 points on the night, but 20 in the fourth quarter as Atlanta managed to pull away from Boston in the closing minutes. Of course, we’ll always have the memory of him crossing up Leon Powe, staring at him on the ground, nailing the dagger three-pointer, and then soaring for a chest bump with Josh Smith as Philips exploded into a pandemonium.

Just think about it, other than Zaza head-butting people, when have you ever heard this city get so loud about basketball? When I stopped running and leaping around my basement throwing Tiger-esque fist pumps, I sat on my couch and tried to comprehend everything I just witnessed. I couldn’t do it. As a Hawks fan, that was the greatest basketball experience of my life. From that exact moment on, Joe Johnson reserved a chunk of my loyalty that he could never lose. He became more than a Hawks all-star that night, he became a Hawks legend.

Quick, name 5 better all-time Atlanta Hawks than Joe Johnson. I dare you. And if you can, shame on you, because you aren’t appreciating his contributions as much as you should be.

Anyway, the legend only grew from there. The following year, the Hawks grabbed the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference and played the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2009 NBA playoffs. The series stretched to 7 games, and once again, Joe put the league on notice. He scored 27 points in a Hawks blowout win, burying 6 three-pointers, one of which was a 30-footer in Dwyane Wade’s grill (should have been an and-1). Again, I tried to comprehend what I just saw. I tried to appreciate his growing legend as a Hawk, but I couldn’t do it. I was prancing around my basement like Bambi on speed, fist pumping like Tiger Woods again, and high-fiving dry walls like we just beat the Heat with Joe’s help.

That was likely the peak of the Johnson era, maybe not for the team, but for Joe himself. He never soared higher than he did in those two series. His decline was slow, but gradual, and he’s still in the midst of it and is also still a very, very good NBA player. He was never going to be the best player on a championship team, he simply wasn’t a player capable of taking a team past the league’s elite, but he was a guy who could drop 40 on any given night. He was a guy you had to plan your entire defense around, even though you knew Woodson’s (or Drew’s) plan was to sit everyone else down in the corner and give them popcorn as they watched Joe take his man 1-on-1.

Then came the contract, the ultimate black mark of his career, something beyond his control, really. He instantly became the bad guy in Atlanta. With so much money invested in Johnson (126 M over 6 years), people expected super-star level production. The only issue is that Joe Johnson has and had never been a super-star. He’d been a solid all-star his entire tenure with the Hawks, but had never been a top-10 player in the league. Because he was being paid like one, expectations were unfairly heaped on him, when in reality, it was management’s fault for offering him the money. Realistically, Johnson likely would have left if he didn’t get the contract, so it was an awkward situation for the front office. It was either throw him the bank or watch him leave, and the Hawks weren’t about to let the only player keeping them out of the lottery walk out the door and go play ball in New York.

So they did what they had to do to retain their guy. That’s what started this whole mess. Everyone began to dislike Joe because his contract hamstrung the team. Financially, Atlanta was between a rock and hard place, and it was almost entirely because of Johnson’s huge hunk of change. But what’s the man supposed to do? Say, “I’m not worth 126 mill. I can’t be your face of the franchise. Don’t give me this money?” No, he’s not going to say that, and this is where holding these people up to these ridiculous standards comes into play. We say he should have recognized that his contract was too much and asked to be paid less (When I say we this time, I mean only the stupid people). I mean, really? Honestly, you can’t tell me you’d do that. To begin with, it would almost be shirking from a challenge, and Johnson wasn’t about to do that. He accepted his role as the face of the Hawks, and because he wasn’t entirely marketable and entirely good enough, he was blasted. Criticism was warranted, he had his clear deficiencies on the court, he even told the fans he didn’t care what they thought when he was frustrated after a loss, but for some reason we forgot he was still an all-star. He’s not the brand that LeBron James is. In fact, he’s not really a brand at all, and that’s what so many of us resented. We wanted a super star, and instead we had Joe Johnson.

***

For what it’s worth, I wanted a super star too. But I had Joe Johnson. Some of you were stuck with Joe Johnson. While I wanted better, I was happy to have him. Sure, his contract was a bit too hefty, his hands held the ball a little too long while the shot clock dwindled, and his defense fluctuated throughout the years (I thought it was quite good last season), but you have to realize that this is one of the five best players ever to slip on a Hawks jersey.

Now some of you might say that says more about the franchise than the player, but I disagree. Johnson changed everything. He took a team from rags, well maybe not to riches, but to the upper-middle class. It’s not your success story that ends with a bang, but it was a success story. After sucking for 10 years, Hawks fans finally had a team to cheer for when May rolled around. I was grateful, maybe not always satisfied, but grateful.

His number should hang in the rafters of Philips Arena, of that there is no question. He changed basketball in Atlanta—made it semi-relevant, even though it has slipped, as we’ve become the team that’s just always there. But at least we are there, unlike the other half of the league. At least we had a chance to fight for a championship after the regular season.

Joe Johnson gave us that chance. We can ridicule him (and oh, we will), but know that the man with one of the worst contracts in Atlanta Hawks history was also one of the best players in Atlanta Hawks history. Honoring him with a retired number is a no brainer. Anything else is an insult to a player who led the city to, unfortunately enough, the best basketball years since Dominique Wilkins.

So yes, I’m happy he’s traded and I acknowledge Danny Ferry as a miracle worker, but I can’t not (already nostalgically) reflect on Joe Johnson’s legacy as a Hawk. And truthfully, it’s a staggering one.

Good luck in Brooklyn, Methodical Joe. We’ll (or maybe just “I’ll”) miss you.

Tags: Al Harrington Atlanta Hawks Atlanta Spirit Group Boston Celtics Brooklyn Nets Danny Ferry Dominique Wilkins Joe Johnson Josh Smith Larry Drew LeBron James Leon Powe Miami Heat Mike Woodson New York Knicks Philips Arena Phoenix Suns Zaza Pachulia

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