By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
No matter his NBA locale, whether he’s worn the Irish green of the Boston Celtics, the bright purple and orange of the Phoenix Suns, the cornea-searing red of the Atlanta Hawks and now the simple black and white of the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson has never forgotten he’s an Arkansas Razorback.
It doesn’t matter that the 31-year-old Little Rock native, now in his 12th pro season with a career scoring average of 17.7 points, has been selected to play the NBA All-Star game six times, more than any other former SEC player in the last 15 years except for the retired Shaquille O’Neal, an ex-LSU Tiger.
Just mention the words `Arkansas’ or `Razorbacks’ or the name `Nolan Richardson’, Joe’s former college coach, and the normally quiet Joe starts chattering. He suddenly can’t stop talking about his lifelong love for the Hogs, as well as his seasons playing for Richardson in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
Arkansas has such an unwavering place in Joe’s heart that he still has tapes of his Razorbacks’ team magical four wins in four days ride to the 2000 SEC tournament title his freshman year.
“It was a helluva run through the best teams in the SEC – Kentucky, LSU and Auburn – and I still look at those tapes from time to time,” Joe says.
Joe was Richardson’s easiest recruiting catch ever.
“I didn’t take any official recruiting visits to anywhere else,” Joe recalls. “I committed to the University of Arkansas as soon as I could. I grew up watching the Hogs – Scotty (Thurman), Corliss (Williamson), Todd (Day) and Lee (Mayberry) – all those guys. I wanted to be a part of Razorback Nation.
“They had the total package in those Final Four teams. They had shooters, they had big guys who could put the ball on the floor, guards who were physically tough. It’s no surprise they win the national championship (in 1994) and almost won another one (1995) the next season.”
Ask Joe who was his favorite Razorback, and you get a totally unexpected answer – Al Dillard.
Dillard was a 25-year-old junior college sharpshooter who dropped out of Birmingham (Ala.) Lanier High to support him and his mother by working in fast-food restaurants. Hogs’ assistant Mike Anderson, a Birmingham native, discovered Dillard nailing 30-foot three-pointers playing for Southern Union Jr. College.
In Dillard’s fifth game at Arkansas, he made a SEC record 12 threes vs. Delaware State.
“It was his art of shooting the basketball that excited me,” Joe says of Dillard. “Don’t get me wrong. Scotty was a helluva shooter, but Dillard had range.
He was shooting by the pig nose (the Hogs’ logo on the Bud Walton Arena floor near midcourt). For me, being in junior high school watching that, it was unbelievable.
“I never thought I could shoot it that far. I loved seeing him (Dillard) come down the court and pull up for deep threes. He was a pure shooter.”
So when it came to Joe signing with the Razorbacks, there was no second-guessing.
“Coach Richardson and Mike Anderson came to my mother’s living room to talk, and I visited Fayetteville for Midnight Madness,” he says. “The rest is history. I always wanted to be a part of it. I got my chance and took advantage of it.”
Joe didn’t become eligible his freshman year for the Razorbacks until late December, just before conference play began.
But once he stepped on the floor, he became a matchup nightmare because, as Florida Coach Billy Donovan remembers, “Joe was a handful to guard because of his size and his one-on-one skills."
Joe became the first freshman in Razorback history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding. He averaged 16 points and 5.7 rebounds, and got better as the year progressed. He was one of only two SEC players in 1990-2000 - All-SEC senior forward Dan Langhi of Vanderbilt was the other - who ranked in the top 10 in conference games in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
In the SEC tournament, Joe was at his very best as the Hogs won those four games to capture the title. He had 21 points each in the quarterfinals against Kentucky and the semifinals vs. LSU.
For the tourney, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, two steals, 1.3 assists, and shot 50 percent from the field. Almost every time Arkansas needed a basket, Joe had ball in hand working one-on-one from the top of the key.
"Joe reminded me a lot of Paul Pressey who I coached at Tulsa," Richardson recalls. "Joe wasn’t the greatest at any one thing, but he was just good at everything. He made everyone around him better."
Joe started his sophomore season slowly after he dislocated a tendon in his left ankle while playing overseas for a USA touring team in the summer of 2000.
Arkansas started that season 0-3 in SEC play, but rallied to finish 10-6 in league play, finishing with five straight wins including victories over No. 13 Kentucky and No. 20 Alabama.
Though Joe’s sophomore stats weren’t eyepopping – 14.2 points, 6.4 rebound and 2.6 assists – he turned pro after getting extremely positive feedback from NBA general managers.
One of those GMs, Chris Wallace of the Boston Celtics, didn’t think Joe would be available when the Celtics chose 10th in the first round of the 2001 draft. But he was, and Wallace snapped him up immediately.
“I saw Joe play Alabama in Tuscaloosa the year we drafted him” said Wallace, now GM of the Memphis Grizzlies. “He stood out, because of his size, ball-handling ability, his versatility. There was hardly anybody else in college basketball with his size that could score and make plays for his teammates.”
Joe started his rookie season as runner-up for Rookie of the Month honors in November. But when the Celtics decided to play mostly veterans and when the organization decided it didn’t want to pay luxury tax, the team wanted to dump Joe’s salary. So they traded him to Phoenix a couple of months late in February just before the trade deadline.
“The trade was the best thing that happened to Joe,” Wallace said. “Going to Phoenix gave him a launch. He got all-star recognition, has become one of the best players at his position in the NBA and made a ton of money in the process. You can’t beat that.”
In seven seasons at Atlanta through last year, Joe established himself as one of the league most clutch shooters. His one-on-one moves to free himself for big shots just before the shot clock expires earned him the nickname “Iso Joe,” since his team would clear out a side of the court so he could isolate a defender.
In his latest NBA gig with the Nets, it took Joe two months to adapt to his first new team since 2005-06. But ever since PJ Carlisemo replaced Avery Johnson as coach on Dec. 27, Joe has found his niche again with the Nets going 12-2 heading into Friday’s game at Memphis.
He hit a stepback three at the buzzer in December to give the Nets a double overtime win over Detroit. He scorched Oklahoma City, the league’s best team so far this year, for 33 points in early January in a 110-93 road victory.
“It was unfamiliar territory for me,” Joe says of being traded. “I had to feel my way into a blind situation, what the coaches and players expected of me.
For the first two months, it was feel (point guard) Darren (Williams) out, feel (center) Brooke (Lopez) out, feel the coaches out. I didn’t quite know what my spots on the court would be.
“When you go through a change like that, it takes awhile to find your role. In January, we regained our confidence and we pretty much all know our roles.”
Opposing coaches like the Grizzlies’ Lionel Hollins, say Joe looks like the same ‘ol Joe.
“Go back and watch that ESPN special on him when he was in high school (at Little Rock Central),” Hollins says. “He’s still that 6-7 kid who can shoot, pound the ball and play one-on-one. That’s his game and it works.”