Amir Johnson‘s time in Toronto has ended. It’s been a few days since this statement has become a reality, yet still, the words hurt no less. Why? This is a guy that poured out heart and soul every single time he took the floor, regardless of the team’s circumstances. The fact that he’s seen the bad times with this franchise makes the loss sting that much more. To put things in perspective, he’s 4th on the list of games played in franchise history. He actually adores the city and the team. During his six year tenure, he was never afraid to show it – whether he was using every ounce of energy in his body during a game, or if he was interacting with fans in the city by holding events.
The 6’9″ power forward first arrived to Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2009, in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that brought him and Sonny Weems up north in exchange for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic
(remember these guys?). As a team, the Raptors were in an odd spot. The 2008-09 was somewhat disastrous, with Bryan Colangelo’s “twin towers in the paint” experiment failing, as Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal (before he was traded to the Miami Heat) couldn’t get the squad into a position to make the postseason for the third straight year. The team finished 33-49, and the offseason set the stage for some rebuilding on the fly. Chris Bosh was set to become a free agent in the summer of 2010, and the roster needed to improve in order to entice the star big man to stick around.
Through selecting swingman DeMar DeRozan ninth overall in the 2009 NBA Draft and bringing in a spry 22 year old big man in Amir Johnson, the Raptors were looking to set up some sort of blueprint for the future, as the period of mediocrity started to define Toronto in an Eastern Conference that included the likes of the Boston Celtics “Big 3”, LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic.
The 2009-10 season brought more tough times up north, as the Raptors lost countless heartbreakers and missed the playoff dance but just one single game. The 40-42 record was an improvement over the previous year, but it wasn’t enough. The loyal fans of Canada’s only team were gifted with disappointment. Chris Bosh was heading down to South Beach to win a couple titles, and the team was in the hands of Andrea Bargnani on the court and Bryan Colangelo upstairs. These were the dark ages.
Amir Johnson’s under-the-radar rise to becoming a fan favourite during these painful times in Raptorland provided fans with some much needed solace. Right from the beginning, Johnson was diving for loose balls, jostling with opposing bigs for rebounds he had no business in getting, and doing all the things that makes this city adore hard-working athletes. The team was set to become awful for the foreseeable future, but hey, at least there were some guys to support as the losing woes became almost comical. In the case of Johnson, the departure of Bosh freed up more playing time (although the Raptors selected power forward Ed Davis in the 2010 NBA Draft).
With CB4 playing down in Miami as CB1, Johnson shared the frontcourt with Andrea Bargnani as the Raptors struggled all year long, finishing the 2010-11 season with a pitiful 22-60 record. DeMar DeRozan was far from being DeMar “DeAllStar”, Ed Davis was too young, Sonny Weems was too inconsistent, and Jarrett Jack was traded just a few weeks into the campaign. The “Young Gunz” pictured above just weren’t talented enough to prevent the team from falling into the NBA basement as bottomfeeders.
Still, Amir Johnson continued to work hard on the court in his first season where he was expected to start at the four spot night in, night out. For this reason, he was kept around. In the next few years, the Raptors became somewhat of a revolving door for players making quick NBA pit-stops, whether coming from overseas, or arriving to the T-Dot on the last year of their contract. Many players were in and out relatively fast, but Amir Johnson was one of the constants.
Drafting Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in 2011 came to the dismay of many fans because of the “European big man” stigma that Bargnani was consistently failing to prove wrong, and with him being stashed overseas for a season before making his debut in 2012, the Raptors rough patch continued. Finishing 22-43 in a 65 game lockout-shortened season was a marginal improvement (I guess), but the team was still far from a playoff return.
That’s why the surprise turnaround just two years later in the 2013-14 season was damn near historic around here. Bryan Colangelo was gone. Andrea Bargnani was gone. The “Big 3” in Boston was no more, and the Atlantic Division was there for the taking. Masai Ujiri walked into town gun blazing, and ended the Rudy Gay era less than a fifth of the way through the season. At this point in time, Amir Johnson was a proven asset, and his contract – which at one point looked pretty bad – was quite decent for a scrappy big man who consistently shot field goal percentages in the high 50s, continued to battle the big boys for the boards, and even added a play-by-play announcer patented three point shot, which would sporadically provide a boost to a Toronto Raptors offense that was still finding itself in the midst of some iso-heavy ball in the Rudy Gay days. However, Ujiri saw the value of these intangibles and decided to keep around the player who had turned into a veteran. It proved to be a smart decision.
Simply put, Amir “Tall Money” Johnson quite possibly could have been moved via trade. Maybe even to a contending team looking for that last piece of the championship puzzle – a big man never afraid to do the dirty work, without hesitation to put his body on the line whenever needed. He wasn’t though. Ujiri noticed these qualities and kept him around. It didn’t matter if the oft-occurring ankle injuries were becoming a nuisance. If Amir could walk, often times, he’d be suiting up for games even though he knew the risk. That’s what made him special. That’s why he deserved to stick around to see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. That’s why it was so awesome to see him as part of the Raptor team that won its second Atlantic Division title, set the franchise record for wins (48, at the time), finally broke through and gained a bit of respect around the league.
We all remember how that intense first round series with the Brooklyn Nets ended in Game 7. Amir Johnson’s game that afternoon though? Amazing. One of his best games in a Raptor uniform, no doubt. It’s no surprise that he gave it his all in a game with such high stakes though, his effort was simply on another level all the time. He always wanted “it” more than the other guy. Even though the game ended in a loss, fans had something to be proud of for a change. In my opinion, this game embodied what the beginning of the “#NorthernUprising” movement was all about. Teams counting out Toronto’s talent, but not accounting for Toronto’s heart. Look no further than Amir’s Game 7 to see this in action. Deservedly so, he fans inside and outside of the arena going absolutely bonkers as they observed the second-most important game in franchise history (next to Game 7 versus the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals back in 2001).
The 2014-15 Toronto Raptors season which followed this heroic effort was a mixed bag, although the team set a franchise record in regular season wins (49) and hoisted another Atlantic Division banner (which doesn’t sound as cool as it used to). This past year, Amir Johnson tied his career high by starting 72 games – despite the nagging ankle injuries – and continued building on his workmanlike reputation, making play after play while fighting through pain. The playoff sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, but Amir just continued showing love to the “6”.
Seeing Johnson leave amidst fan excitement of the DeMarre Carroll signing on Canada Day was almost poetic. An under-the-radar guy, leaving the team in an under-the-radar way.
??Happy Canada Day!!!??
— Amir Johnson (@IamAmirJohnson) July 1, 2015
Free agent forward Amir Johnson has agreed to a deal with the Boston Celtics, league source tells Yahoo Sports.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 1, 2015
— Amir Johnson (@IamAmirJohnson) July 2, 2015
Johnson played a huge role in paving the way for the franchise to be where it is right now. The Raptors still don’t have any championships as a team, but they’re closer than they were when the Westchester High School product first showed his face north of the border. Over his time here, he’s seen many faces, many disappointments, and recently some team history.
Not all stories have a fairy tale endings though. The NBA is a business, and players naturally move from team to team when the time comes. That’s just how it goes. After signing a two year, $24 million dollar contract with the division rival Boston Celtics, Amir Johnson will now be suiting up in white and green as opposed to Raptor red, white, and black. We’ve got to be happy for the guy though, and we can’t hate on the fact that he’s getting paid to do his job elsewhere.
We just need to remember all he’s done for the team we call ours.