Learn how James Johnson’s unique background in MMA and kickboxing has helped him excel as an NBA defender. Plus, Johnson dishes on his friendship with Kings fan favorite Brad Miller.
There’s little doubt James Johnson is the most accomplished fighter in the NBA.
In fact, the Cheyenne, Wyo. native – the first Cowboy State NBA product since the 1960s – reveals he grew up more interested in winning mixed martial arts and karate competitions than basketball tournaments.
“It was my thing – after school everyday, I’d be training,” he says. “It’s something I’ve been doing all my life. Everyone in my family owns a black belt – my father is actually the master, and he taught us everything we know.”
Over the course of his career, the Kings forward has won seven world and nine national karate titles, in addition to sporting an unblemished kickboxing record.
“I started fighting in those 20 fights at about age 14 – it was my weight vs. his weight and there was no age (requirement),” Johnson recalls. “I was pretty successful and felt like moving on to (Mixed Martial Arts).”
On May 13, 2006, at age 18, Johnson stepped into the cage for his first MMA bout, as his entrance music, Lil Wayne’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” blared through Ikon Events Center in his hometown. A heavy underdog, the future NBA draftee went on to defeat 31-year-old Damon Clark in under 90 seconds by submission.
“It went so well that if I wasn’t going to (get a passing score on) my SAT, I was actually going to go pro and start my career in fighting,” discloses No. 52. “God blessed me, I was able to pass the test and the rest has been history.”
In 9th grade, Johnson decided to try his hand at basketball at the advice of his classmates and worked diligently to make varsity.
“All of my friends were going to basketball practice, and I just told my father, ‘Let me take a little break from fighting,’’ he says. “My (kickboxing) record was good enough to relax a little bit and I had no fights coming up, so he said, ‘OK, let’s go ahead – if you’re going to do it, be the best at it.’”
The versatile and athletic forward – who finished second in ACC Rookie of the Year voting and earned Third Team All-ACC honors at Wake Forest as a freshman – says he can touch the rim with his foot and deliver an incredibly precise roundhouse kick.
“Nobody ever tries me,” says the fourth-year forward of possible run-ins with fellow NBA players. “Especially with the reputation I have.”
Kings guard Marcus Thornton has enjoyed his new teammate’s company and is yet to see No. 52’s well-renowned fighting talent in action.
“He flipped off the wall one time,” says Thornton. “I’m looking forward to seeing him do other things, too.”
While Johnson hasn’t stepped back into the ring since entering the League, following an up-and-down rookie season with the Chicago Bulls, turning back to practice the sport helped him rediscover his passion for competing at a high level.
“When I went back to training (the way) I knew how, I just got the love of the game back, the love of working out back,” he says. “I forgot how much fun it was to work out like that. It just propelled me on to bigger and better things.”
His martial arts background, Johnson explains, has allowed him to thrive as an outstanding NBA wing defender and emerge into an elite shot-blocker at his position.
“If you just take the same mentality – that you’re training for one specific team or one specific guy – then it makes it a whole lot easier to lock-in and to know what you have upcoming planned for your opponent,” he says.
“I have no fear – I go up against (superstars) just like I would go up against any other big man or small forward,” he adds. “I don’t treat anybody differently – I feel like every (player) puts on his shoes the same and his shorts the same, and at the end of the day, if you can accept the challenge, it doesn’t matter what (his skills are) or what (he’s) accomplished.”
On the offensive end, Johnson – coming off a season in which he established career-highs in nearly every statistical category – modeled his arsenal after two perennial All-Stars.
“I’ve always liked Carmelo Anthony’s game – I feel like he scores the easiest in the League – and Paul Pierce (for) the way he moves so smoothly and always gets to where he’s going and wants to go,” says Johnson.
“(I’ve learned) you don’t have to be the fastest, you don’t have to be the tallest, you don’t have to be skinny – you just have to work hard, trust in yourself and know your craft.”
After being traded to the Kings, Johnson didn’t have to think twice about choosing his jersey number, opting for No. 52 in honor of a close friends whom he credits with helping jumpstart his NBA career – Sacramento fan favorite Brad Miller.
“He just taught me the ropes and the dos and don’ts,” says the Wake Forest product, disclosing the pair developed a tight-knit bond in Chicago. “When I came in the locker room once instead of staying out and getting extra jumpers up, he asked, ‘What are you doing, rook? What else do you have to do?’
“He always had something positive to say in a funny way that I could accept instead of bombarding me and yelling at me – he told me to hold strong, work on my game and get better when I wasn’t playing a lot in my rookie year, and I did.”
During an appearance at The Bobby Jackson Foundation Golf Tournament in September, Johnson was surprised when he felt a pair of large hands slapping the back of his neck.
“I thought, ‘There’s nobody crazy enough,’ and then I looked back and it was Brad Miller, and I said, ‘OK, there is someone crazy enough,” says Johnson with a smile.
“I have the utmost respect for him, and when I told him I was wearing his number, he told me to hold it down.”
Johnson, who’s grown closer to his new Kings teammates both on and off the court, vividly recalls the first time he squared off against Thornton during the pair’s rookie season in 2009-10.
“I had a scouting report saying (Thornton) has no conscience,” recalls Johnson, recounting No. 23 hitting two consecutive three-pointers despite being closely guarded. “I’d never seen that before – when a man is contested … and has that kind of confidence. I remind him about it – I know he’s that capable player and I’m glad to have him on my team now.”
No. 52, who has long held a deep appreciation for die-hard purple-and-black supporters, aims to electrify the home crowd with his two-way game while continuing to progress.
“My personal goal is just to play basketball – I’ve finally started to feel comfortable with the game,” he says. “Sitting out your rookie year and then sitting out a couple of games in your second season while knowing that you’re better – most of these guys don’t know what that feels like.
“(I’ve done) a lot of growing-up. Everything feels great, and now I’m definitely going to play – and I’m definitely going to play hard.”
Get to Know James:
- Johnson sports a number of unique and meaningful tattoos, including love for family, appreciation for his circumstances and a representation of his heritage.
“I have my family on my chest, next to Jesus – I’m a big believer,” he says. “Not too many kids can say they had mom and dad growing up – I was fortunate to have both and I respect both, love both, and happy they’re both still with us. I have, ‘Family First’ on my arm.
“I dedicate the left arm for what I believe in,” he continues. “Michael Jordan is obviously my favorite player. I’ve got (a deck of cards) because you’ve just got to play the hand you were dealt in life. If you were dealt a hand (like) mine, which was a lot tougher than most, you’ve got to play them.
“My leg tattoo, that’s my tribal – I’m half-Samoan and half-Black. My mother is full Samoan so it’s really her tribal. I’m just (expressing it), because just looking at my face, you wouldn’t know I’m Polynesian.”
- Johnson’s pregame routine includes a hot and cold shower before heading to the court to put up jump shots an hour prior to tip-off.
- During his free time, the Kings forward enjoys golfing, as well as watching movies and numerous – strictly non-reality – TV shows.
“I like a ton of shows – ‘Family Guy,’ ‘Modern Family’ are pretty funny, and ‘Big Break,’” he says. “My favorite movie is ‘He Got Game.’”