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Ex-NBA star Joe Johnson resurges with therapeutic Big3 League

‘My mom passed away in February … so I just needed something to do to keep me busy. And the BIG3 was it.’

The BIG3 has offered a big distraction and a potential title for ex-NBA star Joe Johnson while he continues to cope with the death of his beloved mother.

“I use it as therapy,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “My mom passed away in February, and being an only child, it was tough on me, so I just needed something to do to keep me busy. And the BIG3 was it.”

From 2001-18, Johnson averaged 16 points per game and was one of the NBA’s most feared shooters while playing in 1,276 games for the Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets. The seven-time NBA All-Star’s biggest fan was his mother, Diane, who raised him in Little Rock, Arkansas, without help from his father. Sadly, in 2008, Diane Johnson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of bone marrow plasma cells. She did not share this news with her son until the 2010 NBA All-Star Weekend in Dallas, according to the New York Daily News.

Joe Johnson (right) in action for the Houston Rockets against the Golden State Warriors during Game 7 of the Western Conference finals on May 28, 2018, at the Toyota Center in Houston.

ndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson last played in the NBA for the Rockets, averaging 6 points on 38% shooting from the field in 23 games during the 2017-18 season. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound small forward said he got “no interest” from NBA teams as a free agent in 2018. But considering his mother’s declining health at that time, Johnson said it would have been tough to play last season. It ended up being a blessing in disguise not to play, as he was able to spend quality time with his mom during her last days.

“My mom was sick the whole time [in the 2017-18 season],” Johnson said. “It was not even possible for me to play even if teams were calling. With her being that sick, I spent a lot of time in Little Rock last year.”

Johnson said his mother was rushed to the hospital because of cancer complications last Christmas Day. The doctor told him that he didn’t project her to live through 2019.

Diane Johnson died on Feb. 23 in Little Rock.

“I have my moments when it is tough on me, it is hard on me,” Johnson said. “When I go home to Little Rock, I still stay in her house, and there is nobody there but me to check on it. So it is still tough, but I just try to keep myself busy. … She was my world. It was just me and her coming up. My pops was never around, so my mom, she played that role. She did everything.”

The BIG3 is now in its third season after being co-founded by rapper-actor Ice Cube and television, film and music mogul Jeff Kwatinetz. The 3-on-3, half-court professional basketball league is filled with former NBA stars. Thomas Scott, BIG3 director of basketball operations, has been instrumental in getting such former NBA notables as Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Greg Oden and others to play in the league.

BIG3 guard Jannero Pargo told Scott several times that Johnson, his old University of Arkansas teammate, was interested in playing. Johnson also corresponded with Ice Cube via text about the possibility of playing but had reservations.

“Cube knew my whole situation before I committed to it,” Johnson said. “I was telling him, ‘Man, I don’t know if I am going to do it, Cube, because I am going through this with my mom’s [death]. And he gave me as much time as I needed.”

Scott eventually got ahold of Johnson just two days before the March 19 cutoff date, and he finally agreed to join the BIG3.

Johnson was named to an expansion BIG3 team with Pargo and ex-Arkansas teammate Gary Gibson called The Triplets. Johnson didn’t disappoint, as he earned BIG3 MVP honors after leading the league in points (175), assists (31), four-point shots (four) and total field goals (63) and finishing second in 3-pointers made (16).

The 38-year-old is the headliner for The Triplets as they face the Killer 3s for the BIG3 championship on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Johnson and The Triplets will enter the championship game with an 8-1 record. Johnson had 20 points and eight rebounds and nailed a game-winning 3-pointer to clinch a championship berth for The Triplets during a 50-39 win over the 3 Headed Monsters on Aug. 24 in New Orleans. New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and vice president of basketball operations David Griffin attended that game and took a picture with Johnson and Ice Cube.

After a game-winning 3-pointer from Joe Johnson (standing) on Aug. 24, The Triplets will play in the BIG3 championship game.

Courtesy of the Big3

Johnson is excited about the opportunity to win his first professional championship.

“We have been playing our butts off this whole season,” Johnson said. “We’ve been grinding this whole time. We take it seriously. I didn’t get into this just to say I got into this and I played.”

Said Ice Cube: “Joe Johnson playing in the BIG3 has been a dream come true for basketball fans around the world.”

Another benefit of the BIG3 for Johnson is that it renewed the NBA’s interest in him because of his stellar play.

Johnson confirmed to The Undefeated that he was slated to work out for the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia on Thursday and that “a few NBA teams want me to work out.” He also is receiving interest from the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and the Pelicans, sources said. After having a minimal role during his last stint in Houston, Johnson hopes to remaster his NBA ending next season.

“I am hopeful to get back, but I did not get in the BIG3 to get back to the ‘league,’ ” said Johnson, who is uncertain about playing in the BIG3 next season. “I had a great career. I enjoyed the process. The only thing that keeps the NBA fire in the belly is how it ended in Houston. That just does not sit well with me. So if an opportunity comes along and I feel that it is worth it, yeah, I take that chance.”

Said Kwatinetz: “Take a seven-time NBA All-Star in his 30s, give him a season off of travel, but still train at a professional level, and you get Joe Johnson, an MVP in the BIG3 that can also walk on any NBA team and help them chase a title. He looks as fresh, efficient and dominating as I’ve ever seen him.”

The BIG3 has had a player sign a 10-day contract with the NBA in Xavier Silas. But if Johnson can sign with an NBA team, it could be a game-changer for the summertime league in proving the ability to be a springboard to get players back to the NBA. Former NBA star Dwyane Wade tweeted on Wednesday, “This is and will be big for @thebig3 giving players the platform to perform and make it back to the league.”

And perhaps Johnson’s possible return to the NBA can persuade former NBA superstars such as Wade to join the BIG3 in the future and gain more fans worldwide in the process.

“The best thing for our league would be that veterans can use the BIG3 as a platform to get back in the NBA,” Scott said. “If Joe Johnson gets back into the NBA, Carmelo Anthony, Nick Young and JR Smith might look at our league as a way back in.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.