‘It’s OK to be different’: Spurs forward Keldon Johnson feels at home outdoors
The 22-year-old has found a community outside of basketball and gotten to know a different side of San Antonio through hunting and fishing
Keldon Johnson can be seen shooting jumpers, hitting the target from 3-point range and hooking around a screen to get open for the San Antonio Spurs.
But Johnson, arguably the NBA’s most avid outdoorsman, has favorite pastimes such as shooting from distance while hunting, hitting a target as a bowhunter and hooking fish in rivers, lakes and the ocean.
“I love hunting and fishing. That’s what I love to do,” Johnson told The Undefeated.
In some respects, Johnson bucks statistical trends. Freshwater, saltwater and fly-fishing ranked as the third-most popular outdoor activity behind running and biking for African Americans, according to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation. And according to 2015 research by Responsive Management on U.S. archery participation, 81% of archers 18 and older were white, as were 88% of bowhunters.
“It’s OK to be different. Why not? Don’t change yourself to fit in,” the 22-year-old said. “Be yourself. That’s what I love to do, and I’m going to do it. And if some people are going to judge me for me being a hunter and a fisherman, that’s fine. I can’t give you a fake version of myself, because that’s not fair to me or you.”
The Virginia native was born in Chesterfield and raised in South Hill, where his father Chris taught him how to fish when he was about 6 years old and later taught him how to hunt. His mother, Rochelle, also had a family full of hunters.
Being in South Hill was perfect for hunting and fishing as it is located on Interstate 85 between the Atlantic Ocean and the mountains on cross-state U.S. 58. There were two lakes nearby — Buggs Island Lake, Virginia’s largest lake, and Lake Gaston. There was also hunting and fishing at the Southbound Sporting Preserve in South Hill, where there was saltwater and freshwater fishing, big and small game, waterfowl and upland birds.
“Growing up, we actually got to fish a good amount,” Johnson said. “We never really got to go hunting often. So fishing was always something I loved to do. It’s peaceful. And I’m a high-energy type of guy. I always like to be out, joking around with friends and family. So it was good just to have that balance of that peace.
“And I found at a young age that, ‘Man, this is satisfying.’ Even though there was a wait, it’s worth the wait. So you’re waiting there for a fish, but you never know what you’re going to get on the other end. I like that. It’s the buildup.”
Johnson said the biggest distraction he had from hunting and fishing was actually playing basketball. After starring at famed Oak Hill Academy (Virginia), he played at the University of Kentucky during the 2018-19 season, averaging 13.5 points and 5.9 rebounds. The National Honor Society member also was interested in exploratory studies in agriculture during his freshman year. Johnson listed fishing as his favorite off-the-court activity in his Wildcats bio, but didn’t get an opportunity to bring out poles in Kentucky.
“We were so busy with basketball and school,” Johnson said.
Opportunities for Johnson to fish and hunt became more readily available after the Spurs selected him with the 29th pick in the 2019 NBA draft. San Antonio is known for its historic Alamo site, the Riverwalk, its Mexican influence and its love for the five-time NBA champion Spurs. But Johnson quickly learned after arriving in San Antonio that it was a hunting and fishing paradise as well.
“I have not known any Spurs that had this much love for the outdoors. I don’t know too many people who have had this much love for the outdoors.”— Buck & Doe’s Mercantile co-owner Rex Majors on Johnson
And it was through fishing and hunting that Johnson escaped from basketball, got to know more of San Antonio and began making friends.
“When I got to the league and got free time, it felt like it was only right that I went fishing and hunting,” Johnson said. “It’s just something I just fell in love with, honestly, with fishing here. I was just trying to find where the fish were and people to meet to go fishing with in San Antonio. That’s just me. That’s just who I am. It was just natural for me.”
Outside of San Antonio, there are also numerous hunting preserves and fishing locations for bass and catfish, sunfish, red drum, black drum, flounder and rainbow trout. When time permits, Johnson said, he has gone on fishing excursions in Texas towns such as Port Arthur, Rockport and Port Aransas.
“Rockport is probably where I had my best fishing experience,” Johnson said. “It was dope. I actually caught a shark. It was probably one of the highlights of my life. I also go hunting a lot. I’ve been to a couple ranches, and I got a couple buddies with properties. So I’ve been able to go to some real good hunting.”
Johnson said he has hunted for axis deer, sika deer and white-tailed deer, blackbuck and hogs. Johnson loves to eat meat from squirrels, rabbits, duck and deer, and whatever he doesn’t eat makes it to his freezer for another day. He also has two deer shoulder mounts, one European hog mount on a wall at home and a deer rug on the floor.
“One hundred percent, I eat everything I kill,” Johnson said. “I’ll probably say my favorite is deer. I got a freezer full of deer meat right now. I got a chef to cook it. It’s better than me going in there experimenting on it.”
Johnson played sparingly as a rookie, averaging 9.1 points and 3.4 rebounds during the 2019-20 season. Last season, he improved to 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds, primarily as a starter for the Spurs. After last season, Johnson joined the 2021 USA Basketball Select Team to help prepare U.S. Olympic basketball for the Tokyo Games. Following a good showing in two exhibition games, then-USA Basketball and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich filled an open roster spot with Johnson.
Johnson suddenly went from helping Team USA prepare to playing in the Olympics alongside such notable teammates as Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green and Jayson Tatum.
“They pulled me to the side that morning and was just like, ‘We want to invite you to the Olympics,’ ” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to believe it until I knew, ‘All right, I’m going.’ Wild. Wild. I was just kind of shocked because nobody expected that.
“And some people were quick to be like, ‘Well, Pop was the coach.’ And those are the people that never be around Pop. Because if they knew Pop, everyone in there had to agree in order for me to be on that team. He’s not going to give me anything easy. Last thing he wants is, ‘Oh, well, I’m putting him on the team because of me.’ I know I worked hard for it.”
USA Basketball lost two exhibition games to Australia and Nigeria, respectively, and its Olympic opener to France. But the Americans won five straight games, culminated by beating France to win the gold medal.
Johnson scored four points in 22 minutes while playing in four games and had the mentality to have fun and do whatever the team needed. The reward was an Olympic gold medal.
“Man, I was mesmerized,” Johnson said. “I was just like, ‘Damn, it’s really true.’ And I know I put in the time and I worked for it, but just to see it in your hands, like, ‘I got a gold medal.’ That’s crazy.”
The USA Basketball experience helped Johnson improve, as he is now averaging career-highs of 15.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 3-pointers made and 31.1 minutes per game for the Spurs this season. He also credited Green, the Golden State Warriors All-Star forward, for mentoring him with his regular talks.
“Draymond led through the good and bad times,” Johnson said. “He was always himself. He never wavered or got flustered. He was always Draymond regardless of if we had an amazing game or OK game.
“And he was always someone I could go and ask a question to, and he’d give me an honest answer. And [I appreciated] just seeing how he approached the game and how he break down the game, how he look at the game, how he could control the game without scoring the basketball.”
During the NBA season, Johnson’s fishing and hunting trips are carefully planned weeks in advance on the Spurs’ off days. But if the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder does have a couple of hours to spare, it’s not uncommon to see him at Buck & Doe’s Mercantile in San Antonio.
The 23,000-square-foot outdoors superstore has an indoor archery range, programmable training simulators in an indoor shooting range setting, gun and archery accessories, classes, and hosts events such as birthday parties and corporate events.
According to Buck & Doe’s co-owner Rex Majors, Johnson is typically in the store after business hours about three times a week when the Spurs are in town, sometimes as late as 10 p.m.
“I started going there a lot,” Johnson said. “And they had gun range and archery. I like to go bowhunting as well. And they just fit everything that I like into the store. I like to go shoot my gun there sometimes. The first couple times I went there, I got by with no one recognizing me. But then the customers start realizing who I was and so did the employees.
“Honestly, the people at Buck & Doe’s, they’re kind of like family now. They don’t really look at me like, ‘Oh, that’s Keldon Johnson. He plays for the Spurs.’ It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s just Keldon. He comes here all the time.’ ”
Majors said there is an archery hunting trip already scheduled in South Texas for Johnson in the offseason and a hunt on a private ranch will likely be scheduled, too.
“I have not known any Spurs that had this much love for the outdoors,” Majors said. “I don’t know too many people who have had this much love for the outdoors. During the offseason, he is always at the store. I used to tell him, ‘Keldon, at some point I’m going to charge you rent.’ I threatened to put him behind the register because he knew more about our products than some of our employees did.”
Johnson also celebrated his Olympic experience at Buck & Doe’s by bringing his gold medal to a kids’ event for more than 200 children. The children took pictures and got autographs from the Spurs star, and also wore the gold medal.
“It was mind-blowing bringing it to the store,” Johnson said.
Said Majors: “He was a perfect fit for us because he was about family and outdoors. We always had kids [who] would come in and Keldon would come in and talk to all of them. It just made it a lot of fun.”
Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, New York City and Houston are among the more popular offseason cities for NBA players. But with the ample fishing and hunting, Johnson is right at home in San Antonio.
“I’ve been finding spots throughout Texas,” Johnson said. “I haven’t really been outside of Texas yet because I’m still getting established as an NBA player. I’m still honing my game, working hard.
“And I like being in Texas. I consider that home.”