When it comes to collecting black belts in karate, that practice has become a matter-of-fact part of James Johnson’s family.
Johnson, his parents and his eight siblings all have earned a black belt of varying degrees. In fact, his father, Willie, won 10 national karate titles and five world championships, and his mother, Vi, has captured five national titles.
And all of Johnson’s siblings have won national karate titles or have been a runner-up. In other words, the Johnson family is on top of the world when it comes to karate. It’s their way of life – as common as brushing one’s teeth.
One reason the Mavs made Johnson one of their prime offseason targets is because they wanted to add an element of toughness to their squad. Johnson has a perfect 20-0 record in his kick-boxing matches, including a perfect 7-0 in mixed martial arts (MMA) matches, so his resume as a tough dude isn’t questioned.
Fighting obviously isn’t condoned in the NBA. But it’s a welcome addition for the Mavs to have a player of Johnson’s stature to serve as a bodyguard of sorts if someone — like Marcus Morris of the Los Angeles Clippers unfortunately did in the playoffs last summer – dares to try and take liberties with and rough up point guard Luka Doncic.
“I don’t think they needed an enforcer like me to come in and enforce,” Johnson said. “Luka takes care of himself, and that’s one of the reasons I respect about him more than his game is that he’s able to stand up and fight for himself.
“How the rest of the guys took that challenge on and accepted that and looked after Luka, that’s just part of who I am.”
And part of why Johnson is a member of the Mavericks.
“James Johnson has multiple ratings in the martial arts, and he’s been a tough player in this league as long as he’s been in the league,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He gives us toughness.”
A 6-7, 240-pound forward, Johnson is so tough that in his first MMA fight when he was 18 years old, he aggressively went all in on his opponent, winning the match in a Mike Tyson-like 97 seconds. In the MMA world, Johnson, in fact, is nicknamed Little Ali because of the fancy footwork he employs while devouring his opponents.
So how does Johnson’s skills as an MMA fighter translate to his skills on the basketball court? It’s a question he’s frequently asked.
“In fighting, you’re always training for that one person and it was just you versus him,” Johnson said. “But in basketball, it’s a team sport, so you have to do what’s needed.
“But me walking onto the court or me walking into the (MMA) game felt the same.”
The Mavs acquired Johnson from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 27 in a three-team trade that also involved the Detroit Pistons. And it wasn’t just Johnson’s physical approach to the game that attracted the Mavs.
Johnson also is very athletic, is a solid rebounder, and can finish at the rim with both hands. And after he was traded from Miami to Minnesota on Feb. 6, the Cheyenne, WY product averaged 12 points, 4.7 rebounds, a career-high tying 3.8 assists, while also shooting 50 percent from the field and a career-high 37 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in just 24.1 minutes per game for the Timberwolves.
“I feel like if you can do something, you should,” Johnson said. “We have guys like Luka that really tear the pick-and-roll apart, and we have guys like KP (Kristaps Porzingis) who can really space the floor. My job is really just coming in here and doing what’s asked of me, being a vet, being an older player and just working hard.
“I know what I can bring, I understand why they brought me here. I feel it was more than just the toughness and the black belt, but I’m able to play whatever role that’s thrown my way.”
While MMA and all that it entails has been a hallmark of his early success in the world of sports, Johnson acknowledged that showing someone how to be tough is not a simple proposition.
“That’s not something you can teach, not something you can be coached on or anything like that,” he said. “It’s something you just got to develop within yourself. You can have heart. That’s all you need.”
When he watched the Mavs-Clippers playoff series, there’s one thing that stuck out in Johnson’s mind.
“When I was watching the games, I didn’t see any backing down from any of them at all, and that’s what you need,” he said. “I can work with that.”
A 12-year veteran who was the No. 16 overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft out of Wake Forest, Johnson hasn’t gone through any live practices with the Mavs since training camp started last week. That likely will come this week as the Mavs prepare for Saturday’s preseason opener at Milwaukee.
“James Johnson had a slight knee issue – something that happened back in October,” Carlisle said. “He had an MCL strain in his knee, so he’s not doing anything live yet.
“But he’s going through all the technique stuff and he looks really good. And I think he’s on track to be involved in live activity come Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Johnson, 33, doesn’t believe he’s falling behind on any of the basic terminology with the Mavs.
“I’ve been going against coach for 12 years now,” he said. “So you learn a lot just from being his opponent.”
As far as the Mavs learning who he is, Johnson said: “I’m simple. I love to have fun, I love to take care of my teammates, go eat dinner and chill. Family guy.
“Who I know I will be for this team is a hard worker and someone who is going to give it up every night, and grind for sure.”