The story goes that when the Chicago Bulls stayed at the allegedly haunted Skirvin Hotel, while they were in Oklahoma City to face the Thunder, Derrick Rose chose James Johnson as his roommate. A Grantland article (They Call Him Bloodsport) explains Johnson's qualifications as a bodyguard and enforcer.
"His [Johnson's] parents are black belts. He has eight siblings, and they are also all black belts of varying degrees. His youngest sister, about 10 years his junior, is working toward her third degree. He’s a second-degree black belt himself. His first MMA bout came at the age of 18. Johnson was declared the winner after 97 seconds. He’s fought a total of seven MMA matches and is undefeated. He’s 20-0 in all his kickboxing matches."
His family's involvement in martial arts is insane:
"James was called Little Ali because of his footwork, but nicknames are standard in the family. Willie won five world and 10 national karate titles as Tuqik (pronounced TOO-quick). Vi, a Samoan immigrant who began street fighting as a teenage gang leader of the Krook City Bloods in Oceanside—'I would go after the bullies,' she says, 'and beat up more men than women'—won five nationals as Vicious. Joseph (a.k.a. Baby Boy), 32; Jearamie (Hot Nickels), 28; Jessica (Bam-Bam), 26; Pal'e (the Legend); Scott (Nudo), 20; Mino (the Professor), 18; Nikko (Tuqik II), 15; and 10-year-old Kiandra have all also won national titles or been runners-up."
Johnson could have gone on to a fighting career, but colleges offered him scholarships only in football or basketball. He attended Wake Forest along with Jeff Teague and knows Wake Forest alumn, Chris Paul. Allegedly Paul teased him by saying,
"I keep hearing about your fighting, but you're way too big to be a fighter." Johnson told Paul to stand still directly in front of him, and said, "I'm not going to kick you; I'm that good." Then he did a roundhouse kick within inches of Paul's face, causing Paul to step back and say, "O.K., I believe you."
Johnson brings lessons he learned from his days in the MMA world to the basketball court.
"I know what my steps are. I know how fast I can get to a position, and sometimes it might look like they might have an open lane, but I know I can get there in two steps, three steps. That’s just a lot of bobbing and weaving on my end. In martial arts, you have to do a lot of countering. You have to be somewhere one time and not be there the next. That determines whether you’re going to get knocked out or you’re going to win the fight."
Johnson highlights - notice moves versus LeBron James at 2:34 and 4:52, among others.
Pat Riley has given Erik Spoelstra an athletic group of players in their prime years, who can finish in the paint with authority - Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Josh McRoberts, Derrick Williams, Willie Reed, and James Johnson.
Spoelstra figured out how to awaken the giant within journeyman Whiteside. Perhaps he and Dan Craig can devise schemes to maximize the Heat's resources and keep opponents from packing the paint against the team.
Going largely unnoticed, Miami lost two key coaching minds to the Grizzles. This season the Heat's assistant coaches have different responsibilities, which could affect how players are handled. Craig somehow managed to outwit his peers and build a record-setting team with an eclectic group of drifters. We'll see who else Spo adds to his brain-trust this year.
Generally 3-point threats aren't elite defenders. This is where the Heat's athletic abilities can exploit the defensive vulnerabilities of teams who rely mainly on their shooting skills.
In one particular example, instead going for a 3-point basket from the corner, Johnson cocks the hammer and explodes on the rim.
Richardson will have competition this year for the highlight dunk of the day award from the group Riley has assembled for Heat fans this season. Even Okaro White may get into the picture, as this video with a block and catch worthy of Whiteside illustrates. His outlet pass leads to a textbook-perfect fast-break basket for FSU.
Heat Nation may not be familiar with the new faces, but the dawn of a new age is about to begin in Miami.