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Wounds from stained post-Joe Johnson era in Atlanta seemingly heal

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The seven-time All-Star brought back a feeling to State Farm Arena that many basketball fans in Atlanta remember as an exciting era of Hawks basketball last Sunday with the BIG3. After years of hostility, it was all love from the people of the town where one of the franchise’s greatest players ever enjoyed his prime.

BIG3 - Week Three - Atlanta Photo by Andy Lyons/BIG3/Getty Images

ATLANTA — The Triplets trailed Bivouac 41-31 in the second half of the BIG3 matchup in State Farm Arena on Sunday, July 6.

For context, the game ends when the first team scores 50 points. The captain of the Triplets is Joe Johnson, and the captain of Bivouac is Josh Smith.

Smith scored 20 of Bivouac’s first 28 points, shooting three-for-four from three-point range. Smith bumped Johnson after every basket he made.

“It’s always like that. We both still live here in Atlanta,” Johnson said of his neighbor, Smith. “We still play pickup basketball together, and the games are pretty much exactly like that. A lot of arguing, a lot of smack talking, that’s just how it kind of goes. It’s just a different setting where we have referees and things of that sort, but it was awesome competing against Josh.”

Once Bivouac was within single digits of reaching game point and the Triplets were still down by 10, Johnson decided that the Triplets’ undefeated record wasn’t ending. He led a surge where the Triplets went on a 13-2 run to take the team’s first lead of the second half. Johnson gave Smith a bump on defense after hitting the three-pointer that gave the Triplets the edge.

The Sunday post-church crowd began to buzz for Johnson’s comeback efforts.

“I think that was pretty much expected, we just had to give them something to cheer about,” Johnson said. “That comeback fed the crowd, and we feed off of that energy a little bit.”

He missed a corner three before getting the ball back on the left wing to swish another long ball to increase the lead by four. He held his follow through and three fingers to remind Smith how many points he’s added to his effort. Johnson then used his strength to drive into the paint and sink one of his signature floaters at the rim to bring the Triplets within a point of 50.

Bivouac guard Will Bynum, playing just down the road from where he completed his college career at Georgia Tech, drew a foul and cut the Triplets lead down to four.

After Johnson missed the potential game-winning three-pointer, Triplets big man Chris Johnson rebounded the ball and drew a foul on the put-back to give the Triplets the game-winning free throw. Triplets guard Alan Anderson immediately ran over to shoulder bump Joe Johnson once the team’s comeback was completed. The seven-time NBA All-Star finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

“Iso Joe does what he does, that’s why he’s a star, that’s why he has so many accolades and is such an excellent player,” Triplets head coach Lisa Leslie said. “I just thought overall that the guys played with so much heart and fight. I’m just happy to see us being able to clinch this win.”

Both Johnson and Smith received a warm reception in the same building they played together for seven seasons. Johnson was mobbed at the postgame press conference, receiving nearly every question as local reporters packed the media room in a standing-room-only capacity. He also conducted multiple one-on-one interviews after the presser, answering many of the same questions that he received in the press conference.

“It was great,” Johnson said. “I really appreciate it. We wanted to come out and compete at the highest level. As you can see, [Smith] was guarding me, chest bumping me, ah man, dude was wilding, but I enjoyed it and once we made that turn to where we started getting stops that’s when it really became fun. We had to dig deep. I really appreciate the fans that came out and showed a lot of love and support. Not just us, but our teams as well.”

It appears time and forced-retirements healed the pain between the city and fans that once booed the duo in returns to Atlanta.

After a 30-point postseason loss to the Orlando Magic in 2010, Johnson said that “it’s about us in the locker room. We could care less if [fans] showed up.” He then went on to sign what many felt was an absurd six-year, $124 million max contract with the franchise later that summer. In retrospect, the deal seems a lot more sensible, but at the time, the deal brought expectations the star couldn’t live up to enough to satisfy the Hawks’ fanbase. Those two factors, mixed in with a 2015 first-round playoff series, perhaps caused the boos every time Johnson touched the ball as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

The franchise let Smith walk in the summer of 2013, and he was booed in his following returns perhaps due to general frustration from the Atlanta fanbase. Despite being a gifted stat-stuffer and special athletic specimen, Smith made many head-scratching plays and continued to believe in his jump shot that few others did during his tenure in Atlanta.

Nowadays, much of the talk surrounding Johnson and his time in Atlanta is if his No. 2 jersey will soon hang in the rafters inside of State Farm Arena. Hawks rookie wing Cam Reddish chose to dawn No. 22 after wearing No. 2 at Duke. Former Hawks guard Tyler Dorsey wore No. 2, but Johnson was still in the league at the time.

“I definitely think he should have his jersey retired and also a Hall of Famer,” former Hawks guard Dion Glover said. “I think his numbers are great. What he’s done for this franchise is great, and just what he’s done for the NBA is great. Seven-time All-Star, played on the Olympic team [2006 World Championships], just the ultimate pro. You never heard anything negative about him as a teammate as a player, he’s an ultimate professional and I think Joe Johnson should be a Hall of Famer.”

Many of Johnson’s latest dominant performances have brought up the question on if him still playing in the league, despite the fact that he averaged six points in 22 minutes per game and having this happen to him in 2018 with the Houston Rockets.

Nowadays, Johnson’s desire to play the game still burns, even before he knew that he was going to join the BIG3.

“I spend a lot of time with my family, but at the same time, I work out every day, I still hoop, I still stay in shape,” Johnson said. “I still love playing ball.”

Johnson is also focused on giving the talent in his home state of Arkansas more exposure and is passionate about developing the next generation of players in the Little Rock area through his Arkansas Hawks AAU team.

“[I’m] mainly providing a platform for the young kids back home in Little Rock, Arkansas, for them to be able to be seen all over the world,” Johnson said. “Travel all over the world, play against the top-ranked teams, the top-ranked players and let a lot of our talent that we have in state, in Little Rock be seen nationwide. That’s all I want to do for the youth. Give them that platform.”

Returning to Atlanta once meant entering a hostile environment for Johnson, but now the focus is more on remembering the good times, especially his favorite one.

“Us being the eighth seed playing Boston as a one seed and taking them seven games,” he said. “This building was electric like I’ve never seen it before, and even just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”

The series provided many memorable moments in Hawks’ history, from Zaza Pachulia head-butting Kevin Garnett and taking the microphone from Rashan Ali to yell “nothing easy” after Game 6 to Johnson completely blacking out in the fourth quarter of Game 4, scoring 20 of his 35 points in the final frame of the night, sending the city into a frenzy after making Leon Powe fall to his feet.

“Honestly, those moments are so surreal, and when you think back on them, you’re just doing what you can to get your team over the hump,” he said. “I knew we were right there, we were close. I think when we started that quarter, we were down by 15, and we were able to pull that out and continue the series. Your will takes over. Your will to win takes over.”

Johnson’s BIG3 return last Sunday represented more than just another regular season game in a league where many former NBA players compete in a three-on-three, half-court setting. It once again proved that time heals all, and one of the greatest players in franchise history is welcomed to return to his old home.

“I love the guys that they just got in the draft,” Johnson said about the Hawks’ 2019 picks. “I give them two years max and they’ll be one of the top teams in the East, but I’m looking forward to seeing these guys’ growth and maturity. I’m always watching, I live in Atlanta so I’ll be at more games.”