ATLANTA -- If you still arent aware of Ivan Johnson, allow this quote as your introduction:
I dont really watch basketball, so I dont really know who anybody is, said Johnson. So when I match up with them, theyre just another player.
That was the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Johnson explaining why and how he goes hard at his opponents, whoever they may be. The night of this quote, he was up against All-Star Kevin Love. So, if you let Johnson tell it, he doesnt know Kevin Love from Kevin Garnett. Well, maybe not
I know the major players, like LeBron, Wade, Kobe, he explains. But all the extra ones I dont know them.
All the extra ones -- this guy is something else, isnt he?
And did I mention Johnson wears iced-out, platinum fronts while hes playing? That has to be a first. A quick unscientific scan through history hasnt revealed any NBA, MLB or NFL player that played the game with platinum and diamonds in their mouth.
Im from the South. Thats what we like, said Johnson.
He grew up in San Antonio. "Grills'' are as big -- if not bigger -- in Texas as they are anywhere else.
I always lost rings, necklaces, earrings. I aint gonna lose these,'' Johnson said. "This is permanent.
He also noted that his grill protects my teeth from all the sugar and junk food.
And its not dangerous.
Its diamonds, man, said Johnson, with a sly grin. Its all smooth.
Johnson came out of nowhere, but hes come from everywhere -- if that makes sense. He started a Twitter buzz during Atlantas nationally televised, triple-overtime victory over the Heat.
Here was this guy, without any memorable college resume, banging around in the paint, scowling and impacting. And every time he opened his mouth, you had to cover your eyes. Who is this guy, people asked? Even NBA junkies werent hip to Johnson.
Which brings us to Johnsons journey to the NBA. It qualifies as one of the more peculiar routes to the league.
His long road to the NBA went like this: He started his collegiate career Cisco junior college, before transferring to Los Angeles Southwest. His play there got him a scholarship at Oregon. He only played one season with the Ducks. Oregon coach Ernie Kent didnt renew Johnsons scholarship due to behavioral issues.
This became somewhat of a trend.
After he finished up college at Cal State San Bernardino in 2007, Johnson -- undrafted by the NBA -- hopped around the D-League (at Rio Grande Valley and Anaheim) before stints overseas in Puerto Rico, China and South Korea.
About South Korea -- Johnsons temper continued to get the best of him and he was kicked out of the Korean Basketball League and banned for life. His last pre-NBA stop was with the D-Leagues Erie BayHawks, where Johnsons coach Jay Larranaga benched him for getting too many technical fouls.
"He's playing so good and his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA and we said, 'In order to make the NBA, you have to get your emotions under control,'" Larranaga said at the time.
It was my emotions for the game, Johnson said recently. I hate losing. If I see another player not playing like me, Im going to try to talk to them. And some players cant handle how I talk to them. When I do talk to people, its an aggressive way on the court and some people cant handle that.
Johnson eventually got his emotions in check and earned first team All D-League. During this time, Atlantas scout team had their eyes on him. After watching him in the D-League Showcase, the Hawks invited Johnson to their minicamp right before the lockout began. Hawks general manager Rick Sund said Johnson was, one of the better players we saw. So, he got another invitation to training camp.
When he was here in the minicamp he was so strong, said Sund. He was the epitome of what you wanted in a power forward. We needed to add some toughness and hes a physical player. And hes got great hands and hes got a pretty good basketball IQ. We pretty much knew a few days into training camp that he was an NBA player.
And, although the Hawks were a bit wary of Johnsons somewhat checkered past, Sund said he digs Johnsons obstacle-ridden road to the NBA.
I like guys that go through the school of hard knocks to make it into the NBA, he said.
So, here is Johnson, now a 27-year-old rookie. Hes already a fan favorite.
The crowds see him come in, hustle hard, stare down a few opponents and give Atlanta not only production but some aura, too.
Hawks coach Larry Drew, impressed since Day One, has mentioned his mission of finding more minutes for Johnson.
The biggest moment of Johnsons embryonic pro career came over the weekend against Minnesota. He got his first double-double (10 points and 11 rebounds), but it was his two clutch free throws that iced the game for Atlanta, coming back from 18 down to get the win.
After the game, he wore a self-satisfied smirk when talking about his big free throws.
It dont matter if its the end of the game or beginning of the game, he said. Im going to knock em down.
Then he flashed all that ice in his mouth. Weve got a fun one on our hands.