With the TD Garden crowd chanting “we want Joe,” new Boston Celtics forward Joe Johnson was given a standing ovation when he entered a Dec. 22 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with 1:57 remaining.
It was the 1,277th NBA contest for the 40-year-old Johnson, but it was also his first since the 2018 NBA playoffs. Despite a bundle of nerves on the inside, Johnson used breathing methods from his beloved hot yoga to calm down and nail a midrange jumper to the delight of the Celtics faithful.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, nah, nah, don’t get it twisted, bro,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “That was a bit much for me. But in the toughest situations in life, if you can remain calm and have controlled breathing, you’ll be all right. So that’s just basically what I did. They started chanting my name, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I go in.
“But at the end of the day, it’s basketball and I don’t try to put too much more on it. Just go out there and have fun, enjoy the game, enjoy this moment that you’re in, even though it still seems unreal, because at 40 years old, we can be honest bro, this don’t happen.”
Johnson has joined scores of players who were signed to 10-day contracts recently as the NBA has been hampered by the omicron variant of COVID-19. The only active player older than Johnson is the Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem, who turned 41 in June.
The Celtics drafted Johnson with the 10th overall selection in the 2001 NBA draft. The seven-time NBA All-Star averaged 16.0 points for the Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets from 2001 to 2018. The 2009-10 All-NBA selection also had five consecutive seasons with the Hawks where he averaged more than 20 points per game, and he has scored over 20,000 points in his career.
Since departing the NBA in 2018, Johnson has won MVP honors twice in Ice Cube’s Big3 league and also suited up for USA Basketball in the AmeriCup in February.
To Johnson’s surprise, he got a call from his agent Jason Glushon on Dec. 21, while celebrating his daughter’s 19th birthday, asking if he would be interested in signing a 10-day contract with the COVID-19-ravaged Celtics. Johnson said yes and departed from Atlanta three hours later on the last plane to Boston.
Johnson, who has played in one of two games with Boston, is very appreciative of the opportunity.
“It’s still surreal to me at 40 years old,” Johnson said. “I know a lot has to do with COVID, but they’re not reaching out to guys that’s 40 years old, bro, to come and help no team. I don’t care who you are. …
“They wanted some veteran help, obviously to help these guys around here, [Jayson] Tatum, [Jaylen] Brown, [Dennis] Schroder. And it wasn’t like, ‘All right. Yeah. We’re going to play you this amount of minutes.’ I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you. So I just tried to stay in those guys’ ears to let them know to understand throughout this process you’re going to have ups and downs.”
Before the Celtics called, Johnson had actually been focused on starting a hot yoga business with dreams of building a chain in the South.
Johnson said he was first introduced to hot yoga by athletic trainer Wally Blasé around 2009 while playing for the Hawks. Johnson had knee tendonitis and Achilles tendon issues that caused him to miss a road trip with the team. Blasé stayed in Atlanta to aid him in his rehabilitation and asked a skeptical Johnson to join him and his wife in a hot yoga session that he believed would aid his injuries.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’m not fixing to do no damn hot yoga,’ ” Johnson said. “His wife called me later on that day and said, ‘Joe, you should come. It’ll help. You’ll love it.’ And I went, bro, and the rest is history. I fell in love with it. It gave me that same feeling that basketball does. Hot yoga is so challenging. Every time I go in that room, it humbles me because no matter how good you get at hot yoga, it’s still going to be tough.
“But there are also benefits from it. Injury prevention. Weight loss. Every time you do it, it’s a detox. Get them bad toxins out your body. I feel like a whole new person every time I go. So, that’s why I’m so addicted.”
From that point on, Johnson said he would try to attend hot yoga classes as much as possible. This included finding hot yoga studios when he was on the road with the team he was playing for. Former Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks, now an ESPN basketball analyst, recalled how committed Johnson was to yoga on a road trip to Philadelphia during the 2013-14 season.
“I was in the lobby having coffee and here comes Joe into the team hotel,” Marks said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this dude is just now rolling in from the night before and we have a game that day.’ But I look at him and he is holding a yoga mat and he is dripping wet. He wasn’t out partying, but getting his work in 15 hours before tipoff.”
Said Johnson: “It’s going to challenge your mental more than anything because that heat. It’s a 90-minute class. It’s an hour and a half in 105-degree heat with 40-degree humidity. And it’s probably about a pinch of oxygen in the room. So imagine how tough that is. Mentally you have to talk to yourself throughout the whole class.”
Hot yoga continued to be a staple for Johnson’s life after he departed the NBA in 2018. And he would like to also make it a staple for more Black people.
Johnson said he has his own hot yoga studio in his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and has rented out yoga studios in Atlanta. Earlier this month, he began hosting free hot yoga sessions in Atlanta called “Joe Johnson Private Yoga Classes,” in hopes of getting his friends and yoga lovers to join. His hope was also to introduce hot yoga to more African Americans. Interested participants had to reach out to Johnson on his Instagram page for free classes taught by yoga instructor Rue Vagues.
“When I go do yoga, there are never any African Americans in there,” Johnson said. “And the benefits that everybody get from it, our people need to be in there. That’s another reason why I did it in Atlanta, because I got a lot of friends in Atlanta. I was like, ‘Man, I can invite some of my friends, let them experience this.’
“Before they try, they’re scared. So when they get there, they see how hot the room is, and I just tell them, ‘When you get in this room, when you get in a lot of poses or even bend over to tie [your] shoe, you have a tendency to hold your breath. Never hold your breath. You always breathe. Controlled breathing, four to five seconds in and out your nose, and under the most stressful situations or conditions, because it’s stressful in that room. But it’s good stress, though. This ain’t bad stress, bro. This good stress. And is it challenging? Yeah, it’s challenging, but I promise you it’s worth it.’ ”
Johnson said he is currently working on a business plan to open up his first hot yoga studio in Atlanta. The hope is to eventually open a chain of hot yoga studios in Atlanta, Little Rock and other parts of the South. Longer-term dreams include other cities he used to play in such as New York City and Miami. Johnson said he may not return to the Big3 in 2022 in order to focus on his hot yoga business.
“The Big3 asked me a few weeks ago was I going to come back and play,” Johnson said. “And I told them I wasn’t sure because I had other things going on. I have dove so deep into hot yoga. Me and my team, we got a plan as far as hot yoga studios to open up some studios and try to get some of my [African American] people in there.”
Johnson said he has had an outpouring of positive messages from current and former players and coaches since his return to the NBA. Celtics standouts Tatum, Brown, Schroder and Marcus Smart have welcomed him. Johnson has enjoyed crossing paths with Boston media he met back in 2001 who are still covering the Celtics. He finds it wonderful that he is currently being coached by Ime Udoka, who guarded him during his playing days.
The last day of Johnson’s 10-day contract is Friday. He hopes he can get his daughter and son to a game before his time is up and is cherishing everything from the games to the bus rides to being in the locker room again. And Johnson also says he may use the money he makes from his 10-day contract to help pay for his new hot yoga business.
“It’s gratifying for me,” Johnson said. “I’m thankful because I know and understand at 40, you have to be doing something different to get an opportunity like this, to relish the moment. So, if after these 10 days, this is it, this is it. But honestly, I don’t even think about that.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. I try to go in there and get me a little workout in and just have fun with it.”