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A Goodbye to Amir Johnson

The heart of the Raptors for six years, Amir is off to the Boston Celtics.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the Boston Celtics signed Amir Johnson to a two year, $24-million contract. The move was a quiet one, unceremonious in the midst of the busiest free agency day in NBA history. For Raptors fans, though, the end of Amir’s six year tenure is certain to count as an emotional loss, even if it is the correct basketball decision.

There have been many who will speak more eloquently than me about Amir’s statistical impact, his community service, and his impossibly big heart - for Toronto, its fans, and a basketball team that so often spun its tires while he played here.

When I think of Amir Johnson, a few things come up.

I think of how he bridged the gap of Raptors eras. From 2010-12, during the frustrating, masochistic Andrea Bargnani years, Amir’s (and DeMar DeRozan’s) likeability and promise kept some hope alive for where this team could go in the future. When the Rudy Gay trade happened and Masai Ujiri truly started to flex his muscle, that promise realized itself. Amir was our guy through the worst times, then he was our guy through the best times.

I think of the countless intangibles he brings to a team. He was the ultimate release valve in the pick and roll, making himself available in nifty ways to guards. He could spot up and shoot, he had a decent hook shot, and, before his ankles started to give out, could be a tenacious rebounder and defender in the post. We got to see flashes of all this early in his six years, then in full force when the Lethargic Era, led by Bargnani, Turkoglu, and Kleiza, finally ended.

I think of Game 7 of the 2014 first round series against Brooklyn (how could I not?). In that game, the most important of his career, we saw the entire story of what made Amir a cult hero. After twisting his ankle in the first quarter (classic!), he fought through and put up 20 points and 10 rebounds in 22 minutes before fouling out with 7:53 to go. He wasn’t there for the furious Toronto run that earned the Terrence Ross layup and save or the last-second Lowry floater. But, in typical fashion, the team wouldn’t have had their highlight moments if not for the unsung work of Amir Johnson.

After this year’s playoffs, there was a resigned sense that Amir’s time with the Raptors was up. You could see he knew it too, emotional while reflecting on the series loss to the Wizards in the closing interviews of the Open Gym finale.

With a raise due and the Raptors having a thrifty, but effective Patrick Patterson waiting in the wings, there wouldn’t have been much sense paying Amir more than he was already making. The signing of DeMarre Carroll, a free agency splash that would’ve never happened in Amir’s early years, all but sealed the big man’s renouncement. The Celtics will get a strong role player at a fairly good rate. With Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk there to learn from him, the move makes sense for a team that hopes to challenge Toronto for the Atlantic Division.

* * *

Every year, Amir Johnson would take out a group of fans for dinner as part of "I Roll With Amir". He’d sit down, chat, give the fans gifts, and just generally be the likeable dude we see on the basketball court. When he said goodbye yesterday, he said it directly to those same Raptors fans he was always so happy to be around, signing off with a "see you later".

So, maybe we’ll see him again down the road. For now, I’m proud to say it: I roll with Amir.