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Bringing Up Bebe Week 22: Old Joy James Johnson

A star-crossed meeting tonight, as one former Raptor ascends, and another disappears.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The title of this column was not meant to be ironic. Not entirely. When the column began, the intent was to note the progress of Lucas Nogueira as he climbed his way out of basketball anonymity. (And to write about whatever random shit was on my mind, let’s be honest.) It was a worthwhile project for a couple months as Bebe settled into his role as a solid backup centre for the Raptors. We were watching someone being brought up, as it were, in real time on an NBA court. What fun.

Now, however, the title means something different. Now it feels like we’re whispering about some forgotten man in an attempt to keep the memory of who he is, and what he did, alive. We’re out here raising a single finger of contention to mention one final point. What was once filled with joy feels more sad now, the implicit intro to each column being: hey, do you remember Lucas Nogueira?

There was another Raptor like that, and you all know his name: James Johnson. I had a column about him too, which tracked the comings and goings of his presence on the court for Toronto. It did not end particularly well for him here. Such is life.

Except Johnson, who the Raptors will face again tonight in Miami, has been reborn this season. He’s found a purpose and place and been able to channel all of his restless creative energy in a positive direction. Admittedly, the Heat had few other options — they were 11-30 at one point and employed only a handful of healthy (actual) NBA players. (And Johnson is playing for a new contract, by the by.) But as we knew in our heart of hearts, James Johnson has always belonged within that fraternity.


If it’s possible to feel happy about Bebe’s current situation, we can turn to Johnson to find some solace. James looks like a new man in Miami — svelte, set free on the court, posting career numbers across the board. (Just look: 12.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 35% from 3, in 26.6 minutes per game; it’s astounding.) Johnson is 30 years old and has been in (and out of) the NBA since being drafted eight years ago in 2009. His journey to Miami has seen numerous ups and downs along the way — not least of which include getting dumped by Toronto twice. Surely they’ve had an effect in shaping the person Johnson is today.

When Nogueira looks back on his time with the Raptors, however long it may last, he’ll remember Johnson fondly. Though we saw only glimpses of the bond Bebe shares with JJ (and Terrence Ross, and Patrick Patterson, and Bruno Caboclo, etc.), it definitely exists. The two were always involved in 3-on-3 games after practice, and jokes would often fly between their nearby lockers. Their personalities appeared to be quite different though, as Johnson exuded a weary “been there, done that” vibe as contrast to Lucas’ endless excitability. In that context, it was not hard to imagine James schooling Bebe in the ways of the world. Even now he indirectly offers Bebe a way forward.

Yes, I like to believe Nogueira will take his seat on the bench tonight to watch his friend play and think: the future can be what you want it to be. You too can make it.

Not Happy

These are not unimportant words to keep in mind, particularly at your own low points in life. Bebe only played 11 minutes in the past week — all in garbage time — and has been largely ejected from the regular season rotation. It feels extremely unlikely he’ll break back in (even tonight while Serge Ibaka serves his one-game suspension). This is, and remains, a bummer.

Like Bebe (and Johnson before him), I’m sure we’ve all got our own low points to consider too. Maybe we didn’t take the chance on that job opportunity, or should have been braver in a confrontation. Perhaps a decision made — or not made — didn’t quite work out the way we would have liked; or people changed, moved on, and left you behind. To talk (or write) about it, is a way of naming these disappointments and hopefully dealing with them. It can be onerous work, this push to confront failure, anxiety, defeat — or worse. But just as Bebe regards James tonight, remember: we’re not alone.

Level of High Level

When Johnson gets the chance to run at, through and over, his former teammates, I hope there’s a mote of pleasure expressed by Bebe as he watches along. The two may not cross paths again on the court (though yes, the Heat and Raps will play each other one more time this season so who knows), they’ll always have the memories. And while that shared past has its moments of pain, there’s always the future to look forward to.

High Level Result: 5 out of 10 — There’s always that piece of hope to hang onto, even when it feels like it’s drifting away. Johnson has proven his worth in the NBA once and for all now, despite years of disappointment. Here’s hoping Nogueira seizes his chance when it comes.

You can make it.