By: Bob Licht, @hortonhomers
January 3, 2012
"I called mom to tell her we can now pay the bills through the year and maybe for years to come."
Carldell Squeaky Johnson after making the Hornets
He grew up in a tough New Orleans East neighborhood (Skyview), was never recruited by major colleges, cut lawns and trimmed trees to help make it through college, did not get drafted by an NBA team, endured the loss of his father to illness, and saw his mother lose her house during Katrina. Snubbed by the NBA, he played professionally in two foreign countries and rode buses in the Developmental League for three seasons. At just 5-10, and 28 years old he has overcome astronomical odds to wear a New Orleans Hornets uniform. But, after traveling such a long and arduous road to finally make it to the NBA what was Carldell Johnsons initial reaction?
Johnson, better known as Squeaky, should have been turning cartwheels after being called into (Hornets GM) Dell Demps office in late December and receiving news that he was officially a member of the New Orleans Hornets. Instead, it was a moment of trepidation and mixed emotions for the New Orleans native.
It was like a game show atmosphere to me, said Johnson. Three D-League guys were in the room and only one was going to make it. It came down to me and a good friend (former UConn guard and D-League opponent for two seasons, Jerome Dyson). I was happy and sad at the same time.
Hornets General Manager Dell Demps says Johnsons reaction fit his personality perfectly.
I brought all of those guys together. They all did something different for our team in camp. But, after telling them of our decision Squeaky put his arm around his friend and told him to hang in there. Thats typical Squeaky. A classic team player, Johnson has always looked out for his family, friends and teammates. He had just reached a lifelong dream of being in the NBA, and his first take was how his friend was feeling.
The fact that Johnson was even in a position to enter the NBA at all is truly amazing. After playing for three different teams in Mexico (including one as a teammate of current Hornets forward Gustavo Ayon), one in Belgium, and for the Austin Toros of the D-League for three seasons it appeared his window for making the NBA had all but closed. But, the former Kennedy and Marion Abramson High School standout has always looked at obstacles as mere potholes not sinkholes. He has always found a way to steer around trouble and see the positive of a situation.
Then again, hes had plenty of practice.
When he was 17 his father (Lonnie Johnson) died of cancer. Carldell used that loss as motivation to maximize his abilities on the court and avoid the pitfalls of crime and other troubles some of his friends encountered.
High School coach Robert Tillman played an early, integral role in helping Johnson develop his skills as a point guard. In addition to helping him develop as a pass first point guard, Tillman picked up his point guard and drove him to many practices at Abramson HS and during the AAU season. He was also the person credited with giving Johnson his unique nickname; or rather, changing his nickname to its current form.
My mom (Elise Ramsey) named me Squiggy after a character in the Laverne and Shirley TV show, said the gregarious Johnson. But, coach Tillman turned it into Squeaky because he thought my steals were always so squeaky clean.
Johnsons circuitous route to the big leagues is even more stunning when you consider he was never heavily recruited by major colleges and ended up playing his freshman year at Salt Lake Community College (where he averaged 8ppg and 8 apg). Tillman went to bat for his former point guard after that freshman season, convincing then UAB head coach Mike Anderson to give Johnson a tryout. It worked, although the guard had to sit out a season first and work as part of the schools grounds crew to help pay tuition.
Again, Johnson turned what might have been misfortune for some into opportunity by earning the starting point guard spot during both his junior and senior seasons. In his first campaign at UAB Squeaky led the nation in assists to turnover ratio (3.8). He led the Blazers in assists in his second season as well (6.3/game).
Hornets General Manager Dell Demps (as GM of the Toros) wanted to bring Johnson to the NBAs D-League based on his knowledge of his unselfish, team play in college. But he had to pursue him in another country to secure his talents.
He was playing without a contract in Mexico four years ago and I called him to get him to help our team in Austin. I told him hed make our team and I would pay for his ticket to get here. The Mexican League team wanted to double his salary. Im glad he decided to join us.
Apparently, so is Johnson.
That was the beginning of the Demps-Johnson relationship. After Demps was hired by the Hornets as GM in June, 2010 he received a congratulatory text message from Squeaky.
I told him he helped me get this job. He won us a lot of games in Austin. Hes okay going 0-for-0 from the field in a game. He does things that dont show up on the stat sheet.
In 2006, while attending UAB, his mothers house in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She survived by evacuating to Houston, Texas, later joined her son in Alabama before moving back to Texas. Both mother and son persevered and eventually were rewarded with a Big Easy reunion at the Hive.
After making his league debut two days earlier, the Hornets rookie finally had a chance to play an NBA game in front of his mother on December 30th when she was among 20 family members in attendance at the New Orleans Arena.
Im glad she finally had a chance to see me in person in New Orleans, said the Crescent City native. When I made the team I called up mom to tell her we can now pay the bills for the year and maybe for years to come.
Typical Squeaky. Thinking of others during his big moment.
Even scoring his first NBA point falls under the category of another modest moment for Johnson. It occurred against the Boston Celtics on December 28th after a technical foul was called in the Fourth Quarter against the visitors and his teammates told him he was going to take the free throw.
It was amazing. The New Orleans crowd was chanting my name. I made the shot for my first point and I have to thank my teammates for letting me take the shot.
It appears the month of December was all about big shots for Squeaky Johnson. The big shot he had as one of nine free agents invited to Hornets training camp. The big shot he had to run the Hornets offense during an abbreviated training camp and preseason. The big shot he had when the Hornets took a chance on the 28-year-old. And, ultimately, the shot his team wanted him to take for his first NBA point.
Not bad for an undersized, overlooked, older-than-normal rookie who just might be one of the best stories in the entire NBA this season.
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