Raptors Miss Amir Johnson’s Passionate Presence

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BOSTON – When the Toronto Raptors entered their preseason in October, there was a noticeable absence in their locker room.

Amir Johnson was not in attendance for the first time in seven seasons, having signed with the rival Boston Celtics over the summer.

It created an odd feeling among Toronto’s players, but tonight will be even stranger when the Raptors take on Johnson and the C’s for the first time.

Following Toronto’s shootaround Friday morning at TD Garden, All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry was asked just how abnormal things have been without Johnson.

“Man… It’s very different,” Lowry said with a solemn shake of his head. “We understand it’s a business and he made the decision and our organization made a decision. But we definitely miss him, personally as a friend, but as a teammate also.”

Perhaps no member of the Raptors misses Johnson more than DeMar DeRozan, his teammate during the last six seasons.

Toronto’s offensive cornerstone has looked up to Johnson since his high school playing days. While DeRozan starred at Compton High School in California, Johnson, two years older, was leading the charge at Westchester High, 15 miles away.

A few years later, Toronto used their 2009 first round draft choice to select DeRozan, and then traded for Johnson less than two months after that. The two were Toronto’s longest tenured players prior to Johnson’s departure this summer.

“He brought everything together, man,” said DeRozan. “People don’t realize how great of a dude Amir is. He’s one of them guys where you could be having the worst day of your life, but if he calls you or he comes over, he’s going to brighten your day up.”

He also brightened up the lives of fans.

While in Toronto, he consistently gave away Raptors tickets and took fans out to dinner. He cheered on his local teams, attending Toronto Maple Leafs games while sporting a blue and white Leafs jersey. He even participated in an annual zombie walk, dressing and acting the part of a colossal walking corpse.

“He was doing the most craziest things and that’s his personality,” said DeRozan. “I think people gravitated towards that outside of basketball, and they loved him.”

And all the while, Johnson never stopped smiling.

“You will never see Amir upset or mad,” said DeRozan. “The six years I played with him, I’ve probably seen him mad twice; that’s just the kind of person he is.”

That personality also has a serious side to it, according to head coach Dwane Casey. On game nights, he explained, Johnson is all about business and capturing the W.

“On the court he is a warrior,” said Casey. “He plays through injuries, which you appreciate as a coach. He gives you everything he has when he’s on the floor.”

DeRozan reaped the benefits of Johnson’s team-first, gritty style of play over the last half-dozen years.

“He’s one of them old-school screen setters,” DeRozan fondly described. “He knows how to hold your jersey, all types of stuff. But I’m going to try to avoid him as much as I can tonight.”

What may not be avoidable is Johnson’s mouth. The Celtics big man has indicated he may be talking some trash to his former teammates.

Lowry and DeRozan couldn’t help but laugh at the possibility.

“If I start talking trash with Amir, I won’t be able to play serious,” said Lowry. “So I’m going to shut up and just stay away from him.”

DeRozan is on a similar page as his backcourt partner.

“I don’t think I could do it, man,” he said with a grin. “No way I could talk trash to Amir. It would be more funny than anything; I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously.

“It should be fun just to go out there and compete against him.”

The thought of competing against Johnson is strange to the Raptors, but he’s left a lasting impression that likely won’t disappear anytime soon.

“Yes we miss Amir,” affirmed Casey. “Tonight he’ll be the enemy, but I love Amir.”

It’s a love that should reproduce here in Boston in no time. With Johnson’s enthusiastic, unselfish playing style and great respect for his teammates and fans, the Celtics will be lucky to have him suiting up in green and white this season.