Orlando Johnson Defies the Odds (Part I)

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 3, 2013

This is Part One of a two-part feature on Pacers guard Orlando Johnson. Read Part Two »

Where's the logic in this?

Orlando Johnson hit 20 of his 76 field goal attempts for the Pacers in Summer League play. That's 26 percent, terrible for any league at any level. Then he hit three of his 15 field goal attempts in the pre-season exhibition games. That's even worse: 20 percent. And then he played in just three games over the first two months of the regular season and missed his only shot attempt. You don't need to be told that percentage.

Just a few months ago he seemed to be the unfortunate combination of a shooting guard who doesn't shoot well, and the Pacers seemed foolish for trading up to draft him and signing him to a two-year guaranteed contract. Yet here he is, with the NBA season speeding toward the glow of the playoffs, leading the team in three-point shooting percentage (.429) while holding down a spot in the playing rotation and a promising place in their future.


How does that happen? How does a rookie, a second-round draft pick no less, get from Pointless A to Gets-the-Point-B so quickly? Is it inspiration? Instruction? Injection?

It's this simple, actually: he got in the gym and he got better. He tweaked his form and got down to business by getting up shot after shot after shot. And then he got an opportunity and took advantage.

The leap from a mid-major college program to the NBA is a monstrous one. Many players fall short, and those who succeed usually require patience. Johnson has done it more rapidly than anyone could have predicted for a second-round draft pick. But then what's the big deal about improving your jump shot and adapting to the NBA game when your improbable childhood has presented so many challenges? Like your mother being murdered when you were one year old? Four relatives dying in a house fire when you were seven? The grandmother who supported your extended family dying when you were 11? Not to mention the fact the coach who had recruited you being fired after your freshman year of college, leading to a transfer, and you spraining an ankle while working out for the NBA team led by one of your boyhood idols?

Johnson's perspective and ambition ranges far beyond the boundaries of a basketball court. It was either that or succumb, and his two older brothers refused to allow that.

“I never feel self-pity,” he says. “I never feel down on myself. I've had it way worse. My family's had it way worse. I don't look to complain or make excuses; I look to get it done. That's all I really know.”

It's all perfectly logical then, isn't it?

Johnson is averaging 4.2 points over 12.2 minutes with the Pacers. They are modest numbers, but he's already a consistent and comforting presence on a team that will win more than 50 games, win the Central Division and qualifies as a dark horse championship contender. He appeared destined for a season in the shadows of the roster after his spotty play in the Summer League and pre-season, probably spending most of it in the uniform of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the Development League or in street clothes on the Pacers bench, like fellow rookie Miles Plumlee. But Danny Granger's injury, Gerald Green's slump and other circumstances conspired to provide and maintain opportunity, and he's taken advantage.

The initial breakthrough came on Jan. 4, at Boston. He had scored 25 points and passed out six assists in a D League game with Fort Wayne the previous night, but injuries to Sam Young and George Hill caused the Pacers to put out an all-points bulletin for help. Johnson caught a 6 a.m. flight to Boston on the morning of the game to join his teammates, and when the game turned ugly early, he got his chance. He wound up playing 12 minutes and scoring seven points, hitting two-of-three field goal attempts and his only three-point shot.

From that spark, a career was ignited. He'll likely see action in the playoffs as a backup shooting guard, and while rookies and playoff games can make for combustible mixes, mere basketball games do not seem to frighten Johnson.

“He has improved quicker than almost any rookie I can remember,” team president Donnie Walsh says. “It's all through work. He's an extremely mature kid.

“He doesn't get up or down. A bad game or a bad practice, he doesn't get down. He never reacts, he just plays. Little by little, he got better and better.”

Johnson's maturity is obvious on the court, where he's stoic, determined and confident, and it's reinforced by anecdotal evidence. More experienced teammates already look up to him. Paul George tells of sitting next to Johnson on the red-eye flight home from the game at Golden State on Dec. 1, when George went scoreless. Johnson advised, George listened and found a turning point to his season by rededicating himself to pre-game preparation. Green, benched for straying too far from the offensive framework, says he watched Johnson closest of all during his exile to the bench to learn how to fit in.

Such uncommon maturity comes from an uncommon childhood. Orlando grew up in Seaside, Calif., part of the Monterey Peninsula. It sounds like a quaint little resort town where people go for vacation, but the part of it in which his family lived was nothing like that. Orlando and his two brothers were each born to different fathers. Orlando has never met his, knows nothing about him, and has no interest in learning anything about him. Oldest brother Robbie, 41, was born when Vicki was 15. Jamell, 37, who uses his father's last name, Damon, followed a few years later, and Orlando arrived 13 years after Jamell. Robbie and Orlando use Johnson as their last name, in honor of their mother's father.

Orlando and Robbie.jpg

Vicki was married for awhile and at times provided a fairly stable life for her oldest sons until they were approaching their teenage years. She worked at an Army base through one stretch, but was on welfare at other times. She suffered a nervous breakdown once, forcing Robbie and Jamell into a foster home for awhile. Eventually, overwhelmed by her responsibilities, she spiraled into drug addiction and sent her boys to live with her mother.

Orlando has no memory of his mother. He only knows what he's told, which is that she had been making moves to get her life back in order when she decided to go out on the evening of Jan. 2, 1991, against her mother's wishes. She wound up being murdered by strangulation, and perhaps raped, in a park late that evening or early the next morning. The killer tried to set her on fire, but her jeans only smoldered. The case remains unsolved.

Orlando then fell under the care of his grandmother, Virginia Jackson. She worked as a hospital nurse for 22 years and supported the extended family. As many as 17 people lived under her roof in Seaside at various times, as many as 11 at one time while Orlando lived there. Sometimes his mother was among them. Virginia worked during the day and then came home to cook for everyone in the evening.

The two-story home was built to include three bedrooms, but the living room was converted to another one. Orlando shared it with two cousins. The home was at the top of a hill in a drug-infested neighborhood, with bars on the doors and windows to help prevent break-ins. Life there could be chaotic, with so many kids needing supervision. Robbie still remembers the hospital telephone number they called so frequently to reach Virginia when disputes needed to be settled. Still, they had all they absolutely needed, and bonded like a team needing to rally from behind.

“We made it work,” Jamell says. “We played and had a great time together. Now that I'm an adult, I can see that it's pretty awesome she did that for us and didn't let us become separated.”

Fate took care of that. One evening when Orlando was six, his grandmother attended a meeting with the local police chief. Robbie, who was in college at the time, had errands to run and sent his girlfriend, who is now his wife, to pick up Orlando and take him to Robbie's apartment. Orlando's cousin Angel, one year younger, begged to go along, but there wasn't room in the car.

Orlando and Grandma.jpg

“I remember her face while she was hanging on to the bars and looking at us, crying, and I'm crying because I want her to come,” Orlando says.

Within a few hours, the house caught on fire, the result of a faulty space heater that ignited Christmas paper and decorations in a closet under the stairwell. The home's location, at the top of the hill, and the bars on the doors and windows delayed the fire department's ability to contain it. All four people inside perished: Angel, another cousin (Mark), an aunt (Valerie) and Virginia Jackson's elderly mother, Odessa, who had recently moved from Texas to be with the family.

Jamell was leaving his job when he heard about the fire and rushed over. It was still burning when he arrived, and for all he knew, Orlando had been inside. It wasn't until he went to the hospital and saw the four parched bodies laid out that he learned the identity of the victims. If not for fortunate circumstance, Orlando would have been one of them.

He was incredibly lucky. But also incredibly deflated. Between his mother's death, other passings and the fire, he lost seven relatives between the ages of 1 and 6.

“I was isolated for awhile, because I was so hurt,” he says. “I didn't understand why all this was happening to me. Sometimes I still question it. But I have faith and belief that my brothers and grandmother instilled in me that everything happens for a reason. Count your blessings and be grateful.”

That incident only further tightened the bond between the brothers. Robbie and Jamell already had been clashing on occasion with their grandmother over their involvement with Orlando. He was their link to their mother, not to mention a budding athlete and an energetic, upbeat kid. They wanted to raise him as much as possible, although they were only in their early 20s. Their grandmother, recently retired at the time, wanted him with her as often as possible. The other relatives were moved to a residence on a nearby military base for six months while the house was rebuilt, but Orlando began spending more time at the homes of his brothers, particularly Jamell.

The next jolt came when Orlando was 11. Virginia Jackson was sitting on a couch inside her home one day, talking on the telephone with a neighbor, when a blood clot flowed to an artery in her heart and caused it to stop beating. He was in junior high school at the time, and received a note to go straight home after school. He knew something was wrong, and arrived to find a distraught family that had just lost its pillar. This time Orlando calmed his older brothers, telling them they were going to be all right.

From that point on, he belonged to Jamell and Robbie. They had families of their own, but had no less interest in him than they had in their own children. Jamell counseled him on life matters and was more the father figure, while Robbie drove him in sports and was the older brother. They double-teamed him, in effect, giving him no choice but to stay pointed in positive directions.

“We were hard on Orlando, but we wanted the best for him,” Robbie says. “We didn't allow him to do certain things. We were protective of him and didn't let just anybody into our circle when it came to dealing with him.”

This is Part One of a two-part feature on Pacers guard Orlando Johnson. Read Part Two »

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