What if Ervin Johnson hadn't chosen basketball, a sport he didn't start playing until college? What if he had pursued a supermarket career instead? Johnson says he would have been content with either path.
"If basketball wasn't going to work out, I still was going to be happy," says the 11-year NBA veteran.
Despite his towering statue, the 6-foot-11 center didn't play basketball while growing up as a youngster in Jonesville, La. "I simply didn't want to play," Johnson recalls. "My mom, sisters and brothers all wanted me to play because I was the tallest guy, but I didn't have that desire." After high school, Johnson worked at a Baton Rouge supermarket for almost three years before choosing to continue his education at the University of New Orleans, where he played for current New Orleans Hornets coach Tim Floyd.
At UNO, his game matured slowly but steadily. In his senior year, 1992-93, Johnson was named a third-team All-American and Sun Belt Player of the Year. He finished fifth in the nation in rebounding — around 12 caroms a game — and is the school's all-time leader in rebounds, blocks and field goal shooting, and second all-time in scoring. That got him noticed, and the Seattle SuperSonics tapped him as their first-round pick in the 1993 NBA Draft. Again, Johnson's game progressed slowly.
Johnson saw action in 45 games that rookie season, starting three, and averaged around three points and three rebounds in just over six minutes per game. His playing time increased the next season — he started 30 of the 64 games in which he played. The Sonics had a 23-7 record when he started. "My third year," he said, "I played every game of that season." Despite logging the eighth-most minutes on the team, Johnson finished second for the Sonics in rebounding, blocks and shooting.
The pivot man then signed with Denver in 1996 as a free agent. He had his best season as a pro the following year, ranking fourth in the league in rebounding (11.1 rebounds per game) and fifth in blocks (almost three per game). "I had a good season in Denver," he said of his only season as a Nugget, "but we lost 62 games."
Then he was packaged in a four-player deal in the summer of 1997, going to Milwaukee, where he played for six seasons. In his first campaign with the Bucks, Johnson averaged eight points a contest. But after that, his scoring numbers dipped, hovering around the three- to five-point range. Still, he continued his work on the boards. Last season, he grabbed his 3,000th rebound against Houston and recorded a double-double vs. Boston.
Coincidentally, after the regular season, Johnson said he sat at home and watched his future teammates on television during the 2003 playoffs. "I was pulling for Minnesota to beat the Lakers," he admitted. "I didn't know KG personally, but to watch him play with his heart and soul, I just hoped that he could get past the first round. I wished I could help him out."
Johnson got his wish a few weeks later when Milwaukee traded him and guard Sam Cassell to Minnesota. "I'm so blessed to play with a superstar like KG and be on a team like this," he said excitedly. "The guys are so unselfish."
Though some players can be demonstrative about their on-court time, Johnson accepts his role and takes everything in stride. Even after he drew five DNP-CDs (Did Not Play - Coach's Decision) in November and played 10 or more minutes on only two occasions, the center didn't fret. "I take it one day at a time," Johnson said calmly. "I never got frustrated when I wasn't playing because I knew things were going to come back (to me)."
After totaling 82 minutes through the first month of this season, Johnson averaged over 23 minutes a contest in December. He has started 33 of the team's 56 games, including the last 14. "I never worry about (playing time) or get upset because I know that He is in control," Johnson said about his faith in God. "My faith is real strong. I've built everything around God. He is number one and everything else is secondary."
Johnson says he accepted Christ at age 16. "I was going into my senior year," he said. "I thank God that I had that foundation because there were a lot of things I probably would have struggled with in life if I didn't have Him as a foundation."
He loves talking with people, sharing with them that being a Christian doesn't exclude him from life's problems. "We all struggle and have adversity in our lives, no matter who you are or how high you are," Johnson pointed out. "I use my faith when God opens that door. I share the Word with them. I give them encouragement and have Bible study on the road. I try to live my life day-by-day in the way that they may see Christ in me."
No matter where he has been, Johnson has been a steadying influence with his teammates. "I've helped a lot of people," he says. "I get more encouragement helping young guys and pointing them in the right direction."
Even on a club like the Timberwolves, a team with many distinctive personalities, Johnson fits in nicely, giving them a solid presence in the middle and in the locker room. "I relate to all my teammates in a different way," he noted.
Reflecting upon his 10-plus years as a pro, Johnson says, "Basketball has been great for myself and my family. But I know that I have another calling." Johnson sees his post-NBA career working with youth. "I really believe that God is going to assign me somewhere around kids," he said.
He makes his offseason home in Denver and wouldn't mind working there after he retires from basketball. "I have a home there; my wife likes Denver. But who knows — if God moves me to where He wants me to be, that's where I'll be."
But for now, Johnson wants to help Minnesota be the best this season. "I think our chances are great to do really well in the league this year," he concluded.