Few weeks ago I talked with the 1996 NBA Finalist, former player of the Seattle SuperSonics, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Minnesota Timberwolves, who currently works as a community ambassador for the Denver Nuggets – Ervin Johnson.
You played basketball until 10th grade. Then you did not play for a few years, but still was offered a scholarship. Did you think at that time that coming back to basketball will change your life?
First of all, I never though I would be playing in the NBA, I never had it as a dream. I got the opportunity to further my education through basketball and I had a great college career and then it paved the way to the NBA.
You decided to spend four seasons at the University of New Orleans. Was it more because of gaining basketball experience, or rather because you wanted to get your degree?
It had more to do with my development than anything else. I was not ready to spend one or two years in college and jump to the NBA. My development, my skills was not ready. So, I did not do it and I played all four years at the University of New Orleans.
Playing in Seattle
You were drafted in 1993 by the SuperSonics, a team which just reached the Conference Finals. What were your expectations, and how do you recall meeting the team and coaches for the first time?
When I went to Seattle SuperSonics, they were already experienced basketball team, and I was a rookie. George Karl – I think he did a great job for developing me, as I had to sit and watch my rookie season. I practiced hard every day, played against best players – Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins, Michael Cage. And as time went on, I gained confidence, and then next year he played me more. So, it was all about me developing and getting better every year.
In NCAA you were the key player of the team, but in the NBA, you had less minutes during the first three seasons. Was it a tough transition for you?
Yes, my roles totally changed from college to the NBA. In college I was the best player on my team for the last three years and then after that when I went to the NBA, it was all about me doing my job, we already had superstars in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, so I had to find my role and they asked me to rebound, play defense, block shots and just finish around the hoop.
You had a chance to play with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp for three years. How was it like to be able to observe and play with the “Lob-City” duo?
I learned a lot from Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. They were awesome players, great teammates, it was just a pleasure for me to play as a young player, to learn from those guys.
1996 NBA Finals
How do you recall playing against the Chicago Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals?
Playing against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was a tough matchup for us. I did not have the experience in the playoffs that the other guys had. But I played through that whole 82-game season and just playing in the playoffs was great for me, but to win a championship, George had to make a tough decision, and he took me out of the starting lineup and put in Frank Brickowski, which was the right move. Was I disappointed? Yes, but it was great experience for me and actually it helped me a lot.
How do you recall playing in Seattle, and the atmosphere in Seattle Center Coliseum?
The atmosphere while we played in Seattle was awesome, the fanbase was outstanding, they have won a lot of games for us with their enthusiasm, with their energy. It is always good to have good fans that support you no matter what – if you are winning or losing. But it was a great experience and great fanbase, great ownership and team.
After one year with the Nuggets, you were traded to the Bucks, and after another season you reunited with coach Karl. Did your teammates ask you for advice in terms of understanding Karl’s coaching style, which you knew from your time in Seattle?
Yes. Playing for coach Karl in Seattle helped me a lot. When I was already in Milwaukee and they hired George Karl, him and I had a great meeting. Very surprisingly George Karl made me one of the captains – actually, I was the only captain at that time. It was a great honor that he acknowledged my hard work and leadership. But playing with him and being coached by him in Seattle helped me a whole lot; knowing what he was looking for in players, and what he expected in Milwaukee.
How impressed were you with Allen Iverson’s heroics in the 2001 Conference Finals?
Allen Iverson was an awesome player; pound for pound he was probably the best player in the NBA. His will to win, his drive. It was a great series. I thought that we should have won that series. “Big Dog” Glenn Robinson had in Game 1 or Game 2 a wide-open jump shot, he just missed, we would have won that. We would have gone up 1-0 or tied the series 1-1, I cannot remember exactly, but it went seven games and if it was in Milwaukee, we would have won Game 7.
During the 2000-01 season you defeated the Los Angeles Lakers twice. Do you think that you would be able to stop their winning streak in the playoffs?
We beat the Lakers twice like you said, but the playoff teams are totally different. But I would love our chances playing against them in the NBA Finals.
In the 2002-03 season you played with Toni Kukoc, who defeated you in the 1996 Finals. Did you sometimes talk about those Finals, even jokingly?
Playing with Toni Kukoc was an awesome experience. Great teammate, very knowledgeable of the game, he won the championships with the Chicago Bulls. It was awesome playing with him; he had good basketball IQ and it was fun to be a teammate of his.
Trade to Minnesota
After few seasons without major success, you were traded with Sam Cassell to the Timberwolves. How important was it for you that you had a guy that you knew very well, when you switched teams that late in your career?
Him and I came in the NBA the same year. When they traded me to Minnesota with him, I was kind of a throw-in player; they did not expect much from me, it was all about Olowokandi, who was the starting center. But I came in and was able to start, I do not know how many games I started for him, but I started a lot of games, went to the playoffs with them. Playing with Sam Cassell – if I had to pick one guy that I ever played with to go to war and play tough games, I want Sam. Great teammate, awesome player, and I am glad I was a teammate of his.
You played with Kevin Garnett in his best year as a member of the Timberwolves. What do you think made him so good that year?
He was the MVP that year when we went there with Sam and Sprewell. Great team, great chemistry. Kevin Garnett made all the players around him better, he worked hard every day, and was a great teammate as well. Probably the best superstar I have ever played with.
In the Conference Finals you faced the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal. How demanding was it for you to guard a guy, who is much bigger and stronger than you?
That was tough, that was a tough matchup, of course. Shaquille O’Neal is a Hall of Fame player, he was tough, he was still in his prime. We did our best; we were just coming off a Game 7 against the Sacramento Kings and they won Game 1. I think it would have been a different story if we had a couple of days between to rest, but we did not. We had to jump right into that series, and they were ready, rested, waiting for us, and the better team won. But I liked our chances against them; Shaquille was just a tough matchup – so big and so strong.
After you retired, you started working as a community ambassador for the Nuggets. How important is it for you to share your knowledge with young people?
I enjoy every moment of it. It is all about using the platform that I have and was a part of, to try to inspire kids to be the best, work hard at whatever they do, have a good attitude, and get themselves a chance to be successful in life.