Tyler Johnson can’t remember if he was in the sixth or seventh grade when it happened, but he remembers writing the letter after his mom, Jennifer, told him to give it a shot.
“Dear Warriors,” a young Johnson wrote. “My name is Tyler Johnson and I’m from Mountain View, California. I’m writing to see if I can get a scholarship to your Warrior camp. I am an athlete and my parents don’t have a lot of money to spend to send us to camps. I think that Warrior camp will improve my game.”
Johnson ended up at that camp. And Monday night, about a dozen years after he wrote that letter, Johnson was back at Oracle Arena, talking about that letter the Warriors had kept all these years later, and living out his dream in front of more than 100 friends and family from the Bay Area.
Johnson actually made his NBA debut against the Warriors on Jan. 14 of last year — after the Heat had signed him to a 10-day contract out of the D-League. He scored his first NBA points on a pair of free throws in the two minutes he played at the end of a lopsided 104-89 loss.
But this return trip Monday, now 60 games into his NBA career, was a little different because Johnson has grown from emergency, waiver-wire pickup to a legitimate rotation player. In Miami’s hard fought 111-103 loss to the defending NBA champions, Johnson had the highest plus/minus rating on the team at plus-4, scored 13 points, dished out a season-high five assists and played 27 minutes.
Each time Johnson scored or made a big play for the Heat — like when he turned the corner in the first quarter and raced past league MVP Stephen Curry for a dunk — a small section at Oracle Arena erupted. So, too, did his teammates.
“It was a special moment for him,” Dwyane Wade said through a smile of Johnson’s homecoming as an established NBA player. “Tyler’s continuing to work. He’s somebody we count on now on this team. I’m happy for him. He’s a good kid.”
Rated a two-star recruit in high school, Johnson ended up playing his college ball at nearby Fresno State, where he averaged 10.6 points in college and made the All-Mountain West second-team as a senior . But there weren’t many — except maybe himself and a few close friends and family members — who envisioned the 6-4 guard making it this far.
“I was always a [good] player, but I think as far as the nationally known scale I wasn’t really like nationally recognized or known. That’s why it’s a surprise to a lot of people [I made it],” Johnson said. “But I always expected to be here.
“My mom still remembers the time I told her I was going to make the NBA. It was awesome to come back now and see the people who have kind of been there through the whole journey, at different points of life — middle school, high school and college — who made this happen.”
Johnson laughed when asked whether he footed the bill for all of his friends and family to come watch him Monday.
“I don’t make that kind of money yet,” he said. “A lot of them actually bought their own tickets. But I got them post-game passes so I could see them after the game.”
Johnson said the Warriors actually presented him with his letter last year when he made his NBA debut at Oracle Arena. This year, though, Johnson said it meant a little more to him when local reporters started asking him about the letter and his journey from his 10-day contract to his spot in the Heat rotation.
After missing Saturday’s game in Utah with left shoulder strain (he’s missed 10 games now because of it), Johnson was worried he might not be healthy enough to play Monday in his homecoming. But it worked out.
“I was fortunate enough it actually calmed down in enough time,” he said. “I've kind of learned through this whole process not to push this thing. If I go when I'm not ready it's going to take longer to actually get healthy.”
Wednesday: Heat at Clippers
When, where: 10:30 p.m., Staples Center, Los Angeles.
TV, radio: ESPN, SUN; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).
Series: Heat lead 33-20.
Scouting report: Los Angeles, winners of nine straight, will be without All-Star power forward Blake Griffin (quad) for the ninth consecutive game. Chris Paul, last week’s Western Conference Player of the Week, has averaged 19.9 points and 10.9 assists with Griffin out. … The Heat, meanwhile, could again be without center Hassan Whiteside (right knee tendinitis).