James Johnson said he teared up a little bit Saturday when he walked down the hallway toward the Heat’s locker room and saw a wall-sized photo of himself in the same space Chris Bosh once adorned.
The Heat, which still had the photos of a few former famous faces on that wall through the preseason, replaced them with photos of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters and Johnson prior to Saturday’s home opener against the Indiana Pacers.
In a lot of ways the small gesture spoke volumes. This new era of Heat basketball has finally adopted new leaders – and Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal to stay in Miami this summer, is happy and honored to be one of them.
Saturday, coach Erik Spoelstra and the coaching staff named him and point guard Goran Dragic co-captains along with 15-year veteran Udonis Haslem, whose photo still decorates that same hallway. For Johnson, who spent his first seven years in the league playing for four different teams, being named co-captain for the Heat speaks volumes about how far he’s come in just 14 months with Miami.
“It means the world to me that these guys voted for me to lead them, for them to follow me,” said Johnson, who hit the game-clinching free throws in Saturday’s 112-108 victory over Indiana and joined Dwyane Wade as only the second player in Heat history to record at least eight assists and five blocks in the same game.
“I have great respect for them. Being the captain on this team don’t mean that I’m always saying what to do and everything I say is right. I also follow their lead, too. And I think that plays a big part in it.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra said it was a no-brainer for the Heat to make Johnson and Dragic, the team’s leading scorer last season, co-captains alongside Haslem, who was a solo captain last season.
“UD will be a lifetime captain for however long he plays and even well beyond that he’ll be the forever captain,” Spoelstra said. “We all really just felt that it was time to add more captains and everybody was looking to Goran because he’s ready for that next step of leadership.
“Then, JJ, was one of the most special things that I’ve been a part of in my coaching career. It was maybe surprising to people on the outside, maybe because you wouldn’t predict this would happen a year ago when we signed him. But when we actually named him captain it was the no brainer of no brainers. You talk to any single player or staff member in that lockerroom, it was unanimous that he had to be a captain. He has that type of voice, purity, intention and just natural leadership qualities to take on that role. So it was really cool to see him grow into that.”
Johnson, 30, has never been a captain in the NBA. Neither has Dragic, who does most of his leading without words.
Either way, it’s something teammates said the entire team unanimously wanted.
“Goran's not always the most vocal of guys, but if you want to see how to approach the game the right way, all you have to do is look over at him,” Josh Richardson said. “JJ is a guy who has really embraced the culture and everybody sees that. So, when you have a guy that embraces everything so much like that, it's hard to make someone else a captain and not him.”
Dragic said he’s honored his teammates think of him as a leader.
“It means a lot because you’re working hard to get respect from players and the coaching staff and that’s something huge,” Dragic said. “We have one of the best captains in the NBA in UD and it’s a privilege to learn from him and try to be a role model for young players and kids. I was a captain on the [Slovenian] national team, but that’s something totally different.
“JJ has that personality that he’s always on you even if you do some good stuff or bad stuff. He’s always going to look into your face and tell you. That’s what we want. That’s what we need. We need guys who are talking to the players and if a player has a bad game try to lift them up and get them to do their best.”
Johnson said he gives Haslem all the credit for teaching him “how to become a real leader.” The two have spent a lot of time together in the past year working out at the arena. On Wednesday in Orlando, Johnson wore a Heat culture t-shirt of Haslem after shootaround. The next day, Haslem posted a photo of himself wearing a Heat culture t-shirt with Johnson on it.
Even if he doesn’t play, Haslem’s leadership is felt everyday, Johnson said, with the way he practices and the way he sets the example for everyone. Sunday, Haslem invited every player on the team to attend the Dolphins-Jets game in a private suite. Last year, Haslem did the same to help a collection of new faces bond. This time around, it’s a little different.
“I’m excited,” Dragic said. “I hear the Dolphins and Jets have a big rivalry. I can’t let UD down. I’ve got to be there to have his back like he always has ours.”