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Ball Don't Lie

There’s a Joe Johnson fan club in China with nearly 500 members

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Joe Johnson (left) and Yonsan Johnson. (Getty Images/Sporting Life Arkansas)

One of my favorite pieces of basketball art ever is "Remain Anonymous," in which Jacob Weinstein of the FreeDarko collective presents an all-too-common urban scene of people waiting at a bus stop that's differentiated from the everyday blahs by one key element — All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson, then of the Atlanta Hawks, is standing at the bus stop with them. Yet despite Johnson being dressed in full game uniform, a gym bag slung over his shoulder and a basketball in his hand, none of his fellow commuters so much as nod in his direction — even as a hyper-successful, hyper-wealthy and (theoretically) hyper-famous athlete, Johnson's nondescript name and game rate zero oogles and ogles, even in his own town.

That's the way most of us have probably always thought of Johnson — a professional shot-maker who's always been just this side of great and who, despite the All-Star berths and max money, never moved (or even really nudged) the needle for the lion's share of NBA fans. Apparently, though, that's not the case in China, where a small but energetic group of young people led by one very, very dedicated man celebrate the Brooklyn Nets guard's career with a passion typically reserved for megastars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

From Evin Demirel's story for Vice, a longer version of which originally appeared in Sporting Life Arkansas:

For Yonsan Johnson, formerly Yonsan Uranus, ne Zhu Yan-Qing (like many people in China, Yonson has adopted a more English-sounding name), the inciting event came in the form of the cover of an issue of Dime magazine he found in his military barracks in 2009—he looked down and saw the eyes of a resolute, dignified foreign warrior peering out at him.

Inside the magazine, Yonsan read about Johnson’s great love for the single mother who’d raised him, his quiet manner on the court, and how he’d rather stay home and play videos games than go clubbing. In Johnson, he had found a hero, someone who seemed to embody his country's ancient ideals of patience, strength, and respect toward elders. Johnson became not only Yonsan’s favorite player, but a 6-foot-8, 240-pound prism through which he learned about American culture. Not long after he saw Johnson’s image, he founded the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club.

By day, Yonsan is an electrical engineer who ekes out the equivalent of $2,400 a year in a factory in northern China. By night, though, as founder of the JJFC, he manages the Joe Johnson Chinese Baidu Tiebar, which he describes as a forum that has 497 members. In this role he has accumulated and edited what is likely the world’s largest cache of Joe Johnson-related pictures and videos. His life’s dream is to one day speak to Johnson directly.

After stumbling across the CJJFC, Demeril reached out to Yonsan, and the two exchanged emails for 2 1/2 years, with Yonsan eager to work an actual, potentially viable angle toward making his life's dream come true (as Demeril tells us, he went to high school with Johnson) and Demeril trying to wrap his arms around why, exactly, the comparatively uncelebrated Johnson seemed to resonate so deeply with Yonsan.

Yonsan's missives, reproduced with slight edits in Demeril's story, tell the tale of a young man so mesmerized by Johnson's isolation-heavy, jumper-oriented game that he'd save three months' salary to buy a game-worn Johnson jersey, who so respected the shooting guard's character that he refused to believe Johnson used expletives on the court ("In my mind Joe can not put these words out, he is so calm~ a man like him will never say that words~") and who thought deeply about Johnson's relationships with his teammates based on pictures of them he'd seen ("Maybe Joe and Josh [Smith] often have activities together"). They're amazing.

The most amazing exchange, though, came after Yonsan learned during a trip to England this past summer that the English word he'd chosen as his surname — Demeril explains that "acquiring and shedding" names over the years is a traditional practice in China, one that in recent decades has expanded to include the selection of English names to "better navigate the global economy" — might not be quite as strong a selection as he'd thought:

August 1
[...]
Evin,
[...]
As you know I put URANUS in my last name.
yes, my english name is YONSAN URANUS.
one of them told me I should change the last name.he asked me to look up the meaning of URANUS... i know it is a star in the space.
it doesn't mean anything. it just a designation.
[…]
in China, Uranus means: the great, the respectful... All the description are good..
So,can you tell me whats wrong with URANUS in your world? thank you.

August 6
Hi,
Gentleman~
[…]
... I found the reason... URANUS has another meaning”your butt”, so the man told
me to make a change... I really didn't know this meaning... a little conplicated...
So, I think Johnson might suit for me,
it is a good name, and also show my great respect to Joe Johnson...

It also made him Yonsan Johnson, which is so sonorous a name that I want to try to make a point of saying it at least once a day, every day, for as long as I have days.

It remains to be seen how effective Johnson (Joe, not Yonsan) will be when the Nets try to extend their season at the United Center in Game 6 on Thursday — as Our Fearless Leader relayed, Johnson's “kind of out there on one leg, honestly” as he suffers through the pain of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. If Brooklyn needs a big shot in a tough moment to push the series back to the Barclays Center for a deciding Game 7 on Saturday night, one can only hope he'll draw a little bit of strength from the knowledge that far across the world, at least 497 young Chinese people are rooting him on with every erg of their beings.

Hat-tip to r/NBA user P_Escobar.

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