There are plenty of reasons why Toronto Raptors fans love power forward Amir Johnson. There's the on-court stuff, to be sure — the relentless two-way work, the stiff screens, the dogged pursuit of rebounds and loose balls, the non-stop hustle that leads to playoff-clinching putbacks, the willingness and ability to take on whatever tough defensive assignment head coach Dwane Casey needs him to on a given night. There's the fact that our statistical record is catching up to more accurately valuing his little-bit-of-everything, fill-in-all-the-blanks game — he ranks 12th in the league in ESPN's recently introduced "Real Plus-Minus" metric, which aims to estimate how much an individual player contributes to whether his team outscores the opposition or gets outscored over the course of 100 total possessions, and 17th in the NBA in "Wins Above Replacement," which looks to estimate how many of a team's wins were directly attributable to that individual player's work, and the Raptors always seem to perform significantly better when he's on the court than off it.
Toronto has outscored its opposition by 4.3 points per 100 possessions with Johnson in the lineup this year, a number that drops to 2.8 points-per-100 when he sits; that the differential's not as vast as it's been in years past probably has an awful lot to do with the fact that the Raptors are a deep team full of legitimate NBA players, meaning there's less "falling off a cliff" when the second unit comes in. (Though that defense has looked pretty suspect with Johnson sidelined by a sprained ankle.) He's become a very valuable all-court contributor, the gritty definition of what Casey wants out of his club and what Toronto wants from its athletes; there's a reason he's the guy the team picked to push the purple-dino throwbacks.
But for all Johnson gives between the whistles, it's his infectious disposition that makes him such a people's champ. Fans love when his personality bubbles out in the course of action, whether via ridiculous outbursts like throwing a mouthpiece at a referee to protest a call, openly laughing about getting away with a double-dribble, or picking up a courtside camera to take some candids mid-game. He rocks a burgundy "Big Daddy" robe in the locker room, he makes sure we understand he LOVES Christmas, he loves the Raptors logo enough to get it shaved into the back of his head, he chills with elephants and dolphins, and he'll throw meme-lovers a bone if it means he can wear a weird mask and dance.
He seems like a pretty cool guy, and he only burnishes that reputation through the way he interacts with fans off the court. He participated in the Toronto Zombie Walk, he hooked up every fan he could find with a free copy of Drake's new record and — in his latest bit of fan outreach — he hosted at least 60 fans at Wednesday's win over the Philadelphia 76ers and brought them out for a night of feasts and jousting at Medieval Times. From Gemma Karstens-Smith of the Toronto Star:
“It’s just a token of appreciation for my fans because we have the greatest fans in the world,” Johnson said before the show began, a black velvet cape trimmed with gold threads and sparkles draped around his hulking frame. “The fans are what makes our team.”
It’s not the first time Johnson’s given back to his fans. This is the fourth year in a row that he’s thrown his “I Roll with Amir” party. [...]
Sari Birnbaum has been to every one of Johnson’s parties. Her family has Raptors season tickets, too, so the superfan catches as many games as she can.
“I think [Johnson’s] amazing,” she said. “He’s great with his fans. He’s the kind of blue collar athlete Toronto has always wanted.”
Some fans earned their trip to Medieval Times by winning "golden tickets" through competitions held via social media. Those in attendance reportedly received a "Raptors swag bag and a T-shirt and sweatshirt emblazoned with a caricature of Johnson’s trademark grin, a slightly-askew crown perched on his head," which also appeared on some pretty snazzy "I ROLL WITH AMIR" wristbands.
In the midst of the battling, devouring of small birds and using period-appropriate language to ask for refills on Pepsi, Johnson found time to not only watch the throne, but ascend to it:
— VEEZY (@thisisveezy247) April 11, 2014
In recognition of all his hard work for the realm, both on the court and off it, Johnson received that most ennobling of honors: the conferring of knighthood.
"Just call me TALL KNIGHT," Johnson commanded in his Instagram caption, and now that he's officially a member of the mounted warrior elite, we should probably listen to him. Good morrow, fair Tall Knight. We hope to see you hale, hearty and returned to battle soon — perhaps even as soon as Friday night, when your Raptors are set to take on the New York Knicks.
- - - - - - -