Unless you’re a hardcore basketball junkie, you may not immediately recognize the name Trey Johnson. But when it comes to hard work and determination, there are few who can match up to the 26-year old shooting guard. Between NBA stints, Johnson has been one of the D-League’s top players and this year turned it into an opportunity with the Los Angeles Lakers that included an appearance in the playoffs. He talked to Black Sports Online about the differences between Phil Jackson and Mike Brown, life as a documentary star and his chance to play Major League Baseball.
Your first call-up to the NBA was in 2009 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. How much did it help to have your high school teammate and friend Mo Williams already there?
It definitely made the off the court transition extremely smooth. It made it a lot more comfortable for me, locker-room wise, as well as on the court too. Because you had someone that you trusted and you knew was going to look out for your best interest. But it definitely made it a lot smoother I would say. But at the same time, it was still my first time so I guess I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a sense.
You’ve been back to the D-League and back up to the NBA. This year you got a call-up late in the season with the Lakers. What was it like working with them compared to some of your other stops in the league?
It was great. I truly believe in sowing seeds and the fact that I went to camp with them and was the last cut, to come back it felt like I was where I was supposed to be. It felt like home in a sense. I knew the guys, I was comfortable with the system and I had confidence in the fact that Phil Jackson had confidence in me. It was an ideal situation. It didn’t turn out the way we would have liked it to in the end – winning a championship. But, it’s the Lakers, one of best franchises ever and I was fortunate. I got to be around some of the greatest players and greatest guys.
You’ve said you studied Kobe Bryant and really patterned your game after his. Now that you’ve had a chance to play with Kobe, are there things you’ve learned from him that you didn’t see on film?
Oh, definitely. I tell people all the time, you can sit back and watch any NBA game on TV and see the person is ten times different. Not just with Kobe, but just with the game, period. He’s very detailed. He’s very serious about his craft and what he does for a living. And that’s me, so to speak. Every team I was on, I pretty much was the Kobe of that team, from college on up. On my D-League teams and things like that, where I had to shoulder the majority of the offensive load and make plays and things like that. So I just kinda looked and him and saw he dealt with it night in and night out and tried to apply that to my game.
You played for Phil Jackson in L.A. and you played for Mike Brown when you first came up with the Cavs. How different are those two guys and their styles?
It’s not going to be that big of a difference from an environment standpoint. Mike is a very laid-back guy. He’s a great guy first off and he’s very laid-back guy. Very professional. It was the same with Phil. Phil is very laid-back, but very cerebral. People like to say he plays mind games. But I don’t really call it mind games, but he really understands how strong the mind is and how if you can get the mind to think or believe then you can do it. But I think the environment is still going to be the same. It’s going to be very professional, but at the same time, laid-back and you will be held accountable from a standpoint of you’re your own person. You’ve gotta man up and take care of your own responsibilities. Nobody’s gonna run up behind you and make you do it or beg you to do it. They also are very different. Mike is very defensive-minded. That’s his focus. It’s not that Phil wasn’t defensive-minded, but the triangle is a big deal when you talk about Phil Jackson and winning over the years. The triangle is one of the best offenses I’ve ever been a part of. It’s very difficult to guard. It’s very detailed, but at the same time it’s just simple basketball. I think it’s going to be a lot of similarities, but at the same time the differences will come from us being able to adjust to whatever Mike wants to implement. With Phil it’s very open, it’s very give or take, back and forth relationship type stuff, but he does want things done a certain way. And I think it’s going to be the same way with Mike, but it’s going to be a little bit different in the sense of what the emphasis may be on what how he wants to get it done.
So do you think Mike Brown was a good choice for the Lakers?
I think so. He’s not only a great coach, but he’s a great guy. I had no idea he was even up for the job until he got hired. There’s nothing you can do about it now but move forward and get ready to prepare to play for a Mike Brown Lakers team. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Brian Shaw and I thought he probably would have been next in line but it didn’t work out that way. I think B-Shaw will definitely end up somewhere as a head coach because he’s that good of a coach. But the Lakers went this direction and you’ve gotta stand behind them and just do what you have to do to continue winning.
Have you had a chance to talk with coach Brown about hooking on with the team next season?
Not yet. I’m heading to L.A. and I’ll be out there the next couple of weeks working out at the facility. Maybe I’ll get a chance to peek my head in and say hello and talk about what’s up next.
Like the name says, the Developmental League is where guys are trying to develop their games and get noticed by people at the NBA level. When you were playing for the Bakersfield Jam, how did you balance getting your game noticed with still being a team player?
For me it was easy because I feel like winning is who I am and I think winning brings more attention than anything. I’m a competitor to the heart so whenever I step on any field of play or competition, I’m trying to win. And if me trying to win is me scoring or me defending or me doing whatever, I’m going to do it. It just so happened that our situation in Bakersfield where I was the best option for scoring the basketball. That was our best option of winning, was me scoring. And I didn’t have to go out and be the leading scorer every night, but when I say score, I mean making plays and doing the right things from a number one go-to guy. Making the right basketball plays. The coach there did a good job of drafting and surrounding – not just me – but just surrounding the whole organization with the right players who came in and wanted to win. Being on a minor league team can be tough. There are guys in and out. You have guys with different attitudes and different motors. God blessed me to be in the right situation in Bakersfield and that’s how it worked out for me.
You talked about being competitive. You were a baseball player before you started seriously playing basketball and you were drafted by the Kansas City Royals (30th round of the 2002 draft), but said you had lost interest in the game. If you stayed with it, how far do you think you could have gone?
I would have been in the majors. No doubt. I don’t doubt that at all. I always tell people you’ve gotta be crazy enough to believe in yourself. When you think about it, there’s only 1 percent of people in America that will play in the NBA or the NFL or MLB. It’s only a very small percentage, but if you’re really serious about it, you definitely have to believe in yourself. Even when I played baseball growing up, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to the majors. And I still ended up getting drafted and I had fallen out of love with baseball my junior year of high school and it was obvious. But when I started playing basketball, if you watched me play basketball in high school, you wouldn’t have said “He’s going to play in the NBA”. But I was crazy enough to believe that if I put this work in, I’m going to the NBA. And it worked out for me. I’ve played on three different teams now and it’s gotten better for me each year. I think a lot of people forget I spent a lot of time with Toronto this season before I went to the Lakers. So it just worked out for me pretty good and now I’m just trying to stick.
You’ve played in the Summer League multiple times. How much will it hurt you and guys like you who are trying to hook on somewhere that the league has been canceled this year?
I think it’s going to hurt. I can only speak for me, I think being in the Lakers situation that helped me a lot as well, going into a possible work stoppage. To be solidified by those guys and say “he’s good enough to play in the playoffs and be on our team”, I think that says a lot. It’s definitely going to hinder some of us. The Summer League is a great platform for guys trying to get on and guys fresh out of school to go hone their skills and show what they can do. But you can’t really worry about it. There’s nothing you can do about it but just stay ready so whenever it is time to get to work you’ll still be able to bring the same thing to the table.
Have you thought about what you’re going to do if there is a work stoppage?
I have, so to speak. I thought about it a little bit. I can’t really say because who knows where I’ll be mentally at that point in time if that happens. But the season is not scheduled to start back up until October anyway, so that’s a long time. I’m praying and hoping that both sides can come to an agreement on something that’s feasible and we can move on from there.
Dwyane Wade posing after hitting a three-pointer in the fourth quarter of Game Two of the NBA Finals was a big topic of conversation. If an opposing player did that to you or your team, would it be enough to fire you up?
Of course, but I think anything that anybody on the opposing team does is going to fire you up. If you’re getting beat by 15 and they’re celebrating or if you’re down by one and they make a big play, you’re going to be fired up off of it regardless. I think [the Mavericks] were right to get fired up behind it, but I don’t think it’s a big deal the way everybody’s making it out to be. That’s just part of the game. That’s part of the platform of being a competitor and being on that stage. You feed off of every little thing that your opponent does. I do and most players that I know do as well. It could be something as simple as the game’s not even into the second quarter and somebody said something from a trash-talking standpoint. I really think they’re making a big deal out of nothing, but they did right to get fired up by it.
You are the star of a documentary that’s in the works. What was it like being followed around by a camera crew?
That was very different. They followed me around for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know them prior to them following me around. So that made it even more different. But I think it’s going to be interesting. They’re in the process of editing and cutting everything that they need right now. It’s kinda hard sitting there with a camera in your face 24/7. You’re just sitting and watching TV or talking on the phone and there’s a camera watching you. Or when you go into places and there’s a camera following you and now everybody wants to know what’s going on. It is kinda different. I think it’s definitely going to be a positive angle for me as well as for those guys. It’s an independent film crew and they just felt like it would be a good story to pitch. We’re hoping that a network bites on it and gives it the right publicity that it deserves.
When should we expect to see it?
I have no idea. I know they’re hard at work on it. I’ve been talking back and forth with those guys and kinda seeing where they’re at. I did get a chance to see kinda a sneak preview of a rough draft of it and it was pretty nice. I trust that they’ll come up with a great product and I would say probably around late this year.
When the basketball career finally ends, what’s next for Trey Johnson?
I definitely would love to stay around the game. I used to say coaching, but I really have a fancy for player development and working guys out and helping guys get better. Because I know how it was for me coming up and helping made me feel better than spending a day in the summer or offseason knowing that I got better that day. I really want to get into player development and start my own player development business or even working for an NBA team as a player development coach or college. Something of that nature.