Ivan Johnson, The Rookie Who Stirred Up The Hawks’ Nest

Somewhere during the second overtime in last Thursday’s game against the Heat, a 27-year-old rookie who went to three colleges and has been banned for life from the Korean league was trending nationally on Twitter. Ivan Johnson of Atlanta is that guy.

His long and winding road to the League bent back on itself enough times in the past nine years it seemed to become an infinite loop. Suitors interested in the 6-8, 230-pound forward were intrigued by, and then compelled to cut ties because of, his aggression on the court. And repeat.

We’re talking about him in the first place because Johnson scored 13 points in 21 minutes on 5-of-7 shooting for the Hawks in that loss to Miami. On a night when Dwyane Wade and LeBron James sat out the game, a nobody captured some attention on national TV.

But who is he, exactly? The high, and lowlights of his career so far include averaging 23 points and nine boards in the D-League last season. He got there after time in Puerto Rico and earlier after a stop in Korea, where he was banned for making an obscene gesture at a referee. (He was still popular with fans nonetheless. Just see the video below.)

He came there from Los Angeles Southwest College for two years, before going to Cincinnati, where he was released before he ever played. He then went to Oregon, playing in 2005-06 before his scholarship wasn’t renewed. He then landed at Cal State San Bernardino, where he played for coach Jeff Oliver. The Coyotes went 26-6 that year and 4-1 in the NCAA Division II Tournament.

Last spring as Johnson tore up the D-League, Dime talked with Oliver about coaching the mercurial forward.

“We butted heads but he figured it out in the second half,” said Oliver. “Even now, you can look at it because I was the one, fortunate in this regard, and helped us see eye to eye, I was the one coach who could say, ‘Your career is over with.’ Before me he could butt heads with [Ernie] Kent and say screw you Kent, I’ll play somewhere else.

“But now, he can go from Korea to another league, but I was fortunate to be the one who could have that leverage.”

Failing at San Bernardino because of a third strike meant, realistically, never getting a crack at any league. That was motivation enough for Johnson, whom Oliver called the best player he’d ever coached, albeit one holding himself back with his temper.

“I would think that his track record is what’s haunting him right now,” said Oliver in April. “Hopefully someone gives him a shot, if he keeps plugging. His track record has a little history and those teams aren’t stupid. they do their research.”

Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote last week that Hawks coach Larry Drew did, in fact, do his diligence on Johnson’s background, and that the team was satisfied enough to release draft pick Keith Benson.

Earning the league minimum after making Atlanta’s team in December, Johnson’s motivation now is a baby he wants to provide for and a promise to keep to his mother, Cunningham reported.

“As you get older your dream starts to fade after a while,” he said. “You have just got to keep pushing, man. That’s what I kept doing.”

Months before Johnson got a sniff of the League and caused a Twitter storm about his grill and demeanor, Oliver knew his volatile former player would make good, again.

“I would say if he had this year, the year he had now earlier in his career, he would have a shot. His big thing is dealing with adversity when it sets in. He doesn’t deal with it at times. But he’s not a bad guy, and I didn’t mind him at all. Off the court he was funny, always on time.”

After a delayed debut, there may just be another reason to watch the Hawks. For us to find out, who is this guy?

What unheralded player has surprised you most this season?

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