By Ryan McCallum, ProjectSpurs.com
At 6’5” Orlando Johnson stands tall over the throng of customers waiting for their espressos and morning tea. Many peak up at him from behind newspapers, or even more boldly point and quickly lock eyes with the giant while speaking in a tongue that is incomprehensible to Orlando. The pattern is fast and loud. Almost to the point of becoming threatening. Johnson doesn’t react, but instead hides back into his headphones and awaits his cafe americano to arrive from behind the crowded bar. He reminds himself that this is just another stop on his journey. A casualty of chasing a dream.
Orlando has never lost focus on returning to the NBA. He would play for any team providing him an opportunity. Until then he competes in the Philippine Basketball Association against teams called the Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters and the San Mig Coffee Mixers.
His team, Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, just lost to Tropang in the quarterfinals of the 2015 PBA Philippine Cup. His team eliminated 83 to 67. He doesn’t know if the patron’s here in Bo’s Coffee recognize him, but he thinks they do. Despite being Barangay Ginebra’s best player they aren’t asking for an autograph or trying to engage him in conversation. Just as well. Orlando hasn’t picked up any Tagalog yet. He isn’t counting on being here long enough to need to. Instead the dull roar of fast-talk bleeds into the background as 2Ls’ “Vicariously” takes over through the Beats he is wearing under his hoodie.
Orlando is the kind of guy who can make friends anywhere. He prides himself on being approachable. He is grateful. A warm smile across his face is just as much a part of his uniform as the shoes on his feet. This morning he isn’t being standoffish. It’s just early. Today he is catching a plane home to California.
It is in California that Orlando inherited an experience that few others could ever truly know. The community to which he now gives so openly first provided him with tragedy. At the age of one, Orlando would lose his mother. She was murdered, and the crime remains unsolved.
Without a father present in his life, he was taken in by his grandmother. Only six years later the family home would burn, taking four relatives with it. His grandmother would however, provide a stable home for Orlando until she died. He was eleven.
He carries their memory with him on his left arm. A large crucifix covers his shoulder with the initials of his mother, grandmother, and his brothers. Beneath the cross a simple message, “Only as strong as your roots.”
He was raised by his two older brothers in Salinas, California, where he thrived as a shooting guard. His game drew collegiate attention, and Orlando was recruited to join the Loyola Marymount Lions during their 2007-2008 season. A long drive down “The-101” from Salinas, but still California. Johnson led the Los Angeles based Loyola Marymount team in both scoring and rebounding during his freshman year. However, the coach responsible for his recruitment would leave following that first season, causing Johnson to do the same. He put in the transfer paperwork to UC Santa Barbara.
He sat out the 2008-2009 season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. The following year, his first with UC Santa Barbara, he would dominate the Big West Conference with an 18 point, 5.9 rebound average. He led the team through the Big West Tournament and into the NCAAs. He would repeat the performance the following season.
He was selected right after Draymond Green in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, but was traded to Indiana, missing an opportunity to stay close to home. He bounced between the D-League and the NBA roster throughout the year, but managed to play in 51 games for the Pacers that season.
He would play one more partial season with Indiana, before being released on February 20, 2014. The team that drafted him, the Kings, signed him to two consecutive 10-day contracts but ultimately did not offer him a deal to finish out the year on the NBA roster.
Last year Johnson was acquired by the Austin Spurs, the NBA D-League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. The NBA Spurs utilize the D-League as good as any team. Former D-League players Austin Daye, Cory Joseph, and Danny Green have all won NBA titles with San Antonio.
Johnson, often the leading scorer and always the most explosive, led the Austin Spurs to a division-best 32-18 record, losing in the semifinals to Santa Cruz.
And now he is here, in this coffee shop, turning the corner on a season spent abroad. He hears a unrecognizable shout from behind the bar and sees the barista raising a cup to him. They both smile as he takes the cup and exits the shop. On his way out someone pats him on the back as if to thank him for a season well played and to wish him luck on his next stop. Such gestures are universal and the meanings well understood to those chasing the NBA dream abroad.
Orlando Johnson is taking part of the NBA Summer League as a part of the Washington Wizards.