Recent Minnesota Golden Gopher graduate and former basketball captain Damian Johnson recently signed with Oita Heat Devils in the Japanese BJ League. He generously took some time share what he has been up to and to look back at his Gopher career.
From The Barn: The first question has to be how you ended up in Japan? Last time a lot of us heard about you, you were on various NBA summer league teams trying to get a spot in the league. So what takes place between graduation and career in a foreign league?
Damian Johnson:The coach for the team I’m playing for contacted my agent and expressed interest. This summer I was with the (Miami) Heat summer league but I was suppose to go to their mini camp then go to the T-wolves camp but Miami kept me longer than expected.
From The Barn: What is the game like over there? What is the level of competition? Are your teammates mostly Japanese? American? Anyone we would have heard of?
Damian Johnson: The rules are NBA rules and only 3 Americans on the court at a time. The league has expanded from 13 to 16 teams and the level of competition has increased many guys who were in top level of Europe have signed here this off-season and Robert Swift who played for OKC Thunder signed here this off season also.
From The Barn: How has it been adjusting to life in Japan? How’s the food? How’s your Japanese? What is the favorite thing you’ve done since you arrived?
Damian Johnson: I have been adjusting to Japanese life faster than expected. I love the food here, but I still go to McDonald’s twice a week just so I can have something that reminds me of America. I am starting to pick up a lot of Japanese words and I know a couple sentences. The best thing I have done since arrived is I took a train ride to Oita City and spent the day there going to different places.
From The Barn: Was it a difficult decision to play in Japan once you realized you wouldn’t be in the NBA right away? Japan doesn’t have a whole lot in common with Louisiana or Minnesota. Did you give any thought to trying to find a job after graduation like the rest of us?
Damian Johnson: It wasn’t that difficult of a decision. My agent and I evaluated all my options and we felt that this was the best opportunity for me. I never thought about giving up basketball. I have too much love of the game to do that.
From The Barn: Not too long ago, a lot of people would have been surprised that you would end up playing professional basketball anywhere. You red-shirted your freshman year, and didn’t get a whole lot of playing time the next year. Yet, you ended up a captain, one of the best defenders in the conference, and one of the most important players on the team. What happened? How did you improve so much in such a short period of time?
Damian Johnson: I mean it is kind of tough for a freshman in a conference like the big ten. The problem in sports nowadays is fans aren’t patient enough to give players time to develop and want coaches to run players off and get rid of them which a lot of fans wanted after my freshman year. I feel like by my junior I was more comfortable playing ball than ever in my life, so it wasn’t much of a transformation, but It was more of me becoming adjusted and comfortable with the speed of the game.
From The Barn: In a lot ways your career paralleled the program. I remember sitting at Williams Arena in the student section in 2007, surrounded by Wisconsin Badger fans. A few years later, the Gophers have three straight wins over Wisconsin and The Barn is full. What do you think led to this improvement, and what does it mean to you to be part of the improvement in the program?
Damian Johnson: I feel that was one of the biggest changes in the program. I felt like more fans took pride in cheering for us and it translated on the court because it made us play harder. It was always disappointing playing a road game at home every time we played Wisconsin, especially since I can’t stand how dumb, obnoxious, and arrogant their fans are.
From The Barn: What was the highlight of your Gopher career?
Damian Johnson: The highlight of my career maybe my life thus far is beating Wisconsin at Wisconsin. I watch that game all the time til this day. I hate Wisconsin. Lol.
From The Barn: I have to admit, I still have that game on DVR and will watch it a few times a year. Very good times.
Damian Johnson: I got it on DVR DVD and VHS.
From The Barn: So anything you want to say to your fans back in Minnesota?
Damian Johnson: I already miss playing at The Barn and I hope the Gophers can get further than I ever did. I had the greatest time of my life at U of M and I am going to miss being part of the program.