The purple people are getting ready to eat

Hapoel Holon swingman Chris Johnson leads resurgent Israeli club into Champions League Final Four.

Chris Johnson is one of Hapoel Holon’s key playmakers and scorers and is looking to have a big weekend as the club tips off in the Champions League Final Four. (photo credit: Dov Halickman)
Chris Johnson is one of Hapoel Holon’s key playmakers and scorers and is looking to have a big weekend as the club tips off in the Champions League Final Four.
(photo credit: Dov Halickman)

Hapoel Holon is deep into preparations for the Basketball Champions League Final Four in Bilbao, Spain which begins Friday when Guy Goodes’s squad takes on Tenerife in the first of two semifinals.

The nightcap features Riesen Ludwigsburg from Germany and BAXI Manresa from Spain with the final taking place on Sunday evening.

One of the anchors for the Purples over the past two seasons has undoubtedly been Chris Johnson. The 32-year-old American swingman signed with Holon back at the start of the 2020/21 season for his second stint in Israel after having featured for Hapoel Jerusalem a couple of years prior.

Ahead of the team’s critical continental clash against the Spanish powerhouse, Johnson spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his appreciation for his home in Holon, the NBA, his drive and determination and of course how the club has reached unprecedented success as it works its way up the European ladder.

“We made a few changes this year,” the veteran began. “But we stuck with it and everybody brings something different to the table. That’s what makes us special.”

 Hapoel Holon coach Guy Goodes (credit: ISRAEL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION) Hapoel Holon coach Guy Goodes (credit: ISRAEL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION)

Following the departure of the colorful and fiery coach Stefanos Dedas, Holon management brought in Italian bench boss Maurizio Buscaglia, who looked to duplicate the club’s European success.

However, the squad struggled and a change was made after Holon had lost the first game in its best-of-three Round-of-16 Play-In series as Goodes was appointed head coach after having departed Maccabi Rishon Lezion earlier in the season.

Goodes, who is also the Israel National Team head coach, arrived at Holon with years of top-level experience which included time with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he was part of David Blatt’s staff that captured the 2014 Euroleague title and then took over the reins the following campaign.

With little time to spare, his impact was immediate as he guided the team to a win in Turkey and then one back at home to knock out Besiktas and advance in the competition.

“He came in and just said that he’s here to help us win and that his focus was on Besiktas,” said Johnson. “He is a players’ coach and he was on it from the moment he arrived. He put his foot down and made us closer as a team. His concept of the game and being a players’ coach, plus the fact that he has coached at the highest level and he has a good feel for the game, was important.”

Assistant coach Amit Sherf has been a key figure with Holon for a number of seasons as he is a constant sounding board for the squad and is no less part of the success that it has had.

“He is a tremendous person,” Johnson commented. “He reached out to me in the summer and said he was going to re-sign with Holon and I was really happy about that. He is a smart guy, young and understands the game.”

Another big factor in the club’s achievements is the fans, who have been part and parcel of the franchise over the years. Their support has been crucial, especially at home and they will no doubt be in Bilbao in huge numbers to will their team on.

“They are amazing. Last year without them for the most part [due to COVID-19 restrictions] it was kind of different, but they were here this year to support us and to get us through the games when we needed it.”

The Champions League as a whole has continued to improve and evolve into one of Europe’s most coveted competitions, with some very high-quality teams from across the continent, while also managing its structure from social media to live events with the utmost professionalism.

“I just said the other day that they have grown over the years. We played some very good teams with Kariskaya last year along with Ludwisgburg and others this year who are all good teams and can play at a very high level. The league has been getting better and they have gained followers. They will continue to get better. I love it.”

For Johnson himself, who is averaging 14 points and six rebounds a game this season, it will be a chance to capture a top-level European championship and that isn’t something that he is taking for granted. Having just celebrated his 32nd birthday and committed to the club for two more seasons after having recently extended his contract, the time is now.

“It feels like home and I am happy here, Israel and Holon have welcomed me with open arms. It just feels like home. The organization is great and my family is happy and I just turned 32. As for the chance to take a European title, it’s special and it’s also the first time in Holon’s history. This is something I wanted to do for the club especially after re-signing so it’s special for me. But right now it’s one game at a time.”

Johnson was born in Orlando, Florida and then attended Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio, where the family settled. He credits his grandmother for getting him into the sport of basketball.

“My great grandmother started watching games with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and she said that Reggie Miller was my twin brother, which I believed. So I stuck with it.

As for role models growing up, his mother was the person he looked up to while he also had some NBA players that he enjoyed following.

“My mom was my role model although I didn’t understand what a role model really was until I got older. Another player I really liked was KG [Kevin Garnett] and I wore 21 earlier in my career. His mentality, rebounding and toughness spoke to me.”

When it was time to head to university, Johnson decided to stay close to home and attended the University of Dayton, where he featured or the Flyers.

“I was in Columbus and it was close to home. They cared for me and that was my first and only college recruitment visit. Coach said he would be here for me as a person and not just a player. He was on me to stay focused on my books as well.”

As a freshman with Dayton, Johnson had the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, which ended up being his only chance to do so, however he did capture the NIT championship, which is the competition that features some of the top teams which did not advance to the “Big Dance.”

“The whole experience was great and the four years in college really helped me mature and find my personality as to who I am. I thought we should have also made the tourney my sophomore year, but we won the NIT.”

Following his time in college – where he averaged roughly 11 points and six rebounds a game – Johnson went undrafted but joined a G-League team. He ultimately found his way to the NBA, where he played for five different teams including the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics for a total of 147 games in the world’s top league.

While Johnson spent parts of five different seasons in the NBA he was able to pick up some of the tricks of the trade as to how to be the best professional as possible.

“How to carry yourself and how you represent yourself. I see that now because when you are playing in the NBA, you’re in the moment. The other thing is saving financially and making sure to have an advisor to help you do so.

“I saw how people were taking care of their bodies. I was very observant when I was in the NBA and liked what Trevor Booker did and noticed that anytime we would travel he was always in a business suit and reading a book. Now that makes sense to see where he is today.”

After his time in the NBA, a stop in France was followed by one at Hapoel Jerusalem where he was a key member of the team which won the Israel State Cup but missed out due to an injury, “It was tough and that was the first time in my career when I had a serious injury. I wasn’t myself and who I was before and it took time to get back to where I was. But I believe that everything happens for a reason.”

One of Johnson’s characteristics is that he is known to be a player who gives everything he has all of the time no matter if it’s during a game or practice. His tenacity is second to none and can’t be matched by anyone in the league today as he is also one of the top defenders, something he takes great pride in.

“I think practice is much harder than the game and if you practice hard you will get good results in the game. I want to compete and push myself and my teammates to be better. I have a motor and even if something happens and we lose the ball I can change a possession and find something else to do and just not give up. When we turn the ball over, we can block a shot or change the shot. My coach got on me in college and I was terrible on defense. The game was so much faster from high school and I learned what to do and battle with tenacity.”

Last season, Johnson and Holon made it to the Last-8 of the Champions League, but were overwhelmed by the eventual champion San Pablo Burgos in their quarterfinal matchup. Then, during the Israeli league playoffs he suffered a concussion as the team fell to Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in the semifinals.

“I felt sick to my stomach and I played terribly against Burgos in the Last-8 and then I had the concussion, which wasn’t in my control. But I knew I would be back this season and I wanted to be patient and win a campaign.”

As Holon now puts its full focus on Tenerife, Johnson is excited to get going and knows what the team will need to do to take home the title.

“It’s March Madness in May. We are good and they are good and it’s the Final Four, so we will do whatever it takes for 40 minutes. We want to leave everything on the floor and we have to emotionally control ourselves and play hard. I am not going there to go on vacation, so that's the plan.”