On the face of it, the story of Dakari Johnson — a 22-year-old backup center for the Oklahoma City Thunder — is familiar. He’s an anonymous rookie, fighting for minutes, hoping to plant the roots of a long career. When his chances have come, he has seized them.
With center Steven Adams out with a contusion to his right calf on Nov. 10, Johnson got his first N.B.A. start. Late in the game, against the Los Angeles Clippers, Johnson made a crucial jump shot, then took the opportunity to blow kisses to the sky. “His swag,” the Thunder star Paul George said after the game, “is at an all-time high.”
But since then, with Adams mostly healthy, Johnson has racked up as many D.N.P.s as meaningful minutes. From his seat on the bench, then, he seemingly represents potential yet unfulfilled. But it’s not that straightforward. Johnson comes from a long, boisterous line of activist-minded Brooklyn-bred ballers with nicknames like Slomotion. Behind that little-known rookie bench player is a true family saga — and the fulfilled dreams of generations.
“A lot of my past teammates have people in their family who play,” Johnson said. “But my family, it’s high school, pro-am, college, uncles, aunts, cousins, daughters. Everything revolves around basketball.”
Now, it revolves around the N.B.A., too. As Johnson’s cousin Clarence Fruster put it, “We feel like we fiiiinaly got one.”
They are not the Mannings, not a gilded lineage whose professional successes feel preordained. This family is scrappier, woolier — more New York.
It begins with the patriarch, Jitu Weusi, a basketball and community legend from Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was a fearless and hyperactive educational activist who founded Uhuru Sasa Shule, one of New York City’s first black private schools, and co-founded the East, a cultural center and jazz venue.
“Hard-core progressive institutionalism,” Fruster called it. “This was organized, intentional, systemic. He was doing it in such a way that racists could not even bother him. He was the guy you cannot arrest.”
Born Leslie R. Campbell, Weusi — a 6-foot-10 center — played on scholarship at Long Island University. He wore No. 44, the same one Johnson wears now. He was also the father to eight children and stepfather to two more. One of those was Keith Fruster, Clarence’s father. Weusi renamed him Pamoja, Swahili for “togetherness.” In the Cage — the cramped basketball courts at West Fourth Street — they called him something else.
“He was 6-5, slender, muscular, could definitely finish above the rim,” Clarence Fruster said of his father, who died when Clarence was young. “When he was coming through, you got out the way. He’d part the lanes.”
That’s why they called him Moses.
While Weusi was busy consulting with activists and politicians, like Al Sharpton and David N. Dinkins, the former mayor, it was up to Pamoja to pass the game on to his brothers and sisters. He would sign them up for three-on-three tournaments, cajole them on weekend mornings to run laps around the high school track and have them practice layups for hours at a time.
Johnson would indeed be on the Thunder’s 2017-18 opening day roster in October. And a month later, he landed that first N.B.A. start against the Clippers. “I’m at the animal hospital with his dog who’s about to have surgery for eating a corn cob,” his mother recalled. “We’re making decisions. I’m texting him. He says: ‘Mom, I can’t talk right now. I have media.’ I’m like: ‘Media? Boy, what do you have media for? You lucky you get in!’ Then I find out, oh my gosh, he might start tonight!”
In Johnson’s telling, everyone had a part in helping him develop. “My uncles, they’d beat up on me,” he said. “That created the love because I wanted to compete. From my mom, what I learned was patience.” Around his sophomore year, he said, everyone “started faking injuries, started coming up with excuses” to get out of playing against him.
He also had his “big cousin,” Michael Murray, to fend off. Murray played at Coppin State and now plays professionally in Spain. “He’s the one I was honestly trying to catch up to my whole life,” Johnson said.
Weusi died while Johnson was at Kentucky. The funeral was held in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the overflow poured onto the streets. Amiri Baraka, the poet and playwright, attended. Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist, played. John Calipari, Johnson’s coach, was there. “My dad would be over the moon knowing Dakari is playing in the N.B.A.,” Nandi Campbell, one of Weusi’s eight children, said. “I can see him walking down the street telling everybody. Even strangers.”
Johnson has yet to crack the Thunder rotation and play regular, significant minutes. His big goals remain unfulfilled. His presence in the league is, for his family, a wonder. But they know there will be more hard work to come.
“It has been generations of cultivating skills,” Kojo Campbell said. “But it’s not, ‘Oh, we needed somebody in the N.B.A. — we can breathe easy now.’ The legacy of this family is about being able to validate ourselves. It’s the focus on the process. It’s: ‘You know what? We can do this ourselves.’