From comic relief to Comedy Central: Ex-UCLA hoopsters find niche with animated TV series
- Two former UCLA basketball benchwarmers, Josiah Johnson and Quinn Hawking, are co-creators, executive producers, writers and voice-talents of Comedy Central's upcoming animated series, "Legends of Chamberlain Heights."
UCLA basketball benchwarmers Josiah Johnson and Quinn Hawking didn't think they'd sub in. It was way, way too early, as 15 minutes remained in the 2003 game against powerhouse Arizona, whose lead ballooned to 20. Rarely rising from the bench, Johnson and Hawking usually shimmied, swayed and stomped for teammates like future NBA players Matt Barnes, Trevor Ariza and Jason Kapono. They discovered the best camera angles in timeout huddles in hopes of appearing on TV after the commercial break.
"They called themselves 'The S--- Crew,'" said Brian Morrison, who played for the Bruins from 2002–05. "They entertained everybody."
Shortly after entering the Arizona game, Johnson almost got dunked on by future NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. "I remember seeing my life flash before my eyes," Johnson said. Hawking, too, tried to defend Iguodala. "Please don't drive to the hoop," Hawking prayed.
Finding humor at the end of the bench, Johnson, 34, and Hawking, 33, have turned splinters into punchlines, becoming co-creators, executive producers, writers and voice-talents of Comedy Central's upcoming animated series, "Legends of Chamberlain Heights," set to premier Sept. 14 after South Park. The show, which features animation by The Simpsons' Brad Ableson, follows three high-school freshmen, Jamal, Grover and Milk, who are benchwarmers with big dreams.
Believing glory is just a three-pointer away, the trio of misfits try to overcome daily obstacles to live up to the legends they think they are, even if few share their vision.
"At some point in your life, no matter who you are, you're going to find yourself on the end of the bench. It's what you do from that point that really defines you and determines the rest of your life," Johnson said. "We were benchwarmers but we didn't necessarily feel bad or look down on ourselves. We tried to make ourselves legends however we could."
Johnson oozed cool. Hawking first spotted him at a UCLA party in the fall of 2001. "Jo had a 40," said Hawking, whose bleached, spiked-hair and long board and puka-shell necklace made him look more like a skateboarder than a ballplayer. The two became inseparable, partnering for practice drills, roasting each other with below-the-belt jokes, courting cheerleaders and navigating the best Thursday-night parties, since the odds of suiting up the next night were slim.
Hoops ran through their blood. Johnson's father, Marques, was a five-time NBA All-Star and a member of UCLA's 1975 championship squad. Johnson's brother, Kris, helped the Bruins claim a national crown in '95. Hawking's father, Bob, coached the Bruins' all-time leading scorer Don MacLean at Simi Valley High and also coached at Cal State Fullerton. UCLA was a natural choice for both. Well, maybe not for Hawking. "I didn't really f--- with them too much because they wore Reeboks," Hawking said.
During their UCLA careers, Johnson, a 6' 8" forward, averaged 1.3 points and 1.6 rebounds from 2001–05 while Hawking, a 6' 3" sharpshooter, attempted six total shots, converting a three and a free-throw from 2002-05 (he redshirted his freshman season).
But they puffed their chests out like legends in practice, preparing starters for games on the scout team. The real objective? Humiliate the big-timers, like the time Johnson drained eight treys. "It was the greatest shooting day of my life," Johnson said. "The starters were getting f------ pissed at me: 'Stop being a f------ hero.'"
Hawking once played 40 minutes in a practice scrimmage, tying Kapono as the leading scorer; he saved the stat sheet. They became the hustle guys, the cheer-so-loud-you-lose-your-voice guys, the give-you-a-pat-on-the-butt-when-coach-is-dogging-you guys.
"There's energy givers and there's energy takers," said former UCLA coach Steve Lavin. "Quinn and Josiah were clearly energy givers. They weren't sulking or pouting or in the woe-is-me mindset because they weren't playing."
When the NBA didn't call upon graduation in 2005, yet again they found themselves at the bottom of the food chain. Hawking acted as an extra in Will Ferrell's "Semi-Pro." And Johnson? "I initially flirted with a career in plus-size underwear modeling," he joked.
Working as production assistants at Fox Sports and moving on to the NFL Network to produce elements for the Thursday Night Football pregame show, the pair created the humorous sports blog "Jersey Chaser," interviewing players and creating parody videos. Johnson had to stack two cameras in front of DVDs because he didn't have a tripod. Hawking's dog could be heard breathing in the background. But they kept grinding, teaching themselves to shoot, edit and produce segments.
Then, a breakthrough: their Kobe and Lebron puppet parody video went viral in 2009, eventually amassing over 575,000 views on YouTube. They fielded calls from top producers, eventually leading to the inception of Legends in fall 2009.
"Legends" borrows a phrase that UCLA ballplayers used to greet each other: "What's up, legend?" "Chamberlain Heights" pays homage to Wilt Chamberlain.
"You make it funny by making the players benchwarmers, because there's just something that people can relate to ... These guys are on the end of the bench but they think that they're the star players, they think they're legends. That's kind of how Jo and I were," Hawking said.
"We were on the end of the bench but we weren't quiet, timid, ashamed that we're on the end of the bench," Hawking said. "We were just like, 'Fuck it, yeah, that's what we are, and you'll see us at the party tonight.'"
The show's main characters, Jamal, Grover and Milk, are a blend of Johnson and Hawking's personalities and experiences. Take a scene from the original pilot "Jamallies" (which will air in the show's first season), inspired by a real-life conversation at UCLA. Warming the bench, the trio contemplates the inevitable: "Are we supposed to shower with the team after the game? We didn't get in ... We're not sweating..."
Jamal is the brains of the operation and thinks outside the box. Though he is the least talented player, and his occasional tank-top "Chub Life" hardly covers his belly, he thinks he's the sexiest. Grover has the potential to be the next LeBron. He aims to follow in his older brother's footsteps, the best player in school history, but struggles with staying focused on the prize in hanging with Milk and Jamal.
Milk is based on Johnson's former AAU teammate, David Meriwether, who was a white player on the Crenshaw High varsity team who was given that nickname. It's also based on the term "Milk Chicken," which, per urbandictionary.com, means: "Wannabe. Vanilla Ice was the OMC (Original Milk Chicken)." Milk has watched too much of "Menace II Society" and is a walking contradiction.
"It was very brave, it was very honest," said Legends co-executive producer Carl Jones. "Any show that's brave enough to address a lot of tackled topics and have characters actually talk like real kids talk today, regardless of how it could be perceived politically ... it was pretty daring."
The bench is just the starting point for the characters. From the parties, to the classroom and to the rougher side of town where the freshest kicks await, the trio refuses to surrender their dreams of becoming legendary. Johnson and Hawking's own pursuit of legendary status is never-ending, even as they've secured a second season of Legends before a single episode has even aired.
They continue to come to the studio to do voice-overs for the three characters with the same intensity they brought to UCLA practices—arriving early, staying late, coming for the big names.
They've got one more legend to live up to.
"We want to be LeBron of the entertainment industry," Johnson said.
"When LeBron won his first ring, he didn't say, 'That's enough.' LeBron won a second ring, he didn't say, 'That's enough.' When he was down 3–1 this year, it wasn't like, 'F---, let me just throw in the towel because the odds seemed insurmountable,'" Johnson said. "No, he got back up there and f------ busted the Warriors' ass. That's what we're trying to do."