From goofball to NBA prospect, Dakari Johnson is ready for the next level
After a day touring the Young and Reckless Clothing headquarters and the Call of Duty studios amidst a grueling pre-draft process in downtown Los Angeles, Dakari Johnson, along with D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker and a representative from the players’ agency, CAA, drove east down the Santa Monica Freeway to the King Taco on Pico Boulevard, just around the corner from the STAPLES Center.
In between bites of Mexican food, Johnson noticed his iPhone screen repeatedly fading to black and shutting off, only to come back to life a moment later. With each death and resurrection of his phone, Johnson’s patience wavered and Russell and Booker’s laughter escalated.
At first, the two lottery-bound guards convinced Johnson they had hacked into his cellphone, but at last relented. Johnson had been the latest victim of the glitch within Apple's newest iOS software that allows users to send a specific string of characters through text messaging and remotely shut down another iPhone.
“It was actually a good day until we got to dinner and they were being childish,” Johnson jokingly told SI.com.
Johnson has been on the receiving end of pranks throughout his basketball career. A high-school teammate once called him from a private number, coaxing Johnson to believe he was responsible for a several-hundred-dollar pizza bill. On road trips with his New York Gauchos AAU squad, his teammates would often smear Johnson’s face with gobs of toothpaste, body lotion and shaving cream while he dozed.
“We’d prank him because he would go to sleep first,” said Dayton guard Scoochie Smith, a former Gauchos teammate. Johnson was always unable to find the culprit and never managed to return the favor.
“Now I’m too wise and clever to fall for those shenanigans,” he said.
Johnson’s an easy target. He's an affable self-proclaimed goofball with a comical personality as large as his 7’0, 265-pound frame. “He finds joy in a lot of things, which is a good way to look at the world,” said his mother, Makini Campbell. “He’s always keeping people laughing and not taking everything so seriously.”
Johnson’s humor proved essential during Kentucky’s back-to-back Final Four runs. He and current Los Angeles Laker Julius Randle created homemade music videos prior to their freshmen campaign. During the team’s preseason trip to the Bahamas last fall, Johnson notoriously bumped his noggin on an exit sign in the hotel hallway. “It was kind of early in the morning,” he said. “I guess that woke me up a little bit.”
Amidst the pressure to run the table, “he kept things loose in the locker room and with his teammates,” said Barry Rohrssen, a former Kentucky assistant now at St. John’s. Yet there are two distinct sides of Johnson: The goofy comedian and the business-like big man, patrolling the paint on both sides of the floor.
“When we get in between those lines,” Johnson said, “we don’t joke around.”
Makini Campbell gave birth to her eldest son just as her collegiate basketball career at Long Island University ended. She named him “Dakari,” Swahili for “he who brings joy to others.”
“The meaning definitely had a lot to do with where I was and what I was bringing forth into the world,” Campbell said. Two years before the WNBA’s inception, Campbell had no interest in playing professionally overseas and always foresaw a career in education.
Campbell strove to introduce her son to the world’s cultures, embracing their family’s roots from all over the globe. She visited her relatives in Ghana while Johnson was a toddler, and she has family in Granada, Barbados and scattered all across South America. “He went to a lot of schools that focused on project-based, applied learning, so he was just exposed to a bunch of different cultures,” Campbell said. “He’s lived in a very diverse world from lower school on, so he understands being just in a broader perspective.”
Johnson’s wider exposure allowed him to relate to every other child he came across, from his New York Gauchos teammates to the Asian exchange students at Montverde Academy in Central Florida. Johnson first arrived at a Gauchos practice when he was seven. “I remembered the first time I ever met him,” said Manhattan guard Tyler Wilson, a former Gauchos teammate. “He talked so much trash and then when he lost he was crying. It showed how much he loved it.”
Johnson quickly grew comfortable in the Gauchos program, dancing in layup lines and cracking up his teammates. For a pre-teen, he possessed a rare gift for inducing laughter while also commanding the respect of his peers. “It was something," said Tommy Swinton, Johnson’s Gauchos coach. "They always had respect for him and he was always their big man regardless."
The big man quickly sprouted north of 6'0", frequently bonking his head on doorframes. On sleepover road trips, which always began with Johnson demanding the entire back row of the team van so he could stretch his lanky legs, he provided endless comedy to his teammates and coaches. “When he swam, he was just a big kid flopping around the pool,” Swinton said through laughter. “All the kids would jump in the pool and then here comes big Dakari jumping in. The kid was just hilarious.”
Campbell also heavily influenced Johnson’s music taste. Her father is a longtime owner of a Jazz lounge in Brooklyn. She blasted country music while she cleaned the house and boomed old school hip-hop and R&B. “Just a wide variety,” Campbell said. “To keep him looking at the world with a broader sense.” Johnson plays, and loses, "Words with Friends" with his grandmother Aminisha. He enjoys attending Bill Bellamy stand-up sets just as much as Drake concerts. He watches The Blacklist, The 100, Empire and Prison Break on his Netflix and Amazon accounts.
“A lot of people could change when they start to get known,” said Jason Wright, Johnson’s childhood friend. “He hasn’t switched up at all. He’s a real genuine person.”
Hours after the Orlando Magic selected Shaquille O’Neal with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft, Makini Campbell and the rest of her LIU teammates found themselves at O’Neal’s draft party in Manhattan. She followed O’Neal throughout his career and urged Johnson to watch the early-2000s Lakers games. Knowing her son would likely eventually stand amongst the trees, Campbell hoped Johnson would soak in O’Neal’s passion for life, rather than shy away from his own enormous stature.
Campbell followed David Robinson’s career closely as well, tuning in to The Admiral and Tim Duncan’s championship runs with the Spurs. “My mom, she always was watching basketball,” Johnson said. If her son learned anything from those Lakers and Spurs teams, it was winning. Johnson won a national championship alongside Russell and Kasey Hill under head coach Kevin Boyle at Montverde. When he wasn’t beating the exchange students half his size in ping pong games to 21, Johnson was transforming into one of the nation’s top recruits.
The winning continued at Kentucky, with both his seasons under Coach Calipari not ending until after Final Four appearances. “Their lives look very glamorous on TV, but behind the scenes they dedicate a lot of time to their craft,” Campbell said. Johnson uses his mother’s help to flip the switch from class clown to professional, bumping a playlist dubbed “Old School,” during his pregame routine. The lyrics and tunes of Outkast, Aaliyah, R-Kelly, Tupac and Ice Cube flood his eardrums while he dresses in the locker room. “That slows my mind down and gets me ready to focus,” Johnson said.
Throughout Calipari’s six-year tenure at Kentucky, only one player has been officially listed on the team’s roster as a center. Not Anthony Davis. Not even DeMarcus Cousins. It’s Dakari Johnson. “That’s my game,” he said. “I’m a banger. I like physical play. I just like competing overall.” Johnson’s competitive streak will help his transition to the NBA. Projected to be drafted anywhere from the late first round into the early second, Johnson’s most translatable skill will likely be his rebounding.
He’ll also be able to fit in seamlessly within any locker room. There may not be another player in NBA history better prepared for rookie hazing. After all, it takes a thick skin to boast Johnson’s simultaneous confidence and humbled self-awareness.
“Dakari is a big guy with a big personality and a bigger smile,” Rohrssen said. “When he lets that smile out, it just makes everyone feel better.”