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Raptors F Johnson has embraced Toronto like no other athlete

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The Canadian Press
10/3/2013 6:22:35 PM
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TORONTO -- Amir Johnson has had his own float in Caribana and been to the city's annual all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche. He's hired a professional makeup artist before lurching down Yonge Street among the undead as part of Zombie Walk.

Last season, he shaved a huge red Raptors claw into his hair. And last week, he bought out two stores of Drake's new album "Nothing Was the Same," and then handed the CDs out free to fans.

Next on his Toronto to-do list -- if his contract permits -- is the CN Tower EdgeWalk.

Four years into his tenure in Toronto, the Raptors forward has embraced his adopted city perhaps unlike any other professional athlete.

"Toronto is part of me," Johnson said at training camp Thursday at the Air Canada Centre. "I've been around, the people are very kind, I love it here."

Johnson, who arrived in a trade in the summer of 2009 after four seasons spent in Detroit, said he fell in love with Toronto virtually upon arrival.

"I walked around downtown a little bit, and I got kind of a humble feeling, everybody was so polite and so cool. That's when I first started loving Toronto," said the 26-year-old.

Late last season he held his third annual "Roll with Amir" night out, hosting 100 fans at a Raptors game and then treating them to dinner. He posed for pictures with each and every fan, and posted the fan photos on his various social media channels.

What's impressive is that Johnson's random acts of kindness are exactly that -- umprompted by the team or his agent.

"Everything I do is just off the top of the head, it's just genuine pretty much," Johnson said. "I don't really plan anything or call anybody. I just wake up in the morning, and say, OK, I'm going to do this. That's how I do everything."

That's how the Drake album giveaway came about.

"It was a pretty big crowd man, I didn't think it was going to be a lot of people but I tweeted it out as soon as I got (to the first store), and by the time I got done buying the CDs it was a whole crowd," said Johnson, who handed out the CDs at Toronto's busy Yonge-Dundas Square. "Everybody was so cool, so I just told everybody to line up on the side, and they did. It could have got out of hand, but everybody was so cool about it. It was just fun."

Drake, who is friends with Johnson, learned about the gesture after the fact, and told reporters earlier this week at a news conference to announce he was the Raptors' new global ambassador that Johnson "is just a great guy."

Johnson also threw out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game, and has become a big hockey fan since he attended his first Maple Leafs game.

There were more than a few raised eyebrows, however, when the Raptors signed Johnson to a five-year contract extension worth US$34 million in 2010. Critics called him overrated. They said he wasn't worth nearly that much.

But in the couple of seasons since, the six-foot-nine forward, who will earn $6.5 million this season, has endeared himself to fans. His hustle and work ethic are enviable, his pain threshold is a thing of wonder.

Johnson rolled his ankle numerous times last season -- one particular photo captured his ankle mid-roll, his foot jutting out to nearly a 90 degree ankle from his leg. But a quick retape from the trainers and he's usually right back on the court.

He missed one game all season, and it wasn't for injury, but a one-game suspension.

He finished the year with career highs in points, averaging 10 a night, rebounds (7.5), assists (1.5), steals (1.0), blocks (1.4) and minutes (28.7).

The Raptors are returning to a defensive focus this season, after coach Dwane Casey said the pendulum swung too far in the offensive direction last season.

"We know we have to pick it up, we know where we ranked last year," said Johnson, the Raptors' defensive cornerstone. "The main thing is after a shot everybody has to run back on defence, and we've been doing that since Day 1 (of camp). Even if we're not playing against each other, when we shoot a shot we have to run back and touch halfcourt, so they've been stressing get back after the shot."

Johnson arrived at camp after a summer that included a vacation in Thailand. He posed for pictures with a tiger and joined a group of other tourists in playing tug of war with an elephant (the elephant won).

"I've been a lot of places, I love to travel, I love to try stuff different," Johnson said. "I want to see the world, so I'm going to keep on experiencing different stuff."

But the Raptors big man, who keeps his Toronto condo through the off-season, said he could see himself settling down in the city once his career comes to an end.

"I'll definitely consider living here," Johnson said. "I love it out here."

Amir Johnson (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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