FOR just about everybody, suiting up in the PBA is the pinnacle - the realization of a dream.
For retired Fil-Am guard Rob Johnson, it was a humbling experience.
The former Barangay Ginebra player admitted his expectations were so high the moment he was tabbed by the franchise in the 2003 rookie draft. Here he was - a rising, explosive guard, who had a decent showing as an amateur and was now about to play for the league’s most popular ballclub.
“You know how it was when I first came out. I mean I have a lot of great dreams and aspirations,” he told SPIN.ph, recalling his first season in Asia’s first ever play-for-pay league.
“I thought I was going to be the next Johnny Abarrientos. I thought I was going to be the next great, and obviously I thought I was a lot better than I really was.”
But things didn’t turn out the way Johnson envisioned it.
At the time, the Kings were loaded at the backcourt, where he has to compete for playing minutes against the likes of Mark Caguioa, Bal David, Aries Dimaunahan, and even Elmer Lago. Another marquee playmaker, JayJay Helterbrand, left for the U.S. back then after failing to come to terms with the team for a new contract.
All that was left for Johnson was ‘garbage time.’
And for someone with high expectations, sitting on the bench for most of the time was certainly a letdown.
“I’ve been used to being and playing with the best, I’ve been used to playing a lot. I was always the captain of the team,” he stressed.
His stint with Ginebra lasted just a season. He got a new lease on his career after hooking up with Purefoods, and later with Alaska, but it was more of the same.
It was then that reality dawned upon him.
“It probably was the most humbling years really in my life,” admitted Johnson, now based in the US with Filipina wife Samantha but in the country a few weeks ago to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.
“It was the most humbling years because I was a backup, didn’t really get to play very much,” he stressed.
But at the same time, Rob thanked God for allowing him to go through that path, which he said made him change what he termed as his ‘mayabang mindset.’
“I think as far as humbling me and giving me a perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t go through those things,” stressed Johnson. “I was able to learn a lot, definitely a learning experience for me.”
Back in his hometown of Nebraska, Johnson, 37, is now a pastor at Bridge Church Northwest, and director of Better Together Basketball at ABIDE, an Omaha faith-based, non-profit organization.
A product of Bellevue University, he studied ministry/cross-cultural missions at Every Nation Leadership Institute/Asian Theological Seminary.
“I wish I could have done more for basketball. I think I have some potential, but I also think that I have a lot of growing up that I needed to do. And a lot of it was my mindset,” he said of his transformation.
Looking back at his short-lived PBA career, Johnson considered his winning the Obstacle Challenge back-to-back during the All-Star weekend as the most memorable part.
“That was fun,” he said of the experience in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Johnson never got the chance to reach the playoffs during the time he played in the league, the closest he got to winning a championship was in his final season with Alaska.
“Good friend Dickie Simpkins (Alaska import and former member of the Chicago Bulls), we had a chance at Alaska to win,” he recalled. “But then Bryan Gahol (Red Bull) hit a buzzer-beater against us. That’s a heartbreaker.”
Johnson, who counts Alaska coach Alex Compton as one of his closest friends in the league, knew he won’t be back for Alaska – and the PBA – the next season as the league adopted a new rule of just allowing five Fil-Ams per team.
“I know I wasn’t (coming back),” he said. “I have a great relationship with the Alaska organization, but they have so many great players on the team.”
The funny thing, all of the three teams he played for won a championship by the time he left them: Ginebra twice during the 2004-05 transition season, Purefoods in the 2005-06 Philippine Cup, and Alaska in the 2006-07 Fiesta Conference.
“It’s interesting that every team I played for, the year after I left, they won the championship,” said Johnson laughing. “That basically sums up my career.”