Spending parts of six seasons with the Austin Toros, Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson is one of the longest-tenured players in the NBA D-League's 14-year history. While his NBA experience is not as lengthy, the trip that he took to even get to the point that he's at now is astounding.
The amount of adversity that he faced along the way is also incredible and really a testament to what he is capable of. In an interview with RidiculousUpside.com, Johnson noted that his start in the game was as a distraction, more than anything.
"I was introduced to basketball as a kid when my father built a basketball court in front of our house to keep us out of trouble because he loved sports and saw it as a way for us to avoid doing some of the things that other kids in my neighborhood were getting into," Johnson said.
It was after a few years of playing basketball that his unique nickname took off, too.
"I got the name after the character ‘Squiggy' from the show Laverne and Shirley. Eventually that caught on and one day my coach called me Squeaky, because he said I stole the ball squeaky clean," he said.
Throughout his childhood his father, the man who got him started in the game, was always someone that he looked up to. A basketball player himself, Lonnie Johnson was the perfect role model for Squeaky.
"My parents were definitely my role models. My dad, for sure, because I watched him play basketball in a midnight league and he was really good, so I wanted to be like him. He was always around for my games and that really meant a lot to me."
Though he had the game of basketball to fall back on, Johnson's personal life was chaotic all throughout his childhood. The child of divorced parents; he was forced into adjusting to occasionally chaotic living arrangements.
"My biggest challenge growing up would probably be living in a two different households since my parents weren't together. When I lived with my dad it was a stable environment, but when I lived with my mom it was chaotic. My mom had a bunch of brothers and they all sold drugs so I was always around drugs and violence as a kid."
After averaging 12 points and 10 assists per game for Marion Abramson High School in New Orleans, Johnson made the choice to travel across the country and play for Salt Lake Community College in Utah, which again wound up to be a challenge.
"I didn't qualify to go to any Division 1 schools right out of high school and Salt Lake Community College was one of the only schools that would offer me a scholarship. When I got there I made the most of my situation, but I was really homesick and really struggling. I ended up sticking out the whole year though, which was a pretty big deal for me at the time."
It was a tough experience overall, but it was one that Johnson believed helped him grow as a person, as he was yet again forced to adjust to a new environment.
He missed home throughout the season, but that didn't stop him from playing well on the court. With averages of 8 points and 8 assists per game, he garnered some interest from Division 1 schools.It was on a visit with his former teammate that he made the decision to play around five hours away from home at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
He was the catalyst to an offense that was one of the better ones in the country and found himself leading the NCAA in assist-to-turnover ratio at the conclusion of his sophomore year. He went into the NCAA Tournament with tempered expectations, but once he stepped on the court for the first time he was blown away.
"It was 100 times more hyped up compared to the regular season. Cameras were everywhere and it seemed like all eyes were on you, so it was a big deal," he revealed. "Going into that first tournament, I was upset because I wanted to go home for spring break and see my family, but instead I had to go play more games. I didn't think it was going to be anything special, but it was just crazy and an incredible experience."
While the team was never able to top the Sweet Sixteen run of Johnson's sophomore year, they were able to return to the NCAA Tournament for the following two seasons, the longest streak that they had put together in nearly twenty years. Known as the leader of an offense that was consistently ranked at least amongst the top quarter of teams in the NCAA and a nominee for the Bob Cousy Award (given annually to the nation's top point guard), Johnson had aspirations to play professionally after he had ended his time at UAB.
He went undrafted in the 2006 NBA Draft, but was selected into the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. He considered the offer, but wanted to finish his degree at UAB before pursuing his career. That plan changed, however, with one quick phone call from his agent.
"It was great to get picked into the CBA, but I had made the decision to go finish my degree at UAB. My agent called me with a contract from a Belgium team though and said that I only had 48 hours to decide," Johnson continued. "I talked it over with my family and eventually decided that basketball was what I wanted to do."
While it was essentially a different world for Johnson in Belgium, it forced him to mature quickly both on and off of the court.
Though he enjoyed his experience in Belgium, he knew that his ultimate goal was still to play in the NBA. With that in mind, his excitement was through the roof when the Austin Toros drafted him in the second round of the D-League draft.
"I was really excited because the team in Austin was two hours away from Houston, which was where my mother moved after Hurricane Katrina. The opportunity to play anywhere in the D-League was really exciting, but it was great that I was going to be so close to family," Johnson said.
After a couple of years in Austin, as well as a couple of stops in Mexico, Johnson was invited to play with the San Antonio Spurs in the 2009 Summer League, an experience that he'll never forget. He wasn't able to make the regular season roster neither that season, nor the next when he also played with the Spurs during the summer, but his big break eventually came.
On December 9, 2011, just days after the D-League season kicked off, Johnson received a call from his hometown New Orleans Hornets. With a 10-day contract in hand, he was finally going to achieve the goal he had been working towards his entire life.
After making it out of a tough neighborhood, dealing with the loss of his father, adjusting to difficult situation after difficult situation, Johnson took the court for the Hornets on the day after Christmas in Phoenix. Two days later, he made his home debut.
He went on to play a total of 15 games for the Hornets and although he maintained a 3.19 assist-to-turnover ratio that would have ranked him 3rd amongst NBA starters this past season, he was waived.
"I had mixed emotions about it. I was upset, but I was excited for the opportunity that they gave me. Whether it was just a couple of minutes each night or 20 minutes, I got my chance and I was just grateful for the opportunity that the organization had given me," the vet said.
Being waived was a bit of a let down, but turned it into motivation and went back to the Toros for the remainder of the season. Any disappoint he had regarding being waived was cleared at the end of the season however, as the Toros were able to capture the D-League Championship.
After playing for the Toros in 2013-2014, Johnson headed to Venezuela, a place that he considered the worst place that he has ever played in.
"In Venezuela, I was dealing with things on the court and off. The poverty over there and I needed to be aware of my surroundings wherever I went," he said when discussing the new adventure. "I would probably say that the worst place I played was in Venezuela, because I got robbed at gunpoint coming out of a movie theatre while I was over there; they took all of my money and it really just couldn't have went worse there."
His experience in Venezuela was not one that he wanted to repeat, so he moved on to Mongolia last year and had another solid run.
His plans for next season are still up in the air, but he hopes to eventually work his way onto the sidelines.
"I don't know what I'll be doing yet, but I think I want to go back to the D-League and kind of work my way into coaching. I see myself playing to build a relationship with a team that could lead my way into coaching," Johnson confessed. "I think I could be a good player development type of guy; especially guys like me that needed to learn the transition game and how to finish at the rim, which is stuff that they don't really coach in college."
In addition to playing, Johnson also plans to finish his degree at UAB this year and he has also released a book titled "My Faith Kept Me Going".
While he has fulfilled his dream of playing in the NBA, Johnson believes that he can pass on the experience that he's gained over the years to the younger players of both the NBA and the D-League. After experiencing the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, Squeaky Johnson can say that he's truly lived it all.