Meet Josiah Johnson, former UCLA player turned NBA meme king

Slouched deep into one corner of a velvety couch in his spare bedroom, bare feet propped on a matching ottoman, Josiah Johnson is searching for his big moment, like a point guard probing a defense.

His gameday attire includes a faded Seattle SuperSonics T-shirt. His laptop rests comfortably on his thighs, iPhone clutched in his right hand. His more than 246,000 Twitter followers are waiting.

The possibilities unfurl on a large flat-screen television in the opener of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals. Maybe he’ll tweet about a celebrity in the crowd doing something funny. If Jayson Tatum continues to pile up points, maybe the Boston Celtics scorer also will star on Johnson’s timeline.

Having played for UCLA in the early 2000s when the retired John Wooden would watch practices, kidding the benchwarmer about dribbling two balls as part of an ambidexterity drill when he could play with only one, Johnson has learned to be quick but never hurry.

Finally, as the crowd roars after Miami overtakes the Celtics with a massive third-quarter run, Johnson’s got it.

He posts an image of white nationalists hoisting tiki torches during their notorious 2017 march on the University of Virginia. Caption: “Celtics fans right now.”

Johnson’s laugh fills the room in his Woodland Hills home. He knows the racial overtones that will roil some in Boston will delight plenty of others in the NBA Twitter community.

Like a politician on election night, Johnson waits for the results to roll in. Twenty-six comments materialize in less than a minute, the bulk of them laughing along with the joke. The king of #NBATwitter has done it again. Checking what amounts to a scoreboard on his phone, Johnson is pleased.

“It’s like a drug,” Johnson says of single tweets that have generated as many as 21 million impressions. “It’s a great, refreshing feeling to know that something that was in your brain — that didn’t exist previously, that you put out — just takes off and skyrockets. But it’s also a drug where, if you do it enough, it becomes less and less powerful and now I’m constantly chasing that fix again; I want to get that next thing.”

He never refers to himself as a king, except in one of his countless jokes.

His Twitter handle, @KingJosiah54, melded his love of Lakers superstar LeBron James — known as King James — and the boy king Josiah from the Bible, as well as the No. 54 that’s synonymous with the Johnson family.

Among his many projects, Johnson has spawned an animated show for Comedy Central inspired by his underwhelming basketball career, hosted NBA podcasts and written for the Netflix series “Colin in Black & White” that depicted the fraught rise of NFL star turned social justice crusader Colin Kaepernick.

His sensibilities lean heavily toward the culture that infused his youth. Click on his timeline and you might find clips from John Singleton movies or comedy skits from the Wayans family, which Johnson knows personally as a former junior high classmate of Damon Wayans Jr.

Mostly, he’s having fun.

Josiah Johnson’s dining room or office will be his studio for the podcast, “No Chill with Gilbert Arenas.”

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this year, after Phoenix guard Devin Booker complained about the Toronto Raptors mascot distracting him during free throws, Johnson tweeted a “Jurassic Park” clip of a velociraptor menacingly breathing on a window.

His caption: “The Raptor outside the Suns locker room waiting for Devin Booker.”

Johnson’s appeal isn’t confined to the NBA community. He gained tens of thousands of followers during the 2020 presidential election with clever memes, including one of Chris Webber’s infamous championship-game timeout when President Trump wanted the vote count to stop in decisive states.

His heroes have howled in approval, validating his rise as a social media maven. James used a goat emoji on Twitter to confirm Johnson’s preeminence. Filmmaker Jordan Peele sent complimentary messages. Songwriter John Legend called him the king of sports comedy.

It’s been a rapid ascent. Johnson had around 25,000 Twitter followers in 2019 when he posted a clip from Peele’s horror film “Get Out” to illustrate troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown meeting new teammate Josh Gordon at the New England Patriots’ training facility. The tweet generated more than 140,000 likes and nearly 5,000 quote tweets, including one from the film’s director.

“You win, Josiah,” Peele wrote.

Those three words crystallized Johnson’s future endeavors, his career no longer at a crossroads in the search for a winning path. He started tweeting during his day job at a media company and slipped into the men’s room to delight in the metrics.

“I’m sure people thought I had bowel issues or whatever, but I didn’t,” Johnson said. “I would just be sitting there watching and that was kind of the one quiet place I could go just to see the numbers run up.”

Johnson, who turned 40 in April, has gone on to outperform deep-pocketed social media teams paid to mimic his style. It’s as if he’s going one-on-five in basketball. And dominating.

“Josiah is a voice that we are constantly tracking and following to see what is going to be relevant to our fan base,” said Tyler Price, vice president of content development and production for Bleacher Report and Turner Sports social. “What Josiah has done really well is, instead of breaking down the moment that is happening, he reflects the emotion that we are all feeling around that moment in real time.”

Josiah Johnson poses for a photo with his smartphone.

Josiah Johnson, who turned 40 in April, has gone on to outperform deep-pocketed social media teams paid to mimic his style.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A victory lap might seem in order, but Johnson knows from experience that success can turn to failure without notice.

“I always live in fear of going back to that period where I didn’t work,” Johnson said, “so that’s the s— that motivates me every day.”

The kid liked to have his say, interjecting himself into nearly all family conversations. It didn’t matter if the topic was basketball, movies or the best spot to make a rap video.

A nickname — Dewey Centavos — was born in a nod to him always giving parents Marques and Jocelyn Johnson his two cents.

It wasn’t long before Marques, who played on Wooden’s final national championship team in 1975 before becoming a five-time NBA All-Star, solicited his son’s input. As a 10-year-old, Josiah helped his father get reps early in his broadcasting career. The boy would pretend to be Chick Hearn giving play-by-play while Marques provided color commentary on cassette tapes popped into the family stereo.

It’s like a drug. It’s a great, refreshing feeling to know that something that was in your brain — that didn’t exist previously, that you put out — just takes off and skyrockets.

— Josiah Johnson referring to a viral tweet

Josiah also helped his father practice lines for his acting roles, including an iconic performance as Raymond, the razor blade-wielding streetballer duped by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in “White Men Can’t Jump.”

“I would kind of gauge, if it was a comedy scene,” Marques said, “how well I was doing just based on his reaction.”

There wasn’t much drama when it came to Josiah’s college basketball destination. He had been a ball boy on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team that included his half-brother, Kris. For years, he even possessed a strand of the championship net.

Against the advice of his father, who wanted him to consider lesser programs where he could have enjoyed a bigger role, Josiah committed to UCLA on his official visit. A 6-foot-8 forward known for his rebounding instincts, he wore the No. 54 that had graced the jerseys of his father and half-brother. But he never strutted around campus, instead projecting a humility that bordered on shyness.

“Joe’s nature and inclination was to show deference and respect to others,” coach Steve Lavin recalled, “yet it was clear he had a thoughtful intellect, wry sense of humor and gift for impersonating. He was an existentialist of sorts and a keen observer of his surroundings, actively taking internal notes.”

Josiah Johnson played at UCLA from 2001 to 2005 averaging 1.3 points in 7.3 minutes per game throughout his career.

Josiah Johnson played at UCLA from 2001 to 2005 averaging 1.3 points in 7.3 minutes per game throughout his career.

(Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

Those notes were mostly taken from the bench. Johnson was a bit player on teams that reached the NCAA tournament three times but were mediocre by UCLA standards. For his career, Johnson averaged 1.3 points in 7.3 minutes per game.

“It was just hard not being able to live up to the standard of excellence that the Johnson name has in basketball circles,” he said, “but to their credit, they were always there for me. Dad was always there, always a positive force. And even now we’ll have talks and [he’ll say], ‘You could have done this or that’ and I’m like, ‘It’s OK, I wasn’t that good.’ ”

Johnson and fellow scrubs Quinn Hawking and Ike Williams found humor in their plight, dubbing themselves The S— Crew while cracking each other up on the bench. Anyone listening closely might have heard some of the same jokes years later on Comedy Central.

The show was hailed as the next “South Park.” Comedy Central had greenlit Johnson’s “Legends of Chamberlain Heights,” about three high school benchwarmers who were stars in their own minds.

Buoyed by early fanfare, the show was picked up for a second season, prompting Johnson and his friends to chug celebratory 40s. But after the debut episode drew disappointing ratings, Johnson and his colleagues received a chilly reception from company executives at an Emmy Awards party.

“People wouldn’t even look at us,” Johnson recalled.

When the second season was given an unfavorable late-night time slot, Johnson told his co-creators the show probably was getting canceled.

What Josiah has done really well is, instead of breaking down the moment that is happening, he reflects the emotion that we are all feeling around that moment in real time.

— Tyler Price, vice president of content development and production for Bleacher Report and Turner Sports social

He was right. With the show jettisoned in late 2017 and no one in the industry returning his calls, Johnson fell into a funk. He packed on about 50 pounds and considered driving for Uber before the girlfriend who would become his wife, Erinn Noeth-Johnson, whipped out her phone during a heart-to-heart. She hit record, capturing the start of an epic comeback.

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“I’m like, yo, everybody who slighted me, wronged me, they’re going to pay for this s—,” Johnson remembered of his vow. “I’m going to show them and this ain’t the end of me.”

The seeds for that rise already had been planted. Comedy Central was either being cheap or savvy — maybe both — when it had asked Johnson to run the social media accounts for “Legends of Chamberlain Heights” in addition to his writing and voiceover duties. He would remain in the office after everyone else left, live-tweeting the show’s East Coast feed to generate interest and build the account.

Josiah Johnson dispatches his social media missives from the comfort of his sofa.

Josiah Johnson dispatches his social media missives from the comfort of his sofa.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Along the way, he taught himself engagement strategies he still uses. Stockpiling images and video clips allowed him to post content quickly. He amassed a Twitter following for the show that numbers more than 67,000 even though it’s been off the air for nearly five years.

“I like to joke that Comedy Central created a monster,” Johnson says.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s irreverent style has hatched a legion of copycats. After he posted a meme of Drake in a Raptors hat bearing a strong resemblance to guard Fred VanVleet, joking that the image was VanVleet at the Raptors championship reunion in 2039, he saw a tweet on a larger account that blatantly stole his idea. Infuriated, Johnson watched Drake and Raptors players engage with the rip-off tweet.

The takeaway: Consumers don’t care what the source is. It’s a reality that only fuels Johnson to double down on becoming the cradle of killer content.

“I’m not going to spend my time crying and complaining about it,” he said of the thievery, “I’m just going to come to the block every day with more heat and ammunition and that’s what’s kind of gotten me to the forefront of this, because people started to recognize it.”

Being a one-man media empire has its benefits. Johnson often works from home, watching games in the spare bedroom — where his old UCLA locker room chair sits in a corner — or a family room alongside his wife and sons Jowie, 3, and Marquie, 5.

“A lot of times the games are on in here and the kids are kind of climbing all over him when he’s doing his work,” said Noeth-Johnson, a former UCLA swimmer who first corresponded with her future husband over Twitter. “He’s honestly doing 15 different things as he’s putting out these tweets that millions of people are seeing, but it’s great for us, it’s great for the kids. He’s a constant presence in their life.”

Remaining Josiah Johnson Inc. has allowed him to preserve his editorial independence, taking shots at whatever he wants (though he’s learned it’s best to go after teams and leagues, instead of players, with his most withering memes).

The way Johnson sees it, he’s cashing in on authenticity. He has live-tweeted the Super Bowl for DirecTV, appeared on TNT during NBA broadcasts and participated in more than a dozen branded campaigns, never straying from his convictions. His tweets about NASCAR, for instance, focus on Black driver Bubba Wallace.

What irks Johnson most about the social media behemoths he’s competing against is their profiting off Black culture with staffs that are largely white. It’s enough to make Johnson contemplate his own start-up.

“To have somebody at the head making decisions like Josiah — that has the knowledge he has, the experience he has and coming from the culture — I don’t think anybody has experienced anything like that,” said LaJethro Jenkins, one of Johnson’s co-hosts on the “Outta Pocket” podcast. “I think we would all sign up to be a part of that.”

What better way for the master of memes to go viral, the king becoming a kingmaker.

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