A Brooklyn Family’s Long March Finally Reaches the N.B.A.

A Brooklyn Family’s Long March Finally Reaches the N.B.A.

They are not the Mannings, not a gilded lineage whose professional successes feel preordained. This family is scrappier, woolier — more New York.

It begins with the patriarch, Jitu Weusi, a basketball and community legend from Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was a fearless and hyperactive educational activist who founded Uhuru Sasa Shule, one of New York City’s first black private schools, and co-founded the East, a cultural center and jazz venue.

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Johnson’s grandfather, Leslie Campbell, pictured, who changed his name to Jitu Weusi, played at Long Island University in the early 1960s. He wore No. 44, which is what Johnson wears now.

Credit
L.I.U. Brooklyn Athletics

“Hard-core progressive institutionalism,” Fruster called it. “This was organized, intentional, systemic. He was doing it in such a way that racists could not even bother him. He was the guy you cannot arrest.”

Born Leslie R. Campbell, Weusi — a 6-foot-10 center — played on scholarship at Long Island University. He wore No. 44, the same one Johnson wears now. He was also the father to eight children and stepfather to two more. One of those was Keith Fruster, Clarence’s father. Weusi renamed him Pamoja, Swahili for “togetherness.” In the Cage — the cramped basketball courts at West Fourth Street — they called him something else.

“He was 6-5, slender, muscular, could definitely finish above the rim,” Clarence Fruster said of his father, who died when Clarence was young. “When he was coming through, you got out the way. He’d part the lanes.”

That’s why they called him Moses.

While Weusi was busy consulting with activists and politicians, like Al Sharpton and David N. Dinkins, the former mayor, it was up to Pamoja to pass the game on to his brothers and sisters. He would sign them up for three-on-three tournaments, cajole them on weekend mornings to run laps around the high school track and have them practice layups for hours at a time.

Kojo Campbell, another of Weusi’s sons, played on scholarship at Stony Brook and “was a freakishly good street ball legend in his own right,” Fruster said. At Rucker Park and the city’s other legendary courts, Campbell became known as Slomotion.

“I guarded whoever the best scorer was: Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker, Ron Artest — I guarded all those guys,” said Campbell, who was quite possibly the only Larry Bird fan in 1980s Bed-Stuy.

(He would never scuff anyone’s Jordans, though.)

Three of Pamoja’s sisters also landed college scholarships. One was Makini Campbell, Johnson’s mother. At 6-5, she had become a defensive-minded center for L.I.U., her father’s alma mater. “She would ball out,” Fruster said. “That was just plain old mind-blowing.”

In her last year of eligibility, Campbell became pregnant with Johnson. “I always tell him, ‘You were inside the womb playing basketball,’ ” she said.

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Johnson, center, spoke to his uncle Kojo Campbell while at a pickup game at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2015.

Credit
Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Johnson was the prodigy. By 8, he was playing for the Gauchos, the famed New York A.A.U. club, and spending his summers zipping across the country for high-level camps. He played his high school ball at two powerhouses, St. Patrick High School in New Jersey, which produced Kyrie Irving, and Florida’s Montverde Academy, before playing at Kentucky. He declared for the N.B.A. draft after two years and was drafted by the Thunder in the second round. It was a joyous moment, but not yet the summit: Johnson was contracted to the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s development league team, where he shined for two years.

In the summer of 2017, he got the call he was waiting for: The Thunder were offering a two-year N.B.A. contract. “Your heart starts pounding,” Kojo Campbell said. “ ‘This is big. This is exciting.’ But even at that point it’s like, ‘O.K., O.K. — ink’s not on the paper yet.’ ”

Johnson would indeed be on the Thunder’s 2017-18 opening day roster in October. And a month later, he landed that first N.B.A. start against the Clippers. “I’m at the animal hospital with his dog who’s about to have surgery for eating a corn cob,” his mother recalled. “We’re making decisions. I’m texting him. He says: ‘Mom, I can’t talk right now. I have media.’ I’m like: ‘Media? Boy, what do you have media for? You lucky you get in!’ Then I find out, oh my gosh, he might start tonight!”

In Johnson’s telling, everyone had a part in helping him develop. “My uncles, they’d beat up on me,” he said. “That created the love because I wanted to compete. From my mom, what I learned was patience.” Around his sophomore year, he said, everyone “started faking injuries, started coming up with excuses” to get out of playing against him.

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Dakari with his little brother Kamani during his days with the Gauchos, in a photograph provided by the family.

He also had his “big cousin,” Michael Murray, to fend off. Murray played at Coppin State and now plays professionally in Spain. “He’s the one I was honestly trying to catch up to my whole life,” Johnson said.

Weusi died while Johnson was at Kentucky. The funeral was held in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the overflow poured onto the streets. Amiri Baraka, the poet and playwright, attended. Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist, played. John Calipari, Johnson’s coach, was there. “My dad would be over the moon knowing Dakari is playing in the N.B.A.,” Nandi Campbell, one of Weusi’s eight children, said. “I can see him walking down the street telling everybody. Even strangers.”

Johnson has yet to crack the Thunder rotation and play regular, significant minutes. His big goals remain unfulfilled. His presence in the league is, for his family, a wonder. But they know there will be more hard work to come.

“It has been generations of cultivating skills,” Kojo Campbell said. “But it’s not, ‘Oh, we needed somebody in the N.B.A. — we can breathe easy now.’ The legacy of this family is about being able to validate ourselves. It’s the focus on the process. It’s: ‘You know what? We can do this ourselves.’ ”

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