Vincent Van Gogh, an artist whose works are among the most sought after in the world, died without a hint of appreciation. Great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s obituary mentioned him having potential, but never actually reaching it.
But that’s not likely to be the case for David Johnson — a former Davis High basketball standout who tirelessly chased NBA stardom, rapport with music industry moguls and is now hungrily seeking Hollywood credentials. He has made it clear he’s going to earn his recognition, even if it kills him.
After a Davis upbringing, the 29-year-old’s accomplishments include self-publishing four books. He has written everything from a memoir, ”Lost and Found,” to relationship advice, “Decoded” — under his own Davis Boy Publishing.
He also boasts spending time on the rosters of the Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings. The would-be Renaissance man seeks fame and fortune primarily to give his children — two daughters and a son — the kind of lifestyle he never had.
The confidence he exudes, once witnessed by the public in New York Times and Buzzfeed features, has earned him critics and supporters on his Twitter and YouTube accounts. The insults and compliments flood the same platforms that ushered him into the limelight.
“There’s no such thing as being too broke to do something when you have social media,” Johnson said. “The Internet makes it easy to succeed. … It has helped me so much. I thank Bill Gates for that, literally.”
Johnson has tweeted Bill Gates, as he has done with many other celebrities. But he has a special relationship with Jay-Z — something that goes beyond 140 characters.
His online correspondence with Jay-Z, he said, goes back further than he can recall. Yes, that’s the multimillion-dollar platinum music mogul Jay-Z he’s referring to. And eventually Johnson did remember when it began: when he was trying to break into the music industry by rapping for Warner Music Group.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great people in Davis, but not all of them are going to understand you if you’re trying to reach a certain level,” he said. “People can’t comprehend it. I can’t articulate it to them, and if I try, they think I’m crazy.
“I wanted someone to tell me how to become, well, like Jay-Z — one of the richest men on the planet. To get there, I couldn’t go around and talk to people who can’t even imagine getting there. So, I thought, who could tell me how to get to that level?”
Thus began Johnson’s one-way communication with one of the biggest celebrities in the world. He conveys to Jay-Z every detail of his personal life, and often suggests ideas for the star’s commercial benefit. He sends pictures and videos. Poetry and song lyrics. Short rants about society and long-form discussion on philosophical tangents.
And after composing nearly 300 unanswered emails — forwarded to what he believes is the personal account of Jay-Z — he remains confident in the existence of a silent relationship.
“As hard as it is to believe, I have a connection to this man without ever seeing him, and he knows it,” he said. “People trip about the fact that I’m not getting responses, but I don’t even need one. … This is what I tell everyone: Communication is not always verbal.”
There is some validation to his claims in that Michelle Carter, Jay-Z’s not-as-famous sister, sent the Johnson family a bundle of Rocawear clothing last year. Johnson also uses a program that tracks if emails are opened, which has always been the case — from locations all around the world. But there’s an obvious response to this that Johnson was quick to dispel.
“No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I’m a young black man who is struggling in a world where they teach you everything backwards.”
Part of Johnson’s quest to interact with Jay-Z is that he finds a common background with the rapper, beginning with a life of poverty, where success is far from a guarantee.
Birthing a dreamer
Johnson’s journey began at Royal Oak, a mobile home park in South Davis. Domestic instability and destitution — the cornerstones of a difficult childhood — were present.
“We had nothin’,” he said. “I lived in a trailer park, where we had sewage — or if you want to be direct, s–t — coming out of our water faucets. We slept in cars. I moved something like 26 times by age 12.”
His escape was the basketball court, where he spent most of his young days. Rain or shine, he could often be found shooting hoops at Chestnut Park or Slide Hill Park. He honed his abilities with his half-brother, Bruce Carpenter, another former Blue Devil standout.
Johnson’s determination to improve his game paid off early on in his DHS career. He started the 1999-2000 season as the team’s sixth man and concluded the year as one of the Blue Devils’ top scorers, and had equally impressive defensive stats.
During his senior year, however, he sat on the bench.
“That was devastating to me. … That happened around the same time my best friends died,” Johnson said, referring to the death of local teen Jason Gregory Paz in 2000, and later, Josh Cooper. The tragedies led to him quitting the Blue Devil squad and stepping away from the competitive side of basketball for years.
“You think you’re that good?”
It took a pair of Sacramento Kings tickets, in 2008, for the local — who at once dreamed of accolades in the NBA — to return to competitive basketball.
At the time, Johnson was coaching hoops at Holmes Junior High. He was offered tickets by the parents of one of his players, and reacted with disinterest. He remembers telling this to his wife, Jessica Raumer, who challenged him on his lack of enthusiasm:
“I told her that I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t really care about the Kings. She said, ‘You think you’re that good?’ To which I replied, ‘Yeah, I do.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘let’s see you play with them.’”
From that conversation, Raumer was inspired to take on the role of Johnson’s agent.
“I reached out to any and everybody in the professional basketball industry — from LeBron James’ first agent, Aaron Goodwin, who wanted to meet with David for coffee, to (NBA Commissioner) David Stern, with whom I spoke regarding entering David into the NBA draft — and everybody in between,” she said.
Eventually, the general manager of the Kings answered the call. Johnson was placed on the team’s summer practice squad, and was one cut away from a roster spot.
Afterwards, Johnson spoke to Miami Heat president and head coach Pat Riley and general manager Randy Pfund, who offered him a tryout. He entered that year’s NBA draft, and was signed on a three-month contract to the Miami Heat.
Johnson said he was pleased with his short stint in the pro league, and now considers his days as an active participant in the sport behind him. His preference is now on the sidelines — watching and coaching his 10-year-old son, David Johnson III. He and his two sisters still attend school in Davis despite the family recently moving to the Napa Valley.
The love-hate relationship
“I had to get out,” he said of his family’s recent decision to leave Davis. “My opinion is that it’s not a welcoming place to individuality, so to speak. … When you’re different from the rest, people will fear you. You’ll stand out, and people will judge you.”
Johnson’s Davis resentment is inextricably linked to years of negative experiences and a local undertone of racism — another subject he frequently elaborated on in writing to his celebrity pen pal.
As if channeling a passion once reserved only for Jay-Z’s in box, Johnson scolded those guilty of stereotyping him during his Davis adolescence. The brunt of his criticism was directed at Davis police officers, who he claims pulled him over more than five times over the course of two months in his late teens.
At the same time, Johnson admits to the possibility of never learning life’s most important lessons if it weren’t for the mentoring from people like the Rev. Timothy Malone, a Davis community activist, who extended offers of food and shelter.
Johnson proudly noted the UC Davis graduation of his grandmother and most of his mom’s side of the family, yet expressed an opposite sentiment about his education at DHS. He spoke of local friends who abandoned him after he became a father at the age of 18, and those who stuck by him long after.
The love-hate relationship he has with his place of birth, however, has everything to do with how much he’s been able to achieve here. And considering how much his eyes are set on different destination — the star-studded city of Hollywood — that’s no surprise.
Reaching the top
When Johnson made plans to adapt his children’s book to the big screen, he didn’t start at the bottom. He went straight to the executives of Disney, and pitched his idea to them.
When he thought of an advertisement campaign for Starbucks, it was the same story. Sure enough, Johnson was able to provide evidence of an email correspondence with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
Though neither of the big-name companies have shown interest in his concepts, the acknowledgement of his efforts from the top of the chain is in its own way a testament to Johnson’s determination.
“It’s how I conduct everything,” he said. “I do it because I want to surround myself with people who think outside the box. … If you confide in ordinary-thinking people, they’ll fail you every time.”
His main pursuit now is writing a screenplay inspired by the 1993 feature film “Menace II Society,” which he’s pitching to Hollywood heavyweights James Cameron, Ron Howard and John Singleton.
“I’m telling you now — it’s going to be a big film,” Johnson said.
If the certainty with which he approaches his current endeavor isn’t convincing enough of his self-diagnosed “addiction to achieving greatness,” his wife can certainly attest to it:
“I absolutely cannot imagine David abandoning his determination, ever. He simply is not that type of person,” she said. “If anything, I can imagine his determination getting stronger and as he achieves each of his goals — his dreams will only get bigger.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett