This story is over 5 years old.


Joe Johnson Is Very Big in China: A Love Story

By day, Yonsan Johnson is an electrical engineer who ekes out the equivalent of $2,400 a year in a factory in northern China. By night, though, he manages the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club, and he has accumulated and edited what is likely the world’s...

 “I just a simple person,with little income,24 years old young people…..
I do not care about other's thinking,someone said I was a fool,
they would like to say:”why does yonsan spent lots of time on an
- Yonsan Johnson, founder of the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club

A life-changing moment can come in a thousand packages. A car running a red light, the first cries of an infant, even a simple word of encouragement—all these have the power to send one’s days skittering in a new direction, sometimes for good. So, apparently, does the cover of a basketball magazine.


For Yonsan Johnson, formerly Yonsan Uranus, ne Zhu Yan-Qing (like many people in China, Yonson has adopted a more English-sounding name), the inciting event came in the form of the cover of an issue of Dime magazine he found in his military barracks in 2009—he looked down and saw the eyes of a resolute, dignified foreign warrior peering out at him.

The eyes belonged to Joe Johnson, then a forward for the Atlanta Hawks and an eight-year veteran of the NBA. Inside the magazine, Yonsan read about Johnson’s great love for the single mother who’d raised him, his quiet manner on the court, and how he’d rather stay home and play videos games than go clubbing. In Johnson, he had found a hero, someone who seemed to embody his country's ancient ideals of patience, strength, and respect toward elders. Johnson became not only Yonsan’s favorite player, but a 6-foot-8, 240-pound prism through which he learned about American culture. Not long after he saw Johnson’s image, he founded the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club.

By day, Yonsan is an electrical engineer who ekes out the equivalent of $2,400 a year in a factory in northern China. By night, though, as founder of the JJFC, he manages the Joe Johnson Chinese Baidu Tiebar, which he describes as a forum that has 497 members. In this role he has accumulated and edited what is likely the world’s largest cache of Joe Johnson-related pictures and videos. His life’s dream is to one day speak to Johnson directly.


I stumbled upon Yonsan’s club while researching an article I was writing in the spring of 2010 on Johnson, my classmate at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. I was intrigued, and asked why he favored Johnson over flashier, more accomplished stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

The result: two and a half years of correspondence, some of which is reproduced here. While the emails have been edited for space and privacy, the original spelling, punctuation, and grammar were kept to preserve their immediacy, sincerity and unaffected authenticity.

In Yonsan, I have found a someone with an insatiable appetite for knowledge of the world his favorite star inhabits, and I have gained a long-term pen pal from whom I’ve learned about China, a place many Americans know nothing about. But through Yonsan I have also learned about America.

Tonight, Joe Johnson's Brooklyn Nets play the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. If the Nets lose, their season is over. If they win, expect the numbers of the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club to swell.

April 17, 2010
After a few introductory emails, on the first day of the 2010 playoffs, with third-seeded Atlanta taking on the Milwaukee Bucks, Yonsan explains his world (ellipses separating text denote my deletions):


I will tell you the truth.
You Know, Chinese is a developing country.
with huge people about one billion and four hundred million…
Ain't most of Chinese are rich..
The great mass of people live with a ordinary life…
For most of Chinese, It is so hard to go abroad.
Not only it is expensive,but the passport is aslo hard to authorize.
Maybe one day I can Fly to the USA..
So sad…


Evin, I just wonder how can I contact to Joe…
Would you please ask for Joe if he agree to tell me his E-MAIL adress and phone number.
maybe phone number is so hard to get
there are some Fans voice “Let's go Hawks! It's our time! come on! you are the best!” “Joe we wish you do your best!! … we are strong backing behind you!”
“Joe China is a good place,Weclome to China!!” “Joe Can you Stay? please do not go Hawks need you!!” “Hi Joe I am your Chinese Fan… you know, We love you`everyone in JJFC~ So please cheer up!”
Could you please send these words to Joe ??? they are the Fans' Fancy words.

April 27

I have some questions about NBA Authentic Jersey. I am Confusing…
Because I really want to buy a Jersey of Joe's,
An Authentic Jersey will cost 2180 RMB(about $272.5 dollars),
maybe it will spend me 3 weeks work to get this Jersey.
But I listened to my friends,they tell me in America, People are so easy to buy a Jersey.
Maybe a jersey amounts to there two or three days earning…
Oh, My god…
what a huge differece between China and America…

May 3
For the second straight season, the Hawks make the conference semifinals after beating Milwaukee in seven games.

Joe's worn jersey in season 2010 would cost $1250… Need to pre-order..
I just consider this, that's my three months' earning~ HAHA!! […] do dirty words like”shit,fuck” are often spoke by the plays in the court?! what is these words real mean!? because last week I watch the replay of Hawks vs Bucks 1st game.. I hear the word when Joe drive in to the area and He put the ball in. but I never saw any play made foul on him In my
mind Joe can not put these words out, he is so calm a man like him will never say that words
Haha,maybe there is something different in our mind~
maybe that is just the outside voice,not Joe's


May 5
The Hawks lose by 43 and 14 in their first two games against the top-seeded Orlando Magic. The situation seems dire, and Orlando would go on to sweep Atlanta.

Hello Evin,
… I still have the confidence in Game 3 today. Wish they could win.
Joe is too tired. And he injured hand…
Very sorry about him.

May 9

I have some new for you…
The third game about Hawks and Magic is so terrible…
Hawks lost the game again in their Home by 30 points. that's a hug disparity…
Maybe Joe hurt the fans… they put out the ATL NEWS …
Johnson on unhappy fans: “We could care less if they show up”
they can not believe Joe said these words.
He is generally a calm person, but sometimes can be emotional.
Lost 3 games.Can he get a good mood to face fans?
Maybe after he put out these words,He felt regret.
Yours, San

May 14

Today I want to ask you some questions about these photos… 1.Look at this photo, I think Joe must be a good son. He is appreciate for his mother.
A grandness mother have a succeed son.

2.YOU KNOW Joe is very cool, And I want to know who is the people stand left? Josh Smith???
He looks like Josh very much! I really do not know who he is. Maybe Joe and Josh often have activities

3.So cute right??

4.The cover of Slam magazine Two kinds . the chinese version is scaned by myself.
Joe… With the sharp eyes…
do they interesting?


May 18

When media published some offensive news about Joe or other NBA players, I often felt not well.
expecially Joe, I think I must get the jersey… maybe someone would like to say
“Yonsan is crazy” “Do you think you are seilfish? Never consider your family. although You used your own money,but how can we accept you to buy such an expensive jersey?” That's correct… I almost 24 years old, still single,often think myself,maybe something relation with my childhood..very unhappy…just stop this… […] Sorry,Evin.. Maybe I am bothering you now and the words are so tedious..
coz,I really do not know how to express my feeling…

May 21

I am a designer, about Electron.. work in an institute.
But recent two years, I felt not well in my work. Sometime I felt boring…
I hate repeatedly work, but I have no choice…
For me, it is not easy to change new job…
You know, in China…
it is so hard for a student graduated from a university or college to apply      for a job.
With the largest number of population,
How can you imagine there are thousands of people to compete for one          job??

July 4
On the same day Joe Johnson agrees to terms on a new six-year, $119-million contract with the Hawks, Yonsan receives his long-awaited Joe Johnson jersey in the mail. It is the Fourth of July.

subject: I GET IT!!! I GET IT!!! EVIN~



Man, I get it~~ the game worn jersey of Joe's… I amlost cried…


July 5
To celebrate Johnson’s huge new contract, Yonsan quotes a Denzel Washington flick.

I've read a poem from the moive
Antwone Fisher

Who will cry for the little boy,lost and alone.Who will cry for the little boy, abandoned without his own.Who will cry for the little boy, he cried himself to sleep.Who will cry for the little boy, who never had it for keep.Who will cry for the little boy, who walked on burning sands.Who will cry for the little boy, the boy inside a man…

July 10

Gentleman […] Tell u something secret, but please donnot tell Joe
I plan to let some of Joe's Chinese fans to write some words on my collection Authentic Jersey(white Home),and some other things put in a box, on September I will ship it to Joe..

to give him a suprise~
I think this must be the great meaningful thing in my life~

August 7
Yonsan wants to send Johnson a JJFC T-shirt, but must first figure out the appropriate size.


Sorry this is really a hard question for me.
aslo for a tailor.
Because we do not know about Joe's body.
He can not imagine the size..
Can I use Joe's game worn Jersey for compareation?
There is 23cm height betwteen Joe an I I, I just 175cm only… he is 201cm
I make the wrong Size: in China an XXL is for 5-7(190cm) people in China…
Really hard…
Can there have a Website to tell me about American People's Size of Clothers.


August 8

Hi, Evin..

I just finished the design of the T-shirt.. … HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?? August 27

Hello Gentleman,
Most of Chinese Factory or shop can not make it. They never,ever seen this size… it's too big.
In China, the MAX size would be XXXXL.. seldom people wears XXXL or XXXXL.
I think Joe's must be XXXXXL or bigger.
I spent 1 week on conecting with the manufacturers which I search online.

October 10
I ask Yonsan if one day it would be OK if I write about our correspondence. He assents, but doesn’t consider himself a worthy subject. He later agrees.

Thank you for your kindness article about me, but I think it was not worth to write me.
I just a simple person,with little income,24 years old young people…..
I do not care about other's thinking,someone said I was a fool,
they would like to say:”why does yonsan spent lots of time on an IMPOSSIBLE THING,TO BE A IDOLATER?”
NO,I am not a idolater.I just do the things with my interest,to release my whole day's office work.
… Joe Johnson is a billionaire. Me, a chinese poor guy…
How can a billionaire accept me to be a friend,a poor Chinese people…

October 31
Yonsan sends the shirt in a gift package to the Atlanta Hawks, but after a few days hasn’t yet gotten confirmation that Johnson received it

Hi, Evin.
I just feel disappointment …
I do not want to anything from him. just show him the passion from a fan, a real fan of him…
So, should I go on with my work on JJFC?
No matter how Joe like it, I just hope he can open the Disc… to look at the magazine, the videos…
Maybe he would like to reply…
But, Where is my special gift parcel… would it throw into the garbage can?


Yonsan never gets a reply and the JJFC goes on hiatus for a few months, as he works more at his day job during its most busy season.

February 18, 2011

OK, man~
My target of the year is:
1. to let more people to know about Joe Johnson.
2. to get another Game Worn Jersey of Joe Johnson in season 2010-11.
3. to edit another Video about Joe Johnson in the NBA games.
4. to finish my work on Electrical products.

I have a Chinese friend who study in University of South Carolina,
I think it is easy for him to help me to buy a game worn jersey… Be care for yourself, and I think you will be ok in your work. so, come on! Yours ,
San February 22

Hi, Evin
Today I wanna ask you a question about Jeans, I am very interesting in Jeans.
especially the Americans', they are different with ours.
they are fashion, look very well in models.
I used to leave message to Dwight Howard, he told me one of his Jeans is True religion, it is very cool.
Can you tell me what brand of this Jean that Joe Johnson wears.
Thank you very much, he wore it and attended the 1st Annual Cartoon Network Hall of game awards~

May 22

Joe Johnson got his twitter, he often said some nice words
a little pity, Joe only reply one tweet to me, just show his grateful~

Yonsan later sends me the sole tweet he has received from Johnson:

In May 2011, Atlanta loses in the NBA Playoff semifinals 4-2 to Chicago. By the time the NBA lockout fully thaws, it’s clear the Chinese JJFC is back—with a vengeance.


February 24, 2012

Let's go! Joe Johnson Season 2012 Video MIX! From Joe Johnson Chinese fan Club!

May 11
The Hawks win their first game of the 2012 playoffs against the Celtics but drop the following three games. On May 10, Atlanta losses Game 6 83-80 and gets eliminated.

disappointment~· Hawks lost the important game…

July 24
Johnson gets traded to Brooklyn Nets. Yonsan wishes Joe the best there and looks for a Nets jersey to buy.

i got the confidence on joe… no.doubt, he and [Deron] Williams would have some good reaction…
he could get more fans, more sounds of”we love Joe Johnson or Joe Cool…” this can make him more confidence as well. so, give him the time, he needs to ajust, needs to prove…

August 1
In July, Yonsan flies to England to watch an airshow featuring planes from all around the world. It’s his first time out of China, on a $2,000 flight for which he’d spent years saving. During the trip, he befriends an Englishman who tells him his chosen surname might include a phonetic faux pas.

As you know I put URANUS in my last name.
yes, my english name is YONSAN URANUS.
one of them told me I should change the last name.he asked me to look up the meaning of URANUS… i know it is a star in the space.
it doesn't mean anything. it just a designation.
in China, Uranus means: the great, the respectful… All the description are good..
So,can you tell me whats wrong with URANUS in your world? thank you.

August 6
… I found the reason… URANUS has another meaning”your butt”, so the man told
me to make a change… I really didn't know this meaning… a little conplicated…
So, I think Johnson might suit for me,
 it is a good name, and also show my great respect to Joe Johnson…

I have twice told Joe Johnson about Yonsan and the Chinese Joe Johnson Fan Club. On both occasions he said it was pretty cool and an honor. He said having a fan club half the world away was something he could have never imagined as a child. In 2010, he told me he traveled once to China, after the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and visited three or four cities including Hong Kong. “I had a great time over there,” he said. “It was like nothing that you've ever seen before. It was nuts. They really embraced us as basketball players and as Americans. It was a great feeling.”

The latest email I received from Yonsan was on April 29, after Johnson's Nets beat the Bulls to stay alive in the playoffs:

I don’t know why…
I love this guy so badly…
He’s great…
He did a lot of jobs for the Hawks and Nets…
He got some Clutch time.
Hmm… Really wanna his reply… like friend…
years passed…
Don’t know his feeling on that SPECIAL GIFT…
question was he recived it or not…
Really want to have one of his Nets game worn jersey…
memories on it.

Read an expanded version of this epistolary, including views on Johnson’s most recent season, here.

An award-winning obituary writer, freelancer Evin Demirel left that field to focus on sports and society. He’s written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, SB Nation Longform, SLAM, Slate, the Classical, and the New York Times. He Tweets for himself at @evindemirel and indulges in rampant Arko-centrism at