He waited for what seemed like a lifetime but for Kareem Johnson it was all worth it when he was sworn in as a New Zealand citizen yesterday.

It has a bittersweet feel for Johnson but, he hastened to add, more sweet than bitter that the Taylor Corporation Hawks power forward's status in this country has come at the twilight of his professional basketball career.

"At the end of the day I really appreciate it," the 37-year-old said last night after attending a "special, urgent" citizenship ceremony at the office of Napier mayor Bill Dalton at 2pm.

The American-born player had received an email last Thursday from the Immigration Department notifying him of his status in the country.


"I'm finally a Kiwi now, after all that's been said and done, and it's a good feeling."

He spent yesterday afternoon reminiscing and celebrating with Bay-born wife Lucia and their three daughters, Swiss-born Ruby, 9, as well as Bay-born Sophia, 6, and Juliette, 2. He also has a son, Jeremiah, 13, living in Las Vegas, in the United States.

"I took them to Hot Chick and the girls spent some time on the playground so we had a nice little tea out there," he said of Spriggs Park along the Ahuriri waterfront strip at the height of the school holidays.

Johnson is indebted to Hawke's Bay for sticking by him for all those years — he has difficulty in pinpointing when he exactly lodged his application — so it's almost nostalgic that he will be in a position to finish his playing career in the province.

That magical moment will come on Thursday when the Zico Coronel-coached Hawks will tip off their Sal's National basketball League (NBL) campaign against the SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks at the Pettigrew-Green Arena, Taradale, at 7pm.

He will play his first NBL game without the tag of "import" after his name.

"It'll be kind of special for the Hawks to have me as a local because they've backed me for years on their roster," he said after the Hawke's Bay franchise board chairman and Napier councillor Keith Price attended the ceremony with him.

Had Johnson not received his citizenship before the season's first tip off he would have remained classified as an import regardless of whether he would have been sworn in a day after the first game, in keeping with the NBL stipulation.


It was the first time he had met Dalton.

"He's a great guy and it was a great ceremony and it really touched me, it was surreal."

Kareem Johnson receives his citizenship certificate and kowhai tree from Napier mayor Bill Dalton while Keith Price watches yesterday. Photo / Duncan Brown
Kareem Johnson receives his citizenship certificate and kowhai tree from Napier mayor Bill Dalton while Keith Price watches yesterday. Photo / Duncan Brown

Prankster Price had wound up Johnson about brushing up his singing skills for the national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, in both Maori and English versions but to Johnson's relief it didn't transpire.

"I'm going to learn them, absolutely. I didn't get around to it."

Dalton presented him a kowhai tree which will find pride of place in the family's Te Awanga property soon. The planting of the tree is symbolic of putting down one's roots in a new home and a reminder of a special initiation.

However, Hawks general manager Kevin Wagg said Johnson looked in superb form during the pre-season NBL Blitz in Palmerston North last weekend where the team won two games and lost as many, although results have no bearing on anything because coaches tend to use it as a laboratory to try out combinations.

The secret to a rejuvenated Johnson is changing to a vegan diet for the past four months.

"At the moment I'm really enjoying it," said the 2.03m bloke, who wears a grin like a Cheshire cat and has made the No 42 Hawks shirt his own. "Everybody who knows me knows I'm a big eater so I found out I eat a lot more now [that I'm not eating meat]."

A "smalltown Alabama boy", Johnson was born in Queens, New York, but lived in Eufaula, Alabama, from the age of 7.

But there was nothing small about him or his family, if you check out his X and Y chromosomes.

His father, the late Daniel George, and his mother, Randee George, who still lives in Alabama, are tall timber.

"My father played basketball up to college level and my great-grandfather from my mother's side was six foot eight [2.03m] so we were kind of good that way," Johnson had told HB Today in an interview in 2012.

Kareem Johnson is indebted to Hawks and the Hawke's Bay basketball faithful for sticking by his side for all those years. Photo / File
Kareem Johnson is indebted to Hawks and the Hawke's Bay basketball faithful for sticking by his side for all those years. Photo / File

He wore the Wellington Saints strip between roosting with the Hawks, a franchise he had served from 2006-2008, helping the then Shawn Dennis-coached side to lift the silverware for their only NBL title before plying his trade in Switzerland.

For someone who had a go at playing "tight end" (offensive player) in American football as a youngster, he didn't find traction with hoop heaven until he was 13 or 14 years old because grid iron training and playing from summer to "fall" (autumn) was too hot.

The former pupil at Chipola Junior College in Maryland, Florida, attended the University of Cincinnati before turning his gaze at the horizon for a professional career.

While at university, he was part of the basketball team that made two NCAA championships, the country's top college tournament, although they didn't win any titles.

Johnson didn't make the NBA draft either but reconciled any disappointment with the promise of playing abroad.

Kosovo was an eye opener for a freshman out of college. He had described the war-torn Balkan country in the southeast of Europe as "Third World".

Three months later the then 24-year-old jetted off to New Zealand.

Named after retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson won an NZ NBL title with the Auckland Stars (2005) on his arrival and followed it up with another with the Hawks the following year. He won another NBL crown with the Saints several years ago.