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‘Fuel to Her Fire’: A Rising Basketball Star Thrives When You Doubt Her

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Diamond Johnson glanced over hopefully, expectantly. Andrea Peterson, her highschool coach, had but to obtain the anticipated name appointing Johnson to the 2020 McDonald’s All American Game. Peterson had thought-about delaying follow so the staff may collect in celebration. Instead, she started and requested an assistant to document the televised nominations.

The recreation is a crowning cap to a heralded prep profession, a notable distinction for a lifetime. To Peterson, the ladies’ basketball coach at Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia, Johnson deserved the consideration as a lot as anybody.

She thought-about Johnson the pulsing heartbeat of town, a hummingbird of a degree guard who woke for early mornings and stayed for lengthy nights to declare buckets and break ankles on her path to being ranked sixth general in her class.

Johnson completed a capturing drill at follow that day. The assistant who had been recording the All American nominations returned. Johnson’s identify, he advised Peterson, by no means got here up. Peterson figured there had to be a mistake. The assistant insisted. Peterson known as for a water break. Johnson checked her telephone, discovering a collection of comfort texts from mates.

Crestfallen and quiet, she launched her feelings in a tsunami of factors all through follow, identical to the time she dropped 54 factors in a metropolis championship recreation.

That evening, she bawled her eyes out whereas her sister and brother-in-law comforted her, questioning what, if something, she may have performed in another way. She had dedicated to play at close by Rutgers University and possibly, she thought, she had to have a grander stage in thoughts.

“That just added fuel to her fire,” Peterson mentioned. “Everything in her life adds fuel to her fire.”

Women’s school basketball is essentially an oligarchy. The identical few packages — Connecticut, South Carolina, Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame — usually vie for the championship every spring. “Those are the type of teams you ask, ‘Why are they great?’” Johnson mentioned. “And then you work toward being that.”

Johnson spent a season main Rutgers in scoring earlier than transferring to North Carolina State, a faculty that had closely recruited her out of highschool. “So much time that I could go to Geno’s or Pat’s, either one, and they knew me by my first name,” North Carolina State Coach Wes Moore mentioned, referring to rival eating places in Philadelphia recognized for his or her cheese steaks. “She’s special.”

N.C. State is on the precipice of crashing by way of the annual favorites. The program earned a prime seed within the N.C.A.A. ladies’s match final season earlier than ahead Kayla Jones injured her knee within the opening recreation of the match. Now, they’ve depth with Johnson, who “doesn’t just give us a spark,” Moore mentioned. “She gives us a bonfire out there.”

Johnson comes off the bench, trailing solely the all-American heart Elissa Cunane among the many staff’s scoring leaders (13.1 factors per recreation for Cunane; 12.8 for Johnson). A level of whimsical debate is whether or not Johnson, listed at 5-foot-5, or the senior guard Raina Perez, at 5-foot-4, is taller. Johnson is as snug scoring within the lane — “I’ve been short all my life and I’ve been playing against tall people all my life,” she mentioned — as she is draining a step-back 3-pointer.

The Wolfpack have been ranked No. 2 within the nation earlier than a current extra time loss to Georgia. “I just felt I’m that type of player that I need to be showcased in the bigger stage, and I knew them recruiting me out of high school, that they played big games against top teams,” Johnson mentioned. “It was just me putting myself on this platform and taking it and running with it.”

Reggie Williams, who coached Johnson when she relocated to Hampton, Va., from Philadelphia on the age of 11, imagined her on this platform.

Johnson moved along with her brother when their mom, Dana Brooks, sought a safer atmosphere for them than their North Philadelphia neighborhood, off Diamond Street, the one Johnson was named after.

“It’s basically like you surviving,” Johnson mentioned. “We just have a mind-set of being on the go. Being aware of what’s going on and just making basketball an outlet to not engage in certain things.”

Johnson was at all times quick and loved gymnastics. In Virginia, she discovered herself amongst individuals whose nation dialect she didn’t perceive and who couldn’t perceive her.

She joined Williams’s Black Widow A.A.U. staff. That first follow, Johnson promptly dribbled towards the rim and threw the ball over all the hoop. But Williams quickly discovered that Johnson instantly retained any lesson he imparted, just like the intricacies of footwork and the benefits of angles.

Williams advised Johnson that she had a particular means that wanted nourishment. Johnson, finally, believed him.

“Everybody thinks that her talent is basketball,” Williams mentioned. “No, her talent is the ability to pick up things.”

Johnson realized the sport from Williams and from Milton Rodwell, her brother-in-law, as she shuffled between spending the varsity yr in Virginia and summers in Philadelphia, competing in opposition to boys and studying not to depend on simply her expertise. In highschool, Johnson persuaded Brooks to let her transfer again to Philadelphia, the place her father, James Johnson, lived.

Johnson had helped introduce his daughter to basketball. A mind hematoma and a number of other strokes left him unable to stroll or converse, and Johnson needed to be nearer to him. Her father died in 2018 of issues from his sicknesses.

“I ain’t going to say it’s a sensitive subject, but it is something that I think drives her and pushes her, is her relationship with her father,” Williams mentioned.

She has additionally been pushed by being underestimated. Johnson has moved previous the slight of not being chosen for the McDonald’s All American Game in highschool, even when town has not. Dawn Staley, the Hall of Famer and longtime ladies’s coach, is from Philadelphia and had rallied in Johnson’s protection, despite the fact that Johnson selected to play for Rutgers and the storied C. Vivian Stringer over Staley’s University of South Carolina. The co-chairman of the McDonald’s recreation launched a press release explaining Johnson’s exclusion and defending the choice course of.

A couple of months later, Peterson requested Johnson to keep shut after a follow and to preserve her telephone close by. This was odd and put Johnson on alert: Peterson by no means allowed telephones in her follow. When Johnson’s telephone buzzed, Allen Iverson, town’s revered basketball son and the perfecter of the crossover Johnson emulated, greeted Johnson and her teammates.

“What y’all doing?” Iverson requested. “What y’all got going on?”

“We just finished practice,” Johnson responded.

“Practice?” Iverson deadpanned, in a nod to his well-known information convention.

He had known as inviting Johnson to play in his Roundball Classic on the 24K Showcase and to develop into the primary girl to take part in opposition to the boys. “That just changed the dynamic of women’s basketball,” Peterson mentioned.

The pandemic canceled each the Roundball Classic and the McDonald’s Game. “I was going to show out, because it can’t go no other way,” Johnson mentioned.

Johnson continues to be on the verge of creating a bigger identify for herself. The N.C.A.A. match is when legends are made without end, and she or he has a recreation prepared to go viral at any match second.

Peterson mentioned she advises her nieces to watch how Johnson performs the sport, they usually ask when she may have a shoe in shops that they’ll purchase.

Just wait, Peterson says. She expects Johnson to be on that stage in the future.

Williams believes it’s solely a matter of time.

“The pool of gas is there,” Williams mentioned, “and the spark is just waiting, and when it hits, it’s over with.”