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Women's basketball prospect Diamond Johnson finds happiness, controversy after moving to Philadelphia

By Walter Villa | Jul 12, 2018
Special to espnW

Courtesy the Johnson family

Diamond Johnson will enter her first full year at Neumann-Goretti in the fall.

James Johnson used to pick up his daughter after school whenever he could. If he got crunched for time, he would rush home so he could be there waiting for her to walk through the door.

"He was a great dad -- he provided for us and supported us," said Diamond Johnson, now a 16-year-old basketball standout at Neumann-Goretti (Philadelphia). "He would make jokes, blast hip-hop music and take me to the store."

Today, Johnson is bed-ridden after suffering a hematoma in the brain five years ago and a series of three strokes, according to Diamond's mother, Dana Brooks.

Just 48, Johnson can no longer speak, and it's likely he will never walk again. He still makes a positive impact on his daughter every day.

"He smiles, and he makes eye contact," said Diamond, the youngest of six siblings. "My dad and I are very close. I tell him that I love him. ... He means everything to me."

In February, it became a lot easier for Diamond to express her feelings for her father, face to face.

A native of Philadelphia who moved to Hampton, Virginia, with her mother when she was in fifth grade, Diamond was adjusting well to her new home. She scored 29.6 points per game as a freshman at Phoebus (Hampton, Virginia), and she was averaging 33.1 points as a 5-foot-5 sophomore point guard at that same school last season when her mother made a big decision.

For a variety of reasons -- including the opportunity to see her dad on a nearly daily basis -- Diamond transferred back home to Philadelphia, enrolling at Neumann-Goretti. She was ruled eligible to play for the perennial powerhouse in the state tournament.

The ruling was controversial for some because it came just before the Saints began their playoff run, which culminated with their fourth straight state title. James, in a wheelchair, was in attendance at the final.

Andrea Peterson, who became Neuman-Goretti's head coach in the first year of its current streak of state titles, admitted that the timing of the transfer was unusual.

But this was about more than just basketball, more than just academics.

"There are stories to kids," Peterson said of Johnson, who now lives with an older sister and her father but takes a seven-hour bus trip to Virginia on most weekends in order to visit her mom.

"Diamond has a unique story to why she came back. I'm glad she was able to come back home and be with her father."

Johnson, who has an offer from Radford and is being recruited by several ACC and Big East schools, arrived at Neumann-Goretti in February and was cleared to play in time for the Saints' first state playoff game, March 9 against Pine Grove.

The Saints had lost two straight contests at that point, falling 54-39 to Cardinal O'Hara in the Philadelphia Catholic League final and 62-59 to Imhotep Charter in the city title game.

Johnson's arrival helped spark a five-game winning streak to cap another great year for the Saints, who finished 22-7.

But, even as gifted as Johnson is, she came off the bench for the Saints, who had a strong team even before her arrival.

"We had a really good core group, and Diamond fit right in," Peterson said of Johnson, who averaged more than 13 points during that five-game stretch. "I definitely think we would've won state, with or without her. Those two losses woke our kids up."

Johnson is an "amazing" player, according to Peterson, but that wasn't always evident to the player's mother.

After all, there was no athletic background in the family before Diamond came along.

"I never played ball in my life," Brooks said. "[Her dad] never played, either."

Johnson, who got her name in part because her family at one point lived on Diamond Street in Philadelphia, learned basketball at Anna B. Pratt Elementary School, which was located just across the street from her childhood home in The City of Brotherly Love before it closed in 2013.

I want to be great. I want to be the greatest female basketball player ever.

Diamond Johnson

Once she got to Virginia in fifth grade, she started working with an AAU coach, Reggie Williams.

"She had talent off the charts," Williams said. "But she had never played organized basketball. She had no concept of the game.

"But Diamond's biggest strength is her intelligence. She picks things up so quickly."

Johnson also worked tirelessly to hone her skills.

"I believe in God," she said when asked how she got so good, "and I put in the work."

That work is evident on the court.

Johnson can do things that most other girls her age cannot manage, and that range of skills includes a shot that ranges to the NBA 3-point line as well as creative ball-handling and instinctive passing.

"Diamond knows how to change speeds," Peterson said. "She will make a quick move to blow past her opponent. Or she can step back and shoot with range and make it look easy.

"She is fun to watch, but she's very humble and quiet. She has the leader mentality in her, but we're trying to take the shyness away."

Johnson, an honor-roll student who wants to study physical therapy in college so she can help others, is indeed quiet and shy.

But if you talk to her long enough, her confidence will shine through, and her goals are far from ordinary.

"I want to be great," Johnson said. "I want to be the greatest female basketball player ever."

Johnson had never been on a plane until last month, when she nervously boarded a flight to Los Angeles for an AAU tournament.

But, if her mom and coaches are correct, her career has only begun to take off.

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