RALEIGH, N.C. — Diamond Johnson glanced over hopefully, expectantly. Andrea Peterson, her high school coach, had yet to receive the anticipated call appointing Johnson to the 2020 McDonald’s All American Game. Peterson had considered delaying practice so the team could gather in celebration. Instead, she began and asked an assistant to record the televised nominations.
The game is a crowning cap to a heralded prep career, a notable distinction for a lifetime. To Peterson, the girls’ basketball coach at Saints John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Philadelphia, Johnson deserved the honor as much as anyone.
She considered Johnson the pulsing heartbeat of the city, a hummingbird of a point guard who woke for early mornings and stayed for long nights to claim buckets and break ankles on her path to being ranked sixth overall in her class.
Johnson finished a shooting drill at practice that day. The assistant who had been recording the All American nominations returned. Johnson’s name, he told Peterson, never came up. Peterson figured there had to be a mistake. The assistant insisted. Peterson called for a water break. Johnson checked her phone, finding a series of consolation texts from friends.
Crestfallen and quiet, she released her emotions in a tsunami of points throughout practice, just like the time she dropped 54 points in a city championship game.
That night, she bawled her eyes out while her sister and brother-in-law comforted her, wondering what, if anything, she could have done differently. She had committed to play at nearby Rutgers University and maybe, she thought, she had to have a grander stage in mind.
“That just added fuel to her fire,” Peterson said. “Everything in her life adds fuel to her fire.”
Women’s college basketball is largely an oligarchy. The same few programs — Connecticut, South Carolina, Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame — typically vie for the championship each spring. “Those are the type of teams you ask, ‘Why are they great?’” Johnson said. “And then you work toward being that.”
Johnson spent a season leading Rutgers in scoring before transferring to North Carolina State, a school that had heavily recruited her out of high school. “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 said, referring to rival restaurants in Philadelphia known for their cheese steaks. “She’s special.”
N.C. State is on the precipice of crashing through the annual favorites. The program earned a top seed in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament last season before forward Kayla Jones injured her knee in the opening game of the tournament. Now, they have depth with Johnson, who “doesn’t just give us a spark,” Moore said. “She gives us a bonfire out there.”
Johnson comes off the bench, trailing only the all-American center Elissa Cunane among the team’s scoring leaders (13.1 points per game for Cunane; 12.8 for Johnson). A point of whimsical debate is whether Johnson, listed at 5-foot-5, or the senior guard Raina Perez, at 5-foot-4, is taller. Johnson is as comfortable scoring in the lane — “I’ve been short all my life and I’ve been playing against tall people all my life,” she said — as she is draining a step-back 3-pointer.
The Wolfpack were ranked No. 2 in the nation before a recent overtime 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 said. “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 at the age of 11, imagined her on this platform.
Johnson moved with her brother when their mother, Dana Brooks, sought a safer environment for them than their North Philadelphia neighborhood, off Diamond Street, the one Johnson was named after.
“It’s basically like you surviving,” Johnson said. “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 always fast and enjoyed gymnastics. In Virginia, she found herself among people whose country dialect she did not understand and who could not understand her.
She joined Williams’s Black Widow A.A.U. team. That first practice, Johnson promptly dribbled toward the rim and threw the ball over the entire hoop. But Williams soon found that Johnson immediately retained any lesson he imparted, like the intricacies of footwork and the advantages of angles.
Williams told Johnson that she had a special ability that needed nourishment. Johnson, eventually, believed him.
“Everybody thinks that her talent is basketball,” Williams said. “No, her talent is the ability to pick up things.”
Johnson learned the game from Williams and from Milton Rodwell, her brother-in-law, as she shuffled between spending the school year in Virginia and summers in Philadelphia, competing against boys and learning not to rely on just her talent. In high school, Johnson persuaded Brooks to let her move back to Philadelphia, where her father, James Johnson, lived.
Johnson had helped introduce his daughter to basketball. A brain hematoma and several strokes left him unable to walk or speak, and Johnson wanted to be closer to him. Her father died in 2018 of complications from his illnesses.
“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 said.
She has also been driven by being underestimated. Johnson has moved past the slight of not being chosen for the McDonald’s All American Game in high school, even if the city has not. Dawn Staley, the Hall of Famer and longtime women’s coach, is from Philadelphia and had rallied in Johnson’s defense, even though Johnson chose to play for Rutgers and the storied C. Vivian Stringer over Staley’s University of South Carolina. The co-chairman of the McDonald’s game released a statement explaining Johnson’s exclusion and defending the selection process.
A couple of months later, Peterson asked Johnson to stay close after a practice and to keep her phone nearby. This was odd and put Johnson on alert: Peterson never allowed phones in her practice. When Johnson’s phone buzzed, Allen Iverson, the city’s revered basketball son and the perfecter of the crossover Johnson emulated, greeted Johnson and her teammates.
“What y’all doing?” Iverson asked. “What y’all got going on?”
“We just finished practice,” Johnson responded.
“Practice?” Iverson deadpanned, in a nod to his famous news conference.
He had called inviting Johnson to play in his Roundball Classic at the 24K Showcase and to become the first woman to participate against the boys. “That just changed the dynamic of women’s basketball,” Peterson said.
The pandemic canceled both the Roundball Classic and the McDonald’s Game. “I was going to show out, because it can’t go no other way,” Johnson said.
Johnson is still on the verge of making a larger name for herself. The N.C.A.A. tournament is when legends are made forever, and she has a game ready to go viral at any tournament moment.
Peterson said she advises her nieces to watch how Johnson plays the game, and they ask when she will have a shoe in stores that they can buy.
Just wait, Peterson says. She expects Johnson to be on that level one day.
Williams believes it’s only a matter of time.
“The pool of gas is there,” Williams said, “and the spark is just waiting, and when it hits, it’s over with.”
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