Under coach's wing, Dove takes flight Western's Johnson turns into top player

December 26, 1990|By Kevin Eck

Western coach Breezy Bishop refers to it as "an unbelievable fairy tale."

Three years ago, Bishop was approached by Dana Johnson, then a 6-foot, 245-pound freshman, who asked, "How do I join the basketball team?"

Bishop said Johnson couldn't shoot, pass, run or catch.

"I told her if the athletic ability was there, I would find it," Bishop said. "I told her she would have to work on the court and in the classroom. She told me she was willing to make the commitment."

And it has paid off.

Now a 6-2 senior center, Johnson has established herself as the area's dominant inside player and has been recognized as one )) of the nation's top high school players.

Johnson has led the Doves, top-ranked in the area and ranked No. 12 nationally by USA Today, to 32 consecutive victories dating to the beginning of last season.

A "B" student, Johnson was recruited by more than 200 colleges before she signed early with perennial women's basketball power Tennessee.

Last season, Johnson, a first-team All-Metro selection, averaged 19.5 points, 14.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots and was named Most Valuable Player of three tournaments, as well as the Metro Classic. She had averaged 15.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 5.0 blocks as a sophomore.

Johnson has been hampered by tendinitis in her knee this season, but is averaging 20.0 points and 18.0 rebounds.

Considering Johnson's accomplishments, it is hard to imagine her as an awkward freshman learning to play the game.

"I can't believe how far I've come since then," Johnson said.

Bishop designed what she calls her master plan for Johnson, which was to bring her along slowly and steadily, eventually leading to a scholarship at a top Division I program.

Instead of putting Johnson on the junior varsity as a freshman, Bishop carried her on the varsity squad.

"The returning players took me to the side and helped me out," Johnson said. "The whole year was just learning the game."

Now, the situation is reversed, with Johnson taking the time to offer advice and encouragement to the younger players.

"She's a very compassionate person, and she believes in helping others not as talented as herself," Bishop said. "Despite all the accolades she has received, she remains humble."

If Johnson's story were a fairy tale, Bishop would fit the role of the fairy godmother. Bishop took a special interest in Johnson and has developed a close relationship with her.

"We have developed a special bond that we will have the rest of our lives," Bishop said. "We have a trust, and she relies on me in certain situations and I'm there for her. I never had any children, but if I ever had a daughter, I would want her to have the same characteristics as Dana."

Said Johnson: "We're real close. She's like another mother to me."

Johnson and her family agreed to leave the recruiting aspect of the game to Bishop, who said she keeps a file on every Division I program in the country.

Bishop handled the phone calls from college coaches but left the final decision to Johnson.

"Dana made the decision to go to Tennessee," Bishop said. "Neither her parents nor I made the decision for her."

Bishop said she was impressed with Johnson's self-confidence as a freshman.

"I saw a big kid who liked to eat, but she felt good about herself," Bishop said. "That impressed me. She knew she was bigger than everybody else, but she didn't have any problems with her self-esteem."

However, Bishop said she told Johnson that she could not gain any more weight.

"I never like to tell a kid to lose weight, but I told her she couldn't gain any more," Bishop said.

Johnson underwent a conditioning program and remained active over the summer by playing AAU ball. Her weight is 212, and Bishop said she expects Johnson to be between 205 and 208 by midseason.

During Johnson's first year of AAU competition, Bishop said Johnson was laughed at by coaches who saw "an overweight kid running up and down the floor with limited skills."

But Bishop said she believed she had a blue-chip player. And, now, instead of laughing, opposing coaches are in awe of Johnson.

Since her freshman season, when her goals were "just to learn the game and get in shape," Johnson has continued to set and attain loftier ones.

What are Johnson's goals?

"Hopefully, I can be an All-American [at Tennessee], win a national championship and make the Olympic team."

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