Tough road with boys right path for Johnson

On High Schools

High Schools

February 11, 2005|By MILTON KENT

LIFE, OR at least the basketball part, could be a lot easier for Dana Johnson, and she knows it.

She could be coaching at her alma mater, Western, and probably clearing space for another championship banner, adding to perhaps the greatest girls basketball legacy in the area.

Yep, life could be a relative piece of cake for Johnson, but where's the fun in that?

Instead, she coaches the Southside boys team, because, for Johnson, having to scrap her way down the road less traveled offers a bigger reward than a stroll down Easy Street.

"For me, it's a challenge," Johnson said. "It makes me have to think maybe a couple of plays ahead, whereas with the girls I only had to think a play ahead, if I had to think a play ahead. It's definitely a challenge and it's keeping me on my toes."

Indeed, Johnson's days more closely resemble Monday, when the Jaguars dropped a 51-45 decision to DuBois, than the two years she coached at Western, where the Doves won city and regional titles in 2000-01 and she was named the area girls Coach of the Year that season.

But in Johnson's mind, coaching girls was like coasting on autopilot.

"Honestly, the [girls] competition in Baltimore City is not as strong as it used to be," Johnson said. "As a coach, am I truly challenging my knowledge? At Western, we could go out and win by 50 or 60 points, but my kids wouldn't run a play. We would just press for 25 minutes.

"With the boys' game, it's actually making me coach. It's making me seek more knowledge."

Johnson, the only woman to coach a boys team in the Baltimore area and the second woman in Maryland history to coach a boys varsity team, commands the respect of her players. The fact that, at 6 feet 2, she is taller than all but two of the six Jaguars who played Monday probably helps in garnering respect.

Another factor is that Johnson was a pretty good player in her own right, perhaps the best inside player in area girls history. Her players received visual proof of that last Friday when they went to Western to watch the No. 2-ranked Doves play the then fourth-ranked Southside girls.

A poster of the 1989-90 Doves team that went 27-0 and won the city title was hanging on the wall, with Johnson, the team's center who averaged 19.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and four blocks a game, in the middle of the picture.

"I think that set off some light bulbs for them," Johnson said with a grin. "To them, it was funny, but I think they realized, `Hey, maybe she does have a clue. She's not just out here trying to kill us every day.' "

What Johnson is trying to do is get her players to become students of the game, to learn to play the entire 32 minutes and, most importantly, to win.

"I told them, `You don't think that box-out in the first quarter matters, but when you lose by two, you'll see that that box-out mattered. You don't see where you reach and he gets to the free-throw line mattered in the second quarter, but it matters now,' " Johnson said. "All those little things build up, and it starts out as a snowball, but it's going to build up and it will bowl you over in the end."

On Monday, the Jaguars, playing without both their leading scorer and leading rebounder, made up a 10-point halftime deficit to tie the game near the end of the third period, only to crumble in the fourth.

Heading into today's home game with Mervo, Southside is 4-10, the third straight year the Panthers have lost 10 or more games under Johnson.

For someone who went 122-11 as a player at Tennessee, not to mention losing just four games at Western, all those setbacks have taken a bit of a toll on Johnson. In a fleeting moment, she says "I'm going to get tired of losing and I'll say I need a girls team. I know that. It's going to happen eventually."

But then she catches herself. She's in this for the long haul, and the long haul is never easy.

"I tell them, `If I wanted and if it was only all about wins for me, I wouldn't be here. I would be at Western,' " Johnson said. "`Yes, I want to win, but I want to teach you. I want you to become a better player. I want to help you become a better young man.' It's not all about winning."

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