There was a time when Diamond Johnson wasn’t even allowed to play basketball on the street she was named after.
That is, not without the watchful eye of family nearby.
On Saturday night, Johnson, one of the nation’s best point guards and a senior at Neumann Goretti, announced her commitment to Rutgers University, ensuring those closest to her would never be too far.
“This was just a very emotional moment,” Johnson said outside her sister’s home in Roxborough. “This is everything I’ve worked for: the long nights in the gym, the early mornings. I am definitely proud I made this choice and I am 100 percent sure that this is the place for me.”
Proximity to home was important, Johnson said, but wasn’t the only consideration. In December, 2018, her father, James Johnson, died after complications from a stroke and other health issues.
Johnson felt loved and supported by the Rutgers coaching staff during the recruiting process, she said. The Scarlett Knights were among the first schools to offer Johnson a scholarship when she was a freshman.
“But I do appreciate all the other schools,” she said. “They were very good schools and it was tough to pick.”
Last year, the 5-foot-5 offensive savant earned Gatorade Pennsylvania Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year, just a week after scoring 54 points against Imhotep in the District 12 girls’ championship game.
“She really did her homework,” said Neumann Goretti coach Andrea Peterson. “She watched game after game to figure out where she would fit best (in college). ... I think she made the right decision for her."
The Scarlet Knights are coached by one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, C. Vivian Stringer.
Last season, Stringer became just the sixth coach in women’s college basketball history to win 1,000 games. Only Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reached that mark on the men’s side.
On Nov. 5, Stringer earned her 500th victory at Rutgers, which she’s led since 1995.
But a different coach, some assumed, would be the natural choice to mentor an ultra-talented point guard from North Philly. In October, ESPN predicted Johnson would land at the University of South Carolina.
After all, in 2017 Dawn Staley, the Gamecocks head coach, had her name officially affixed to Diamond Street in a ceremony that renamed the area from 23rd to 25th streets in her honor.
The three-time gold medalist, two-time college National Player of the Year, NCAA championship-winning coach and Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame member was born in North Philly.
The Gamecocks, along with Boston College, and the University of Virginia, were among Johnson’s suitors.
Stringer is also very familiar with Philadelphia basketball players. When legendary Temple men’s basketball coach John Chaney was at Cheney State University, Stringer was there also, building the Wolves women’s program into a power. She also recruited Staley in high school.
Staley penned an article praising her “mentor” when Stringer won her 1,000th career game in 2018.
In 1982, Stringer led Cheney State to the first NCAA championship game. She also later led Iowa and Rutgers (twice) to the Final Four.
“She said she found everything (at Rutgers) that she wanted,” said Johnson’s brother-in-law Milton Rodwell. “She felt like it was a win-win and that she wasn’t gonna lose anything.”
When Johnson was a little girl, her mother, Dana Brooks, fearing the dangers of North Philadelphia, was reluctant to let her play outside alone.
Rodwell and Johnson’s father would sometimes watch over her while she played after school near 22nd and Diamond Streets.
Rodwell and Johnson remained close ever since. When Johnson lived with her mother in Virginia, she sometimes spent summers back in Philly to be near her father. She eventually transferred to Neumann-Goretti as a junior and lived with her sister Tamika, who is married to Rodwell.
Ever since, Rodwell and Johnson typically hold 5 a.m. workouts about four or five days a week usually at their local YMCA. The morning workouts even occur during the high school basketball season.
They had one such session before Johnson scorched Imhotep for 54 points.