The ball listens to Diamond Johnson. It followed along Saturday afternoon as the Neumann Goretti High senior started toward the hoop, before she pulled back behind the three-point line, suddenly open.
“She’s baaaad," announced one of the players on Neumann Goretti’s powerhouse boys team, watching from the bleachers.
The ball followed orders another time, although Johnson’s spin move into the lane through traffic produced a shot that hung on the rim, just didn’t fall in.
An Archbishop Wood High parent, ignoring the result, said, “She’s so good."
Undefeated in the Catholic League, Archbishop Wood showed why on Saturday. Wood was much the better team, dominating the boards, hitting threes, making their free throws, taking out Neumann Goretti, 71-50.
Still, Johnson, a Rutgers-bound guard, scored 30 points. You saw exactly why Philadelphia basketball — a massive sector of it — is livid. One of their shining lights has been dissed.
A high school all-star game sponsored by a fast-food burger chain decided that the best high school girls’ basketball player produced by this city in many years was not good enough for their game.
“I don’t really call it a snub," said Neumann Goretti coach Andrea Peterson. “I call it robbery."
“The whole city," Johnson said of who is being dissed, and feeling dissed. “I was actually shocked. I thought it was a lock."
The man who does rankings for ESPN has Johnson sixth in the country. Now, that’s not a unanimous opinion, even if it is the one that gets the most attention. Another ranking has her 44th. All subjective. It’s not subjective that Johnson scored 28.1 points as a Neumann Goretti junior, was named MVP of the Catholic League, then scored 54 points when Neumann Goretti beat Imhotep Charter for last year’s 3A overall city championship game. She was named Gatorade State Player of the Year.
If you want to argue this doesn’t prove anything about outside national competition .. well, it’s not subjective that Johnson was the leading 2019 scorer in the top summer circuit, the Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League.
Any debate about her worthiness basically shut down when South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who had recruited Johnson but didn’t sign her, tweeted last week: “Philly’s own Diamond Johnson should have been on the McDonald’s All-American team. I have no dog in the fight but she absolutely should have been on it! Killed everyone in front of her last summer and still. Shame on the committee!”
That’s especially noteworthy since Staley’s tweet appeared right after the one where Staley congratulated an incoming South Carolina recruit, also a guard, for making the team.
I asked Rutgers if Scarlet Knights coach Vivian Stringer wanted to comment. They said she’d have a statement, which she later put on social media, saying, “I personally feel that she was slighted."
Stringer lauded Johnson for how she has handled being left off. Then Stringer noted, “In my 49 years of coaching, I’ve seen players receive accolades and selections to various All-American teams who didn’t pan out, and I’ve seen players who should have been selected, but were not, and went on to become college All-Americans and have great professional careers."
All that’s true. There are always hits and misses even if the McDonald’s game focuses on the legends that came through it. Legend has it that the high school coach of a boys McDonald’s selection about a decade back was informed of the selection and his response was, “Are you sure?” About his own player, who turned out to be a so-so college player.
“We believe she is the best guard in the country, bar none,” Stringer had said when Johnson signed with the Scarlet Knights.
Checking under the hood about this decision, I didn’t find the evidence to back up widespread conspiracy theories that Johnson didn’t make the team because she played for a Nike team and the game is sponsored by adidas, or because she chose one summer-league team over another. Her own summer-league coach, Boo Williams, is on the selection committee and is a powerful figure in the sport.
But if there’s no conspiracy, that makes it worse.
What about height discrimination? Smaller guards always have to prove themselves, game by game. A 5-foot-5 guard like Diamond, the shortest player in the ESPN top 100 rankings, has to do it almost possession by possession.
“Oh, yeah," Johnson said, willing to believe her height is factored in against her, but adding, “I know what I do on the court. That hasn’t stopped me at all."
When the selections were announced, “It hit her hard," Peterson said. “This kid gets up at 5 to work out. She never misses a practice, then she goes and works out. It breaks your heart. What else could she have done?”
The Rev. Stan Laws Jr., founder of a Christian fellowship program in North Philadelphia, was so moved when he heard “she was crying herself to sleep," he decided to do something. Laws printed up a T-shirt that said “Philadelphia’s All-American" on the front. He bought a frame box, put the shirt in. He went to a Neumann Goretti game last week, asked if he could present it to Johnson. He also wrote to the McDonald’s committee, said, “the entire city of Philadelphia is heartbroken …"
“That was nice, real nice," Johnson said. “I appreciated that."
It had hit her hard for a day, Johnson said. Now, she’s moving on.
“If she was a bad kid, maybe you’d understand it, but she’s a great kid, the best," said Neumann Goretti boys coach Carl Arrigale, who has had one McDonald’s all-American, Quade Green, and raised his eyebrows at others such as Ja’Quan Newton and Tony Chennault not making it. “It’s all from the summer."
Given the outcry over this, it would be an even bigger shock if Johnson wasn’t named to the competing Jordan Brand all-star game. If she is, she’ll remember who got the McDonald’s nod over her, and said she’ll remember those names into college and future battles.
“That kid is Philly’s all-American," Peterson said. “There will never be another like Diamond."