Playing basketball with boys, that’s nothing new for Diamond Johnson, Neumann Goretti High’s dynamic senior guard.
Playing basketball with boys in a national-level showcase all-star game, that’s something different for Johnson -- and would be for every other girl who has ever taken the court.
“She’s making history,” Neumann Goretti coach Andrea Peterson said of Johnson, who has been invited to participate in the 24K Showcase that will be held on April 22 in conjunction with the Iverson Classic All-American Game at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington.
The 5-foot-5 Johnson, a Rutgers recruit who has scored 2,741 career points, is believed to be the first female to be invited to play with boys in a postseason, all-star game at the national level. 76ers great Allen Iverson invited Johnson to play in the game during a FaceTime call with the Neumann Goretti star and her teammates during practice on Saturday.
“I didn’t know it was going to be him,” Johnson said of Iverson. “He’s the GOAT [greatest of all time].”
Johnson said she wears No. 3 in Iverson’s honor -- although she’s also a fan of other No. 3s such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul -- and makes Iverson’s signature move a big part of her game.
“I use his crossover still,” Johnson said. “It gets everybody. It never gets old.”
Peterson noted that Johnson was the 24th player selected for the game, and took that as a reference to the No. 24 worn by the late Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a Lower Merion High graduate who was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people in a helicopter crash in January.
“She’ll be able to honor Kobe and Gigi,” Peterson said, referring to Gianna’s nickname. “When they told me she was the 24th player, I got chills. I was lost for words.”
Johnson said the opportunity to be the first female to play with boys in a national-caliber all-star game was something special.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said Monday before Neumann Goretti’s practice in the Saints’ gym off 11th Street in South Philadelphia. "Younger people and older people can see that anything is possible.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this big, but it’s major.”
Johnson’s invitation to play in the showcase game came shortly after she was surprised to learn that she had not among 24 senior girls invited to play in the McDonald’s All American Game. The McDonald’s girls’ and boys’ games will be played April 1 in Houston.
Peterson called Johnson’s omission “a robbery." Johnson admitted that she was “mad and confused” but has come to believe things have worked out in her favor.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason,” Johnson said. "I never question God and what he has planned for me. I was mad and confused, but after a while I just let it go and I was like, ‘OK, I’m still working for college and next level after that.’
“Life goes on, but something like this, it makes up for it.”
Peterson said Johnson’s invitation to the 24K Showcase only underscored the unfairness of her omission from the McDonald’s Game.
“McDonald’s made a big mistake,” Peterson said. “She’s making history and you’re not even inviting her to play in your game?”
Johnson, whose Neumann Goretti team opens play in the PIAA Class 3A state tournament vs. St. Basil on Friday night at Lower Moreland, said she will have to adjust her game against the boys.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, Johnson said she constantly played with boys on the playground and in pickup games in area gymnasiums.
“With boys, you got to play smart,” the 17-year-old Johnson said. “They are stronger, more athletic, and faster than you. So I can’t use my speed against boys like I do against girls.”
Peterson said Johnson will prove she belongs on the court with boys in the 24K Classic, an invitational showcase open to players from every grade.
“She’s going to hold her own, mark my words,” Peterson said. "When the stage gets bigger, Diamond gets bigger.
“She belongs there. She earned this. She’s the best player in Philly, the heart of the city.”