Allen Iverson knew the answer. It was yes. Raven Johnson belonged.
Through his NBA duels with Kobe Bryant and his later relationship with the former Los Angeles Lakers star, and his daughter Gianna Bryant, Iverson knew that Johnson was special. And that similarity with Bryant and his basketball-playing daughter helped make Johnson the first girl to play in a boys’ basketball All-American game, at the Iverson Classic on Saturday in Memphis, Tenn.
“That’s that mamba mentality that everybody talks about,” Iverson said to Johnson in the locker room after Saturday’s game. “They want it, but only a select few got it. You got it, just for your heart and to come in here and do this.”
Bryant was famous for calling himself the Black Mamba. He and his 13-year-old daughter were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.
Saturday’s locker room, which featured 29 of the best boys’ high school prospects and former NBA players Stephen Jackson, Bonzi Wells, and Philadelphia native Rasheed Wallace, erupted with applause for Johnson as Iverson, himself a Hall of Famer, continued his praise.
”These are the best of the best [players] right here,” Iverson said. “But, as a woman, they was playing against the best of the best [in Johnson]. It took a lot of heart. You taking big steps.”
Johnson is ranked as the No. 1 high school point guard in the country by recruiters and scouts, and she signed to play at South Carolina. She prepped at Westlake High in Atlanta, Ga., and was named the 2020-21 MaxPreps national player of the year after winning her fourth consecutive state championship.
If Iverson’s praise wasn’t enough, she received the loudest ovation during the pregame introductions.
“It means a lot that I get to represent for the girls,” Johnson said. “Just putting out there that girls should get the same publicity as boys.”
Philadelphia native Diamond Johnson of Neumann Goretti High School was the first girl selected to the Iverson Classic, in 2020. But the game was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The buzz on Saturday ticked up again when Johnson checked into the game in the second quarter. The primary ballhandler, she was pressured and forced into a couple of turnovers.
But Johnson battled. She eventually made a transition pass to Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, a University of Tennessee signee and Pennsylvania native. It was just out of the reach of Josh Minott’s fingertips and resulted in an easy dunk.
An offensive rebound in the third quarter led to Johnson getting an open 10-foot jumper from the corner. The crowd waited in anticipation, thinking it could be Johnson’s first basket. But the shot fell short, and the crowd went “Ahhhhhh.”
“I feel like I did good,” Johnson said. “I held my ground when I was out there. The moves that they were doing, I’m definitely going to steal those and take with me.”
“On the court, she’s playing hard, and she’s not scared,” Villanova men’s commit Jordan Longino said. “She’s taking shots. She’s running point guard hard, definitely an amazing player who has a bright future.”
The next stop for Johnson is a South Carolina team that is expected to be one of the best in the nation. She’s joining a roster with elite talent and other five-star guards, but her experience at the Iverson Classic is historic and valuable.
When Johnson’s nomination to the all-star game was announced, she got a FaceTime call from Philadelphia’s Dawn Staley. The future Hall of Famer and South Carolina women’s basketball coach had tears in her eyes.
“She was so happy,” Johnson said of Staley. “I was like, ‘Don’t cry.’ She was just like she can’t wait for me to get to South Carolina.”
Johnson said her top goal at the Iverson Classic was to win. Her team came up short in a 143-131 loss, but there shouldn’t be too much losing with the Gamecocks. The squad has a recruiting class that features four five-star players, and three of the top four players in the nation, headlined by Johnson.
“Everyone knows that we’re loaded,” Johnson said. “We’re just looking to win a national championship.”