She was born almost 18 years ago in Ft. Myers, Fla., to a woman with a crack cocaine addiction.
Weighing only 1 1/2 pounds at birth, Brittany Johnson struggled to survive.
"She was sick and puny, and they didn't think they could take care of her," Judy Johnson said of Brittany's birth mother and her family. "So teeny tiny because of all the drug use."
It seemed inevitable that Judy Johnson, already the foster mother to two of Brittany's sisters, would add another child to her care.
For her first 18 months, Brittany Johnson was on a heart monitor. Doctor visits were routine until she turned 4.
Basketball? Judy Johnson never entertained such thoughts.
"This is a kid I didn't think would live to be 6 months old," she said.
That's how life's journey began for Brittany Johnson, the Olney East Richland senior who has been voted Ms. Basketball of Illinois for the 2006-07 season.
The 5-foot-11-inch Johnson made it through those difficult early years to become the most prolific scorer in state history--boys or girls. And she will continue her basketball career for Big Ten power Ohio State.
Johnson says her physical struggles in childhood have been an inspiration.
"I knew I wanted to fulfill my dreams, do something for myself," she said. "I wanted to prove to anyone and all the doctors that I can succeed."
Few high school players reach the 3,000-point mark. Johnson blew past that, finishing with 4,031 to rank ninth among all girls who ever played basketball in the U.S. That broke the Illinois record of 3,403 set by Williamsville's Angie Sapp from 1989-93.
This season Johnson averaged 36.4 points to score 1,202--another Illinois record--in lifting her team to a 30-3 season and unbeaten record in the Apollo Conference. Her 52 points against Salem on Jan. 25 stands as the school record.
The numbers impressed coaches and members of the media throughout the state. They gave Johnson a decisive margin in voting for the award, to be presented April 28 at the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association banquet in Normal.
Johnson received 96 first-place votes, 54 more than runner-up Devereaux Peters of Class AA state champion Fenwick. Tracy Pontius of Downstate Morton was third in the voting, Bolingbrook's Brittney Thomas fourth and Fenwick's Alison Jackson--a future Johnson teammate at Ohio State--fifth.
Johnson succeeds Belleville Althoff's Theresa Lisch, who led St. Louis University in scoring as a freshman this season, as Ms. Basketball.
According to the most recent census, Olney has a population of 8,631. That's not counting the more than 100 white squirrels that have put the southeastern Illinois town 250 miles from the Loop on the map. The local Chamber of Commerce wrote, "In 1902, Olney's most famous residents made their first appearance in the state."
There's a squirrel count held each fall. But in recent years the town has been focused on counting Johnson's points. She's not only a great shooter--she holds the state mark for consecutive free throws made at 49--but fast as well.
"When I was a freshman we'd play the varsity, and I was the one who had to guard her," said teammate Catherine Joseph, a 5-11 junior. "That was a little discouraging. She's one of the fastest people I've ever watched play high school basketball."
The road to get to the numbers that will top the IHSA record book was filled with several obstacles. After Brittany's birth, Judy Johnson felt a special bond and sought to adopt the girl she now calls "my angel on Earth."
During the process, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and died when Brittany was 2. That didn't help, and neither did the fact that this would be an interracial adoption: Brittany is black, Judy white.
The adoption finally went through when Brittany was 4. Shortly after, Judy moved to Illinois to be closer to her family.
Brittany's health improved, but when she started playing youth basketball in 4th grade, she literally could not chew gum and dribble at the same time.
"She was the worst one on the team," Judy Johnson said. "One time her gum fell out while she was dribbling. She stopped, picked up the gum from this nasty gym floor and just kept on chewing it."
Things changed markedly in the next few years.
Olney coach Curt Dobbs already had a successful program. He also had an outstanding player, Sara Stevenson, who set the school scoring mark of 2,504 points and went on to play at Illinois State.
"When that was established, everyone thought that wouldn't be broken, that nobody would come along," Dobbs said.
But he added, "You could kind of start to see early signs that Britt was going to have a chance to do some special stuff."
In her freshman debut on Nov. 26, 2003, Johnson scored 29 points against Decatur Eisenhower. On Dec. 1, she put up 43 against Robinson. About a month later, Olney faced Robinson again. And Johnson faced a box-and-one for the first time. She scored five points. That was the only time she failed to reach double figures in 129 high school games. What's stunning is that she failed to reach 20 only 10 times.
"I don't focus on how many points I score," she said. "I just want to win and get my teammates involved."
If she has one regret about her high school career, it's that her team never reached the Class A Elite Eight. Johnson and her teammates thought this would be the year, but they fell to eventual state champion Breese Central in a supersectional even though Johnson scored 39.
The records and honors--she's a two-time Tribune All-Stater, for instance--are almost too numerous to list. Besides those listed above, she also holds the state marks for career double-figure games (128), field goals (1,500), free throws (855) and single-season field goals made (444).
Now she's working out with Olney's football players and lifting weights to get ready for Ohio State coach Jim Foster.
"He's ready for me to come in, work hard and win a starting spot," she said.
Johnson needs little motivation. Her mother told a reporter, "Just tell her she can't do something, and she's going to prove you wrong."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun