Western grad Johnson is ready to take on country's best basketball players


LOS ANGELES -- Dana Johnson's story is one they will tell for years at Western High School in Baltimore, the tale of the big player with the bigger heart.

She went from an awkward, out-of-shape 14-year-old to a star.

As a freshman, she occupied space. As a sophomore, she learned to shoot. As a junior, she grew leaner, the pounds dropping off her 6-foot-2 frame, until she finally weighed 205. And as a senior, she blossomed.

"Sometimes I look back and can't believe all that has happened," said Dana Johnson. "It seems like a fairy tale."

This is a fairy tale with a happy ending. Johnson is 18 and enjoying that summer when she is perched triumphantly between high school graduation and college's first semester. She is a member of the East women's team at the U.S. Olympic Festival, in a bid to test her strength in a national competition.

"I guess this will let me know if I'm really ready to play top-notch Division I basketball," she said. "Right now, I'm happy, very happy, with what I've done."

Yesterday she scored six points on 2-for-6 from the field in a 70-62 loss to the South.

Johnson has won nearly every award a high school girls basketball player can. After averaging 22 points and 21 rebounds during her senior season, she earned Parade and USA Today All-America honors and was named the Player of the Year in Baltimore by The Sun and The Evening Sun.

Despite the honors, she remains unaffected. She is proud of her average of 84 in Western's college preparatory business course. She is excited and nervous about joining the national women's basketball champions at the University of Tennessee this fall.

"Everything really hasn't hit me yet," she said. "I guess I'll settle down when I go to college. My folks will drop me off, and then about three weeks later, I'll be down there by myself, and then I'll absorb everything. I'll probably be homesick."

Western High School coach Breezy Bishop has no doubts that Johnson will develop into a star at Tennessee. It was Bishop who saw the glimmer of talent inside Johnson four years ago.

"I don't care how much I yelled at her, how I hard I pulled on her, Dana never lost her temper or composure," Bishop said. "She always wanted to learn."

Bishop shepherded Johnson through a series of national basketball camps to give her wider exposure. Baltimore may be a primary stop on the men's recruiting trail, but it is usually off the beaten path in the women's game. With the help of the Waves organization in Anne Arundel County, Bishop was able to send Johnson to the prestigious Blue Star tournament in Los Angeles last summer.

"She needed for coaches to see her," Bishop said. "I knew she had the talent to play at a big school."

More than 150 schools contacted Johnson, and she visited Tennessee, Maryland, North Carolina State and Georgia. With the help of her parents, Portia and Bobby, she sorted through the mail and the pitches, and chose Tennessee.

"I liked all the schools," she said. "But as a player, I wanted to experience having a national championship. That's why I'm going to Tennessee."

There, Johnson expects to improve her skills and conditioning, gaining experience as a freshman before making a run to become a starting power forward. She plans to report weighing 195 pounds.

"I want to do this for my family," she said. "I know my goals in life. I want a college degree. I want to play basketball. Women don't get much of an opportunity to play basketball beyond college, but I'd like to try that, too."

For Johnson, the Olympic Festival is just the beginning of the next phase of her life and her career.

"Atlanta, 1996," she said. "One day, I want to play in the Olympics. But I have a lot of hard work to do."

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