Monica Johnson: ‘I had fun playing the game’

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WILDWOOD – She was almost always the best player whenever she stepped on the court to play a basketball game. She played in front of huge crowds – crowds that boys teams from many schools would envy – and played the game not with fear but with flair.

But when Monica Johnson returned to the gymnasium in which she created countless memories for herself, her teammates and the Wildwood High School community Monday evening, she was a basket case.

“This is nerve-wracking,” she said humbly and with a laugh. “Seeing faces I haven’t seen in so long brings back a lot of memories. We won a lot of games here. It feels good to be back.”

Johnson was back because Wildwood High School made her the first female athlete in the history of its athletic program to have her uniform number retired. The moment was part of a stirring ceremony that took place in between the Warriors’ girl-boy doubleheader against Lower Cape May and also included the retirement of current Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s basketball number at Wildwood and the dedication of the gymnasium floor to deceased former boys basketball coach Bernie McCracken and current longtime girls basketball coach Dave Troiano. (See related story.)

For those a bit young to remember and for those who may have forgotten just what she meant to basketball in this area, Johnson was easily the most exciting female high school basketball player in Cape May County history. Some might argue she was the most exciting player, period. She scored 3,173 points, by far a South Jersey record, and led tiny Wildwood to the top of the basketball world, a journey that included three state championships, invitations to the biggest girls basketball showcase events in the state, victories over some of the top programs in the region and rankings among the top five teams in South Jersey and the top 10 teams in the state.

At 5-3, Johnson did it all with a pizzazz and confidence never before seen in a female player at the high school level in this area.

For lack of a better term, she played the game like a guy. Elevated on jump shots. Used breathtaking crossovers to get in the lane. Fearlessly challenged and finished over taller players at the rim. Scored from any and all areas of the court, sometimes all in the same quarter. Poured her heart and soul into every minute of every game.

She was South Jersey high school girls basketball’s version of Allen Iverson.

“There was never a game I didn’t think we couldn’t win with her on the floor,” Troiano told the large crowd during the ceremony. “She was a joy to coach. We all know she wasn’t very big but she put a lot of fear into people’s hearts. To lead us to three state championships, she’s the kind of player that maybe comes around once in a lifetime if you’re lucky. I know I’m not going to live long enough to see another one like her.”

Johnson’s college career didn’t pan out the way she and others hoped. She accepted a scholarship to play at Western Kentucky but then quickly changed her mind when the head coach who recruited her got fired under murky circumstances at the start of the season when Johnson was a senior at Wildwood. She landed at Seton Hall and was a productive bench player as a freshman, once scoring 19 points in a near upset of powerful UConn. But she then left school and never played again after blowing out her knee early in her sophomore season. These days, Johnson, now 30, lives locally and works as an aide at a nursing home in Lower Township.

But even though Johnson’s basketball story didn’t include the storybook ending, the chapters before it were filled with magical roller coaster rides, unprecedented accomplishments and well-deserved accolades.

“I had fun playing the game,” said Johnson, who still appears to be in the same kind of shape she was as a high school player. “I never was a selfish player. I always wanted to win and I loved to play. I just want people to remember me as having a big smile on my face and that I had fun playing the game.”

The reminder of her staggering point total has been displayed in the Warrior gymnasium since she graduated in 2002. But now a large banner will hang in the gym as a reminder that no female basketball player at Wildwood will ever wear No. 23 again. That banner joins those dedicated to Super Bowl champion Randy Beverly, dynamite three-sport standout and former pro football player Bill Osborn and Vogel.

“To be the first female to have a number retired – last night I couldn’t sleep thinking about this – it just feels great,” Johnson said. “It’s overwhelming. I just want everyone to know I appreciate all that Wildwood and the fans and the coaches and the community did for me. I appreciate it all.”

Those fortunate enough to see her play certainly appreciate the memories.

 

 


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