Sunday, August 30, 2015

Better than the boys: Wildwood's Monica Johnson

Better than the boys: Wildwood's Monica Johnson

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By Phil Anastasia

A lot of folks say Monica Johnson played like a boy, but that's not quite right.

Most boys can only dream of making her moves.

Johnson scored 3,173 points and led Wildwood to three consecutive Group 1 state titles in the early 2000s. She put the tiny school at the corner of Baker and Pacific avenues in the heart of the seaside resort town on the girls' basketball map.

But that wasn't the half of it.

What made the 5-foot-2 Johnson so special was her dazzling ability to handle the basketball, her uncanny court sense, her theatrical flair.

Behind the back, between the legs, no-look dish, Johnson would do it all - often on the same possession.

"That's all I ever wanted to do," Johnson said the other day. "From the time I was a little girl, I just wanted to play ball."

Johnson, 29, will be inducted into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame on Feb. 10. She will join seven others as members of the class of 2013 to be honored by the Albert Carino Basketball Club of South Jersey at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill.

Johnson might not be the best girls' basketball player in South Jersey history, although she's on the short list.

But no girl has ever been more fun to watch.

No girl ever brought more people out of their seats.

"There was just something about her," Wildwood coach Dave Troiano said. "We used to have a grammar-school summer league down here and I remember one of my assistants telling me, 'You have to see this girl.'

"She was in fifth grade. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. She could have started on the varsity. Even then, she saw the whole floor."

Johnson said she learned to play on a weather-worn court in the center of the Commissioners Court housing project off New Jersey Avenue.

"The cement was all torn up, there was grass growing -- I think that's what helped me learn to control my dribble," Johnson said. "I wanted to be as good as the boys. I had older cousins who played and I wanted to compete with them."

Johnson led Wildwood to state titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. But the Warriors didn't just clean up on Group 1 competition.

"We played some really good teams like Cardinal O'Hara when they had three Division I players and were ranked fifth in the nation," Troiano said. "But there was not a game we ever played that I didn't think we were going to win because we had Monica."

Johnson started her college career at Western Kentucky, transferred to Seton Hall and suffered a severe knee injury. She was never the same as a player.

"That was hard for me to accept," said Johnson, who lives in Wildwood and works with developmentally disabled people for the Arc of Cape May County. "But it's all in the past."

The Hall of Fame ceremony is a celebration of the past, a tribute to the finest of South Jersey basketball.

Including the little girl who played like a boy -- on the best boy's best day.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.

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About this blog
Born and raised in South Jersey, Phil Anastasia prefers standing on the sidelines at high school football games on Friday nights to sitting in the press box at Eagles games on Sunday afternoons. He’s a graduate of Rowan University with a degree in English. Reach Phil at panastasia@phillynews.com.

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