Mead wins league championship with heart from team, manager
It was Aaliyah Johnson’s moment. One she never thought she’d have.
Johnson ran down the basketball court Thursday, hoping to make the shot. The fingers of her right hand pinched the seam of her Mead Panthers uniform, while her left arm pumped as she ran. Her teammates set a screen, blocking the opposing Gonzaga Prep players, and she heaved the basketball toward the rim with her one good hand.
She missed. A teammate rebounded and threw the ball right back to her and she took another shot.
The second shot was closer. It hit the side of the backboard and Gonzaga Prep grabbed it and ran down the court. It was 53 seconds of sportsmanship on display by two teams with a league championship at stake. And it meant so much to a young lady who had her own dreams of playing competitive basketball robbed by disease.
Mead won the contest 51-47.
Thursday’s game meant a lot to the Mead senior girls, including Johnson. Their parents all came to watch their last home game; they were given a present from the team and a few words they had written were read over the speaker.
For Johnson, 18, the game meant so much more. It was her first opportunity to play a game since she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis four years ago. After extensive rehab, she is able to walk and use her left arm, but she can’t use what was her dominant right arm. She has been the team manager ever since.
Coach Quantae Anderson put her in the game Thursday, setting up the play with her teammates.
Despite the miss, she said it felt great to be out there.
“She’s the one girl that deserves a shot,” Anderson said.
Johnson started playing basketball when she was in kindergarten. Her parents, Mark Johnson and Kendra Peck, both played. It was natural their daughter would play as well.
In the fourth grade she played in Spokane AAU Basketball and played well. By the eighth grade, Johnson and her teammate Jade Redmon were looking forward to playing at Mead High.
Assistant coach and Jade’s father, Fred Redmon, said both girls had the skills needed to play at the high school level.
“They were ready to make a good run for varsity,” Redmon said.
But one day during winter vacation in 2008, Johnson woke up with a sore shoulder. She went to the mall with friends and one of her arms went limp. Then she lost the use of her other arm. She sat on a bench and her legs stopped working. By the time the paramedics arrived, she was paralyzed from the neck down.
“It was really scary,” she said.
At the hospital, she received a CAT scan. Doctors couldn’t find anything and released her. She couldn’t move.
They gave her another scan and found the fluid in her spinal cord was milky white instead of clear. She was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. The website for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke said that about 33,000 people in America have some type of disability from it.
She spent two weeks in the hospital and was starting to get back some mobility. After a month and a half in a rehab center, she could walk with a walker, but used a wheelchair.
It wasn’t until the end of her freshman year when she could walk again without an aid and use her left arm. Her right arm no longer worked, so she had to learn to write with her left hand.
Johnson could no longer play basketball when she arrived at Mead, but the coaches asked her to be the manager.
Anderson said Johnson runs the clock, throws passes during drills, keeps score for the junior varsity team and gets the team ready for pre-game.
“She’s the ultimate manager,” Anderson said. “She doesn’t allow people to feel sorry for her. She doesn’t accept pity.”
Anderson said he thought it would be nice to put Johnson in a game at the end of last year. He asked her to talk to her doctors before setting anything up, since she would have to participate in 10 practices to be eligible to play. As of Wednesday, she has participated in 12.
There are six seniors on the team and one of them is injured, so Johnson had a spot, but after talking to the team, he realized the girls on his team are selfless.
“Any one of those girls would have given up their starting spot for that,” Anderson said.
Meghan Elmore broke her foot during volleyball season and has been sitting out. She remembers playing with Johnson at Northwood Middle School and said she and her teammates are very excited for Johnson.
“They are thrilled,” Elmore said. “This has been a goal for her, and we’re happy to see how far she’s come.”
Along with giving one of their own a shot to play, the outcome of the game was important to both teams. Mead and Gonzaga Prep were tied for first place with 18 wins and one loss. Mead won and was crowned champion of the Greater Spokane League.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for her,” said Mike Arte, head coach of Prep’s team. Some of his team members know Johnson, and Arte said each of them know what kind of commitment it takes to be involved in basketball at any level, whether it be as a teammate, a coach or a manager.
Arte said he announced to his players during Wednesday’s practice that Johnson would start. While he acknowledged the importance of this game, he and his team were looking forward to Johnson getting her shot.
“It will be interesting to watch,” Arte said. “I’m sure it will be emotional for her, and we certainly want to honor that.”
It was emotional for her mother, who said watching her play was very hard for her, yet rewarding.
Peck said she didn’t care that Johnson didn’t make the shot.
“She still loves the game and she still loves her friends.”
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