- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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BRISTOL, Conn. -- Miami's Shenise Johnson today stands as someone who helped change the mentality at her college program, who became a leader among her peers, who is deeply grateful to the people who nudged her back on the right track and who is about to embark on a pro basketball career.
Yet there was a time when Johnson wasn't on the path to the WNBA. In fact, there was actually some question she'd even make it through high school.
Back then, Johnson was dealing with painful disappointment, and was not handling it well. She was a smart, curious, opinionated, creative, talented kid who longed for the real relationship with her father that she lacked. Her acting out and temper flare-ups weren't about passing adolescent pique; she was truly hurting. And she felt as if she were losing whatever confidence she'd once had.
"I was angry about my father not being there, and a lot of stuff I had held in," Johnson said. "And then, it just burst out.
"I was getting into trouble; I got kicked out of school and suspended. Just lots of behavioral issues that were going on. I didn't finish a high school season until my junior year. I had to totally turn things around."
She has done exactly that. In Monday's WNBA draft (ESPN2 and ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET), Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike is the sure thing as the No. 1 overall pick to Los Angeles. After that, it's uncertain who'll go next to Seattle. But it could be Johnson, a 5-foot-11 multi-tasking guard who says she can -- and will -- do whatever's needed for her new team. Even if she's not picked No. 2, Johnson seems likely to be in the top four. She can't wait to be in a pro environment and soak up the knowledge and experience around her.
"I like to say I'm a chameleon," Johnson said. "I'll fit in anywhere."
She has already proven she relocates well. Johnson is from Henrietta, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. So how did she end up at Miami? Johnson said she had an immediate connection with Hurricanes coach Katie Meier, and was sold on the idea of really making a difference in the Miami program. The whole beautiful-weather thing wasn't bad, either.
Still, she had one of those crisis moments that a lot of freshmen do when they are far from home at school. She thought about leaving Miami during that first year, but her mom reminded her of all the reasons it was the right place for her.
By then, Johnson really had learned to calm herself down and listen to good advice. That's what had saved her in high school.
"I didn't understand the potential that I had, but others around me did," she said of her teenage years. "That support system took me in: my mother, my sister, my principal in high school, a few teachers. It's important to have some people feeding you positive information every day. Especially when you don't believe in yourself.
"As a youngster, your self-esteem kind of waivers -- at least, mine did. But people believing in me, having somebody in my ear telling me to do the right thing, made a big difference."
Johnson's sister, Shawntalae, is four years older and really introduced Shenise to basketball. She will be with her at the WNBA draft.
"She used to beat me so bad; she never let me win," Shenise said, grinning. "But she taught me everything. She used to make me play basketball with her. And once I picked it up, I never put it down."
Yes, even through the hardest times, Johnson didn't let go of basketball. But she has other outlets, too. She loves to write, including composing poetry.
"Writing is fun because you can be creative and say whatever you want to, and nobody has to see it," Johnson said. "You can just do it for yourself. It's a stress-reliever. Oh, and guess what else I do? I color in coloring books. Seriously, I really do."
Obviously, she's long past the stage of learning to stay in the lines. For an adult, coloring is like riding a seesaw or jumping on the swings at the park: They remind you of the simple and yet immense joys that exist in childhood.
As we age, we really can forget that to create anything -- even to fill in the hues necessary to bring a black-and-white picture to "life" -- can be a very satisfying feeling.
Johnson loves creating on the court, too. She says she thinks of herself as a point guard who can easily slide over to play shooting guard as well. At Miami, she was a stat-sheet stuffer her entire career, finishing with 2,262 points (17.3 ppg average), 1,020 rebounds, 556 assists, 401 steals and 90 blocked shots.
In her time with the Hurricanes, she and fellow draft prospect Riquna Williams, also a guard, led the way. They did not have a truly dominant post player -- at least not like the kind that are in the WNBA. Johnson is especially excited about that, but also said that having a lot on her shoulders at Miami has helped her.
"It instilled persistence, resilience, stepping up and believing in myself and saying, 'Hey, I can do this,'" Johnson said. "I am a person who can lead a team, but at the same time, at the next level, I'm looking to learn."
Her senior year didn't end as she hoped; Williams did not travel with the team to its early-round NCAA tournament games in Spokane, Wash., and the Hurricanes lost in the second round to host Gonzaga.
Neither Williams nor Meier has specified what happened, but the other players endorsed the decision for Williams not to go. That said, Johnson considers Williams a friend and said she hopes they do discuss things and clear the air.
Certainly, Johnson understands what it's like to go through rocky times. She would pass on this wisdom both to someone struggling and those who are frustrated with that person.
"It's important for the people who are around them to not give up on them," Johnson said. "You're going to have ups and downs; you can't control everything that happens in your life. But you can learn to control how you deal with it, and you can control who you put around you. That's one thing I've learned in college, I've been able to be successful in college because of that."
The kid who was once suspended from school now extols the virtues of education and is bothered that teachers don't get paid enough. Her consciousness is raised about issues of gender, race and economic disparity. She sees so many things as interconnected, and she wants to be part of finding solutions.
To that end personally, Johnson also said her father is "in my life now, and we're working on our relationship. It's an on-going process."
And as she embarks on the next stage of her career, she hopes WNBA fans will see her as old-school in the way that she values playmaking and a team-first orientation. But it applies to other things about her as well.
"Someone asked me do I go on Facebook more or Twitter? I said neither," Johnson said. "I have both of them, but I don't spend a lot of time on them. I kind of do it to stay connected, but I'm more into interaction. Talking face-to-face. Not texting, but picking up the phone to call someone and have a conversation. That's how you really get to know people."
19dBonnie D. Ford