February 27, 2024 

Diamond Johnson’s heart and passion helped her return to her hometown roots

It’s bigger than basketball for Johnson, who is happy, healthy and home

BALTIMORE Diamond Johnson feels his presence. 

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With each sweat-soaked repetition in the weight room and each crowd-pleasing move on the basketball court, the 5’5 Norfolk State University guard is always comforted by his encouraging words. 

“He reassured me that he loved me and would always be here with me whether it’s spiritually or physically,” Johnson said of her father, James, who died in 2018 after complications from a stroke. “At that time, he was in good shape. He was walking and talking again, but then he had to go back to the hospital. A couple of days later I got the call that he had passed away. I couldn’t believe it. I was so hurt.”

Majoring in interdisciplinary studies, Johnson has her father’s name tattooed on her right shoulder, surrounded by butterflies and flowers, a symbol of “positivity and growth.”

Dad would be proud.

Johnson leads Norfolk State in scoring with a 20.9-point-per-game average in 16 games after transferring from North Carolina State last summer and being granted immediate eligibility following a court ruling in December, which allowed her to play despite being a two-time transfer. She would lead the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) in scoring if she had played enough games to be eligible to be ranked.

“I feel he’s here with me now,” said Johnson after helping Norfolk State to a 64-51 road triumph at Coppin State this past weekend. “He would still support whatever I had going on. He was always positive, very laid-back and chill. Whenever I am down, I pray and feel his presence. Sometimes, he pops up in my dreams, and this is just a reminder that he is always here. He would want me to keep growing.” 

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Family is the foundation of Johnson’s serenity

Speaking to The Next following the Coppin State game, a smiling Johnson was at peace and relaxed with her arms crossed against her gray Norfolk State uniform, speaking easy and freely. It’s bigger than basketball for Johnson, who is happy, healthy and home. 

“It just hits different when you have family and friends watch you play,” Johnson said. “They notice that I’m happy. That is the first thing they say is that I seem comfortable and happy. When I was at N.C. State, it’s about eight to nine hours from Philly, and then about three hours from Virginia, so my family and friends couldn’t make it as often. They came when they could, but it’s no comparison to when they come to games here at Norfolk State.”

Diamond Johnson is home at Norfolk State and making a difference for the Spartans, winners of nine straight games and a 21-5 overall record heading into March. (Photo credit: Norfolk State Athletic Communications)

It’s the reason why the Hampton native chose to attend the historically Black college and university (HBCU) a 30-minute drive down Interstate 64 in Virginia from her hometown when she had opportunities to attend bigger programs after announcing her intention to transfer. 

With mom Dana leading the way, Johnson now enjoys a large fan club at every home game inside of cozy Joseph Echols Hall that includes nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. 

“I am playing for my family, myself and all the people who support me and want me to succeed,” Johnson said. “That was my number-one priority when I transferred, is to be close to home and my family and friends for the support mentally.”

After all, her family instilled the toughness inside of Johnson, who competes with the tenacity of a hungry bulldog. Johnson ran track and dabbled in gymnastics before finding her passion for basketball. She followed her brother and learned the sport by shooting the ball on the monkey bars of local playgrounds. 

Johnson, who was born in Philadelphia, spent most of her youth in Hampton, playing in the legendary Boo Williams AAU program and starring at Phoebus High School before returning to her hometown to play for Neumann-Goretti High School after her father got sick. All she did was lead Neumann-Goretti to consecutive Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 3A championships and claim Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year Awards twice. 

“Coming out of Philadelphia, you have to have that underdog mentality,” Johnson said. “My parents were a big influence on me. They allowed me to be myself, be outside with the boys and be all rough and tough. That taught me how to have that heart and grit. They were super supportive in sticking with me in just following my dreams. I want to make it for me and make it for my family. I want to build stuff that wasn’t built before in our family. That’s what drives me.” 

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‘Everything seemed right mentally to leave

Johnson was a top-10 recruit committed to Rutgers out of high school and earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team after a sterling first campaign. She was in a high school class that included Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. She left Rutgers after a year and transferred to N.C. State, where she enjoyed some shining moments during her two years. 

However, something was still missing for Johnson, named the ACC Sixth Woman of the Year as a sophomore as the Wolfpack advanced to the Elite Eight, where it lost a classic overtime game to Connecticut in Bridgeport. Johnson was a regular starter the following year, but she suffered torn ligaments in her ankle, which ended her season. Johnson was named All-ACC Second Team in her second year in Raleigh.

“When the decision came, I was back and forth on whether I should stay or not,” Johnson said. “I also knew it was a possibility that I might have to sit out a year, so it was a lot going through my mind. I prayed, and everything seemed right mentally to leave. I still didn’t know where I was going. I would call and talk to friends and family, but physically I needed to feel their presence. So now with being home, I feel that.”

Diamond Johnson is motivated by playing in front of her family and friends on a regular basis. She is one of the most decorated recruits to ever play for Norfolk State. (Photo credit: Norfolk State Athletics)

Now combining excellence and entertainment, Johnson is sparkling for the green and gold, proving you can always return to your roots. 

She’s one of 10 semifinalists for the 2024 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award, presented by Her Hoop Stats. Johnson is the only player from an HBCU program on the list, a testament to her skill set, selfless attitude, and impact.

She has scored at least 20 points 10 times, including a season-high 32 points on 13-of-17 shooting in a 79-49 victory over Morgan State on Monday night. Johnson also scored 29 points twice against the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore and Mary Washington. Johnson also has two double-doubles.

Johnson has 10 games with at least four steals, showcasing her skills as a defensive menace. With larceny in her heart, Johnson, a human handcuff with fast fingers, had 16 steals over a two-game stretch against Longwood and South Carolina State.

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‘I just wanted to be a part

Johnson’s presence and leadership have enhanced a strong Norfolk State squad that captured the MEAC Tournament championship and competed in the NCAA Tournament last year. Ranked 17th in the latest CollegeInsider.com mid-major top 25 poll, the Spartans have won nine straight games. 

Norfolk State (21-5 overall) has achieved consecutive 20-win campaigns for the first time as a Division I program. Since taking over in the middle of the 2017 season, Norfolk State head coach Larry Vickers has led the Spartans to 154 victories, and appearances in the WNIT and NCAA tournaments. 

“Being around family was one piece of my decision, but the basketball piece was I knew coach Vickers from the area,” Johnson said. “I knew Norfolk State was an up-and-coming program, plus it’s an HBCU. I wanted to go in a different direction. Norfolk State won the MEAC championship last year. They got good pieces there already; I just wanted to be a part of that. We all have different personalities, but most importantly, everybody clicks off the court.” 

Johnson’s arrival at Norfolk State generated significant headlines. 

“It’s a little different when Norfolk State signs a player and it comes across the ticker on ESPN,” Vickers said with a laugh while sitting on a blue training table outside his locker room. “There’s going to be eyes that are different on our program. We have a good basketball team, and it’s the perfect storm. Diamond is such a tremendous shooter that we continue to push her to get to the basket and shoot more free throws. She’s a gym rat, and when you see that, everything else falls into place.”

While many were familiar with Johnson’s game, 6’1 junior forward Kierra Wheeler had to do some research on her future teammate. The reigning MEAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player came away impressed.

“First of all, I am from Minnesota, so I had no idea who she was,” Wheeler recalled. “Everybody kept saying to me that everybody knows Diamond. I had to look her up, and when I did, I was like, she can hoop. She’s proven herself. The first time we played together in practice, it was magic. 

“Our connection was automatic, and we’ve worked on a lot on our two-man game outside of practice. She’s very encouraging and competitive. Her energy and intensity take our team to another level, and knowing that we have her on the floor helps us.”

Johnson also displayed a maturity and mental toughness that will be crucial for her development against Coppin State. Despite a 3-for-14 shooting performance and scoring a season-low 10 points, Johnson’s body language never changed. 

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She was excited to see Wheeler dominate with 22 points and freshmen Da’Brya Clark and Anjanae Richardson add 10 points each, along with timely plays to keep the Spartans in first place. Senior guard Niya Fields was the glue holding the Spartans together against Coppin State with five steals and four assists.

“To me, she’s the Player of the Year, because if you have to design a game plan around a specific player, then she should be Player of the Year,” Coppin State head coach Jermaine Woods said of Johnson. “Our game plan was designed around Diamond not scoring 25 or 30 points on us, and we did a good job at that, but [Vickers] does a good job of running things to get others involved, and the other people around her stepped up. Diamond is a special player.”    

Johnson is intentional about accomplishing her goal of enjoying a career in the WNBA. She’s constantly studying film with Vickers and improving her game in the gym with assistant coach Trinese Fox. When she’s not listening to music or playing “Fortnite,” Johnson is fine-tuning nuanced aspects of her game like footwork, positioning and release point on her deadly jumper.

“On my hand, I have a tattoo of an eye for vision because I am a big visionary,” Johnson said. “Seeing all the hard work come to light makes me proud. I appreciate the coaches for letting me figure it out, make mistakes and grow. They know my goal. I am having fun here and honored to be at an HBCU.”

Johnson takes comfort in knowing she’s consistently surrounded by familiar faces while always having a special set of eyes on her.

Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by SI.com, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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