December 22, 2022 

Inside Stella Johnson Day: Rider retires its first jersey for a women’s basketball player

'Her story is not over — her greatness is just beginning'

LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ — In the moment, it can be hard to see just how significant a player’s impact on their college program will be. It might take a decade before the weight of their leadership and its effect on the community is truly understood. Sometimes, it’s their individual accomplishments that stand out. Other times its their role to propel a team to heights it’s never been. Then there’s Stella Johnson.

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On Nov. 7, the Rider University community came together to celebrate Johnson’s storied career, which included two MAAC player of the year awards, breaking Rider records in scoring and assists and leading the team to its first MAAC regular season championship in 2019–20. Johnson, who led the NCAA in scoring in 2019–20, was the program’s first player to be drafted into the WNBA.

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By the end of the night, Johnson’s number was hanging proudly in the rafters of the Alumni Gymnasium, the bright white fabric signaling the first women’s basketball jersey number to be retired at Rider. Johnson also becomes just the second female athlete in the school’s history to have her number retired.

“This was something that had to be done,” said Rider head coach Lynn Milligan. “Stella’s number needed to be hanging in the rafters here. This program is built on heart and soul and Stella exemplifies that every single day.”

Combined with the school’s student-athlete academic achievement night, “Stella Day” saw Alumni Gym packed with community members who came to witness the homecoming of one of their brightest stars. The Rider crowd, better known as “The Zoo,” lived up to its name that night — from the moment Johnson stepped onto the court, it felt as if the gym were about to burst at the seams. The announcer’s voice rang out as Johnson was introduced and the crowd exploded in cheers, the floor shaking and the bleachers rattling in kind.

Milligan quickly joined Johnson at center court as the cheering continued and Johnson waved in every direction. First came a video commemorating Johnson’s myriad achievements and records and then Milligan stepped up to the microphone.

“Her journey has been well written,” Milligan said. “We all had a front-row seat. But what don’t we know about Stella Johnson?”

Johnson looked at her feet, smiling as if she knew exactly what was coming.

Rider head coach Lynn Milligan delivered a heartfelt speech ahead of the unveiling of Johnson’s jersey in the Alumni Gym rafters. (Photo credit: Maddie Boyd, Rider Athletics)

“She’s funny, sarcastic in a good way. She’s humble,” Milligan said, beaming from ear to ear. “She’s fiercely loyal … She never got in trouble, except for that one small incident with a golf cart as a freshman.”

Milligan had everyone hanging on her every word. As she recounted Johnson’s years in Lawrenceville, the community laughed and cheered along with her. Johnson herself became visibly emotional, with a healthy dose of laughs and smiles as Milligan continued.

“She’s highly competitive; she hates to lose more than she likes to win,” Milligan said, turning to face Johnson. Milligan told stories of Johnson’s early mornings and late nights in the gym, her unending persistence, and the uniquely Stella work ethic that quickly became infectious up and down the Broncs’ roster.

“I don’t think I really processed it until I actually walked out,” Johnson reflected after the ceremony. “I was very emotional seeing everybody in the stands.”

At Milligan’s instruction, the room’s attention quickly turned to the rafters, where a black cloth hung over what would soon become a revered piece of Rider women’s basketball history. Broncs point-guard Amanda Mobley, Johnson’s former teammate, led the crowd in counting down before the cloth was dropped away, revealing Johnson’s well-loved number four in gleaming maroon and white.

Whatever decibel records had been set by the Zoo that night were shattered at that moment.

(Left) A black cloth is pulled away to reveal Stella Johnson's retired jersey. Two fans watch from below. (Right) Stella Johnson's jersey retired at Alumni Gymnasium. The flag representing her jersey is white with maroon lettering (top: S. Johnson; bottom: November 7, 2022) and her number, 4, is large in the center with grey outlining. Johnson's jersey sits next to two other retired jerseys for J. Thompson (1) and Suber (4), two men's basketball players.
The moment Johnson’s jersey was unveiled. Johnson’s jersey is the first to be retired in Rider women’s basketball history.
(Photo credit: (Left) Isabel Rodrigues, The Next; (Right) Maddie Boyd, Rider Athletics)

As Johnson took up the microphone and thanked her family members, coaches, and former teammates, she commanded the entire room’s attention. Every pause she took was filled with cheering as the crowd supported her through what was clearly a heartfelt speech.

“You guys mean the world to me. Your support means the world to me,” Johnson said.

As the ceremony came to an end, current and former members of the Rider women’s basketball team poured onto the court, flooding Johnson with hugs and taking plenty of photos.

But Johnson’s night was far from over — it had only just begun. Rider would take on NJIT in the team’s home opener, which was broadcast on ESPN3 and Johnson was the highly anticipated halftime guest. She spoke about how much the celebration meant to her and her family, many of whom were in attendance.

“This was the first time my parents have come back into Alumni Gym, so for them, it was really exciting,” Johnson said. “For them to see me on the court … they got misty-eyed, they said.”

“It just means a whole lot to see my number and my name up there and to inspire the rest of the girls that come through the Rider program.”

Johnson, who was unranked out of high school and has spoken about her college recruitment before, says she hopes her story proves mid-major players can achieve anything they put their minds to.

“I talk to a lot of girls that don’t have a lot of scholarship offers,” Johnson said. “I think them knowing my story and seeing my story motivates them to say ‘I can do this, I don’t have to go to a Power 5 school to make it into the [WNBA], to get drafted’ … I’m happy that I can be that person for them.”

Ever observant, Johnson watched her former team and carefully looked after their every move. Then, she pointed towards the court, deep in conversation with the person next to her. Sometimes she clapped and cheered along with the rest of the crowd. Other times she shook her head and gazed at Milligan’s bench with a knowing look. But either way, Johnson held the air of someone who’d been on the floor of Alumni Gym hundreds of times before and knew exactly how it felt to wear maroon and white.

Ultimately, Rider fell short, taking a 68–60 loss to NJIT. But despite the loss, there was a spark in Milligan’s Broncs that didn’t take much effort to trace back to Johnson. With a tough non-conference schedule packed with gritty wins and losses and a budding star in Mobley, it’s clear this Rider team is chasing what they had just two seasons ago.

“We’re never gonna stop until the last horn goes off,” Milligan said after the game. “We gave ourselves a chance to win the game and just didn’t get it done … We don’t want to lose in front of our home fans; we wanted to win for Stella tonight.”

It’s hardly been three years since Johnson took the floor in Lawrenceville for the final time, but she’s hardly left their lexicon. Mobley recently surpassed Johnson to become the program’s No. 3 all-time career assist leader. Her first reaction?

“Stella’s amazing, so just being on any list the same as her is an honor,” Mobley said.

As for Johnson, her journey is far from over — the former Washington Mystics guard says she has her eyes set on returning to the WNBA. Johnson, who was injured at the tail end of the 2020 WNBA season, told ESPN3‘s Steve Rudenstein she underwent surgery in May and, as of November, has been back to training with the help of a former Rider coach. She plans to be playing overseas by the new year.

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One thing is for certain, however: wherever she goes, Johnson’s footsteps will be well-studied in the rafters of the Alumni Gymnasium, where her number will hang for generations to come.

Written by Isabel Rodrigues

Isabel Rodrigues (she/her) is a contributing editor for The Next from upstate New York. She occasionally covers 3x3 and labor in women's basketball.

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