By Nicole Skow
It was the women’s high school basketball league championships. The Athenian School faced its arch nemesis Head-Royce High School. The fans went wild as the two teams jostled for the lead.
Athenian’s Aja Johnson went up for a rebound, got hit from behind and landed on her back with less than a minute to go. Pain shot through her body. She didn’t want to keep going.
The pain was too much. Aja Johnson looked over at Lloyd Johnson, her father, for some sort of encouraging look. “You can do it,” he said in a whisper. That was exactly what Aja Johnson needed.
She got up, knocked down her free throws and sealed the win for her team. Not only was Aja Johnson ecstatic, but Lloyd Johnson was as well. “
I hoped she would be able to dig down deep inside for that greatness that we have within us, and she did that,” Lloyd Johnson said. “It’s literally one of the happiest moments of my life, not just for me, because if you do that once, you can it twice. If you do it twice it can eventually become part of a habit, and habits become character.”
Aja Johnson and her father share a special bond cement- ed in hours of early morning basketball practices. The two have transcended the normal father-daughter relationship.
It was actually Lloyd Johnson who introduced his daughter to basketball. However, each of them will tell a different story. Lloyd Johnson will say that he suggested that Aja Johnson play basketball, but Aja Johnson will say that her father made her choose basketball.
“I didn’t really have a choice, honestly,” she said, laughing. “He says that he suggested it. I say it was more of not necessarily a demand, but he really urged me to do it. I was mad at him for most of high school, but I got over it after a while.”
Lloyd Johnson knew Aja Johnson was destined to play basketball, track or soccer at the Division I level, just based on how she ran at three years old. She ran on her toes, and Lloyd Johnson explained that running on your toes is hard for anyone, let alone a three year old.
High school rolled around and so did the time for Aja Johnson to decide what sport to focus on. Aja Johnson first played soccer at five years old. It was her first love.
As she grew older, she dreamed of playing for Cal or other local universities. Instead, Lloyd Johnson pushed her to play basketball her freshman year and told her she would have to choose what sport she wanted to play.
“You cannot play basketball, volleyball and soccer and do the kinds of things you need to do in the classroom,” he said to her.
Johnson followed her father’s nudge and focused on basketball. Opportunities arose all around her. At one point, she had the chance to travel to Germany and Czechoslovakia to play basketball for two weeks.
Johnson refused to travel at first and told her father. He wasn’t about to let Johnson throw this opportunity away. “This is an opportunity [of] a lifetime that most people on this planet don’t get,” he said.
“Right now you can say no, but we are going to revisit this issue.”
They did revisit the issue, and she ended up traveling to Europe. She admitted that she had the time of her life. She was grateful that her father pushed her to go to Europe. This was a common theme throughout her high school basketball career.
There were times when she didn’t want to get up at 5:45 a.m. to attend her daily workouts with her father. But Lloyd Johnson wouldn’t let her go so easily. Every five minutes he went into her room and told her to get up until she eventually did.
Now she’s playing here at Nevada and is thankful for everything her father forced her to do. “Let me just say that at the end of the day, without my dad, I don’t think I’d be here,” Johnson said.
“The relationship that we have, he knows has gotten me through a lot of hard times. To have someone like that to keep you going, it means the world. I’m grateful that he made some decisions for me, but it was the greatest thing that could have happen.”
Fellow friend and teammate Mimi Mungedi witnessed the special relationship Johnson and her father share. Two years ago, Johnson took Mungedi home for spring break, and Mungedi got a glimpse into what Johnson’s home life was like.
“I think they have a great, great, great relationship,” Mungedi said. “It’s amazing to see it because the way I see some fathers with their daughters, they kind of like reject them. But (Lloyd John- son) loves his daughter. Every time I look at them I just smile because it’s amazing to see it. I really love it.”
Johnson and her father stand next to each other. Lloyd Johnson is just barely taller than his daughter, but it’s not the height that gives it away that they’re related.
Their smiles are almost identical; big toothy grins that spread from ear to ear. Each of their eyes glazed over with a film of tears. They each tried to sniffle them back before bystanders could notice.
As she describes her and her father’s relationship, Johnson stares him right in the eyes and smiles. “I think the best part of our relationship is that he is my best friend,” she said. “He is my confidant. He is my mentor, but he’s my father.
We know when it’s time to be father-daughter and we know when it’s time to be best friends. Recently, since I seem to be growing, we seem to be more like best friends.”
Nicole Skow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.