Homecoming - Shenise Johnson

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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They poured in for the meet and greet, squeezing through doorways, filling the gym. Former teammates. Old friends. Relatives. Rivals. Coaches. Boys. Girls. Strangers. Lots of townfolk who wanted to be near Rochester’s very own.

Inside the Baden Street Recreation Center, they reached for her hand. They asked for autographs and posed for pictures. They marveled: “Wow, look at you!”

Shenise Johnson, all grown up. The little girl who once dribbled down the court on which they stood was now a pro basketball player. The grade schooler who lived around the corner, who came to the center everyday after school, was now a 5-foot-11 guard, just back from Hungary, soon headed for the WNBA.

She had returned, as many athletes do, to give something back. On this day, it was free pizza and soft drinks. It was to say “hello” and shake hands and answer questions about life after Rochester, N.Y., where Johnson led Rush-Henrietta High to three state championships. It was to inspire.

The people devoured the food and listened to her speak. They mingled with the San Antonio Silver Star and didn’t want to leave. How many showed up?

“I couldn’t tell you,” Johnson says. “All I know is I signed autographs from 1 until almost 5 o’clock. The gym was packed.”

It was good to be home. Johnson arrived in Rochester after a sensational off-season in Hungary. During her first tour of Europe, she averaged a team-best 15.0 points and 5.5 rebounds for UNIQA EuroLeasing Sopron, which won the league championship and claimed a slice of history. “We went undefeated,” she says, “which had never been done before.”

In EuroLeague play, her team didn’t fare as well but Johnson averaged 18.3 points and eight rebounds. “Hungary was a different experience, culturally ” she says. “I didn’t speak the language. I had to use a lot of gestures.”

Johnson was a quick study, a good fit. “Our coach allowed us to play freely,” she says. “He allowed us to use our instincts. He coached our talent and didn’t put us in a box. He let us trust one another. I think that was important for our season.”

When the doors opened to the Baden Street Recreation Center, Johnson stood tall. Success in Hungary increased her confidence. The familiar faces streaming in reminded her how far she’d come.

She started playing at the center in fourth grade on a team of fifth- and sixth-graders. Johnson grew, as did her game, until her team began scrimmaging against boys.

“We used to practice against them all the time so we could get better and stronger,“ Johnson says. “We could never beat them. But one day we finally did and it was like we won a championship. Right after that, we went to a big tournament and won the whole thing. That was in seventh grade.”

The confidence gained from beating the boys carried her beyond the next tournament. She made the high school varsity in eighth grade. Four years later, she became an unstoppable force. Johnson began her senior season as the lone returning starter from a two-time defending state champion.

“Nobody believed we could win it again,” she says. “Not even our fans. But I was able to put the team on my back and we won state.”

Memories swirled. A future beckoned. Soon, Johnson would leave for her second season with the Silver Stars. As a rookie, she averaged 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds coming off the bench. A strong fall and winter in Hungary fuels anticipation for 2013.

“I want to bring rebounds. I want to bring more scoring. Coach wants me to be aggressive,” she says. “He knows I can score the ball. Coach told me I have great basketball instincts. I just need to be me, which is getting rebounds, scoring in transition, playing defense and hitting open shots.”

The trip back home was exhilarating. Johnson visited with her family, did an interview with a Rochester radio station and caught up with old rivals. From the crowd inside the rec center gym, those boys she beat back in 7th grade emerged. They hugged, chatted, talked a little smack.

A woman from Johnson’s old team started it: “Do you remember the time we beat you all?”

“It was a fluke,” one man shot back.

The next day, the old 7th grade rivals played again in the same gym. But this time the teams were mixed: men and women vs. men and women. And this time it was not about winning. It was about a homecoming.

“We’re proud of you,” one guy said after Johnson pump-faked, drove and scored at will.

“We always knew,” another added, “that you’d make it.”