Let the Hard Times Make Good Times

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As soon as I got back to campus I locked myself in my room. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t go anywhere. Actually, the one time I did leave just to go to the store to get some food, some random person recognized me and addressed me as “the girl who got waved off”…. I was so embarrassed. I have a name. So yeah, that was the end of me leaving my room. I cried every day. I started missing classes. After that moment blew up, I just felt like I couldn’t show my face anymore. I didn’t want to be seen. I was in such a low place.  

Then Laeticia Amihere knocked on my door. If I’m being honest, she’s a big reason why I’m still playing. She knew I was struggling, so she called my mom. The two of them worked together and tricked me so that I would finally open my door. And when I did, LA was the first person I’d seen in a minute. She came in and hugged me. Then I realized she had something in her hand. It was her Bible.

At first, I was looking at her kinda crazy, like, Girl, what are you trying to do??? Until that moment, I had been doing my best to hide my emotions from everyone. But I’ll never forget this. She started reading to me from the Bible. 1 Corinthians 3:6–11. 

I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth. So neither who plants, or who waters is anything, but only God gives the growth….

Then, she asked me to go somewhere with her. Little did I know that she was bringing me to meet and have dinner with Pastor Travis Greene, and that that dinner would be the beginning of me shifting my mindset. Pastor Greene kept saying everything happens for a reason. “You gotta remember that,” he said. “This is probably going to be the best thing that ever happened to you. You probably needed a little setback, so you can realize what you need to do to receive what’s coming for you. You know, so you can see what life’s really about.… God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, so you will bounce back from this. I know it.” 

He prayed over me and spoke so much life into me that night. I was holding on to all the negatives in my situation and they showed me what the brighter side had to offer. I just thank God I had the resources and people around me to help me get through it. 

LA didn’t leave my side. After that, she made me a case filled with quotes from the Bible on these little notecards, that I would read from every day. She’d make sure to text me asking if I read the verse of the day, we’d talk about what it means, I’d write down what I got from it and we’d talk with Pastor Greene all about it. 

The more I read God’s word, the more I could feel myself regaining my confidence. By bringing me closer to God, I was reminded of how He’s always been there for me…. Everything God was saying not only spoke to how I felt in that moment, but also what was next for me if I kept going. 

Even Anthony Edwards called to check on me. We go way back. We used to play 1-on-1 in our high school days, so it meant a lot when he reached out. 

He basically told me to use it as fuel to sharpen my game. I remember he was like, “Don’t let this bring you down. You know who you are … so you can’t let this situation change you.  You need to get in the gym and work on your weakness.… Nothing’s going to be handed to you. You just need to get in the gym and do what others don’t do….” He’s always been someone I’ve looked to, to hold me accountable, on and off the court. He was even telling me to log out of my social media, which was hard to do. 

I tried … but I always found myself back scrolling and watching the video. The more I saw it, the worse I felt, but I couldn’t help it. It got to a point where I used to sit up and watch that game over and over … more times than I’d like to admit.

Every time I watched it, it was like I was transported back to that moment….

I’ll never forget.… Everyone was crying. You have to understand, for Aliyah, Brea, Zia, and the rest of our seniors, that was our last time playing together. We had a natty already, but we wanted another one. They were such great players, teammates and role models to us … that run was really for them. And it hurt so bad not giving them another chance to bring home a chip. 

The next morning, we got on the bus and the video was everywhere…. My notifications were blowing up. At first, I thought it was just about the loss, but then people were tagging me in the comments, DMing it to me. It was literally everywhere. I’m scrolling through comments, I’m seeing that people are calling me out my name, saying how much I suck, how the loss was my fault ….. And the saddest part is, I believed it. I thought there was truth to every negative thing people were saying about me. Who wouldn’t want to quit?

(And for the record, I don’t blame Caitlin for any of it. It’s not her fault. Damn near all is fair when we’re out there on the floor. She’s a dawg.)

Tough love, I can handle. I have no problem with that. But that lil bullying people tried to do on the internet was corny. Something that people don’t understand, unless you’ve been the main character for a day, is how dehumanizing that feels. How it erases your story. My story is mine. That’s why I wanted to write this. I want people to know Raven and how I earned this moment. Who I really am. The moments and the people that got me here.

Like my grandfather, Richard Johnson, for one. If you really know me forreal, you know I wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for him. I remember he used to tell my mom and grandma, didn’t matter what we played, but we were going to play something. We couldn’t just sit around the house all day and do nothing because he wasn’t having that!! Haha. 

He was hard on us, too. Most days, I felt like he was harder on me than my on twin brother, Richard. He put us in basketball at our local rec center. 

And I’d always thought to myself how unfair it was, that extra pressure on me, but now I see that he just wanted us to give our all to something. And he knew it was going to take some tough love to get us there. I’m lucky that I had someone like that in my life. Everybody needs that.

When we first started playing, I was the only girl on our team. So, if it wasn’t tough love from Grandpa, I was getting it on the court. I was better than some of the boys on our team, and they didn’t like that very much, so they would try to bully me. They would call me a little boy, they’d say, “Oh, you’re not better than us,” and “Who do you think you are?” They wanted me to quit … but I wasn’t going for it. At the end of the day, even that young, I wasn’t worried about what those boys had to say because I just wanted to be with my brother. I used to always want to be around him, I damn near wanted to be him growing up haha. 

Whatever Richard did, I wanted to do. I remember throwing fits when we didn’t get all the same stuff. I didn’t care if it was “boy” stuff. If he had it, I wanted it too.

They used to call us Killer and Thriller. A true dynamic duo. I’ll let you guess which one I was. He had offense, I had defense … and I would also dance on the court between plays. I’ve always played around a little too much, but I’m just as competitive.

He also had me training with Ant before he headed off to Georgia…. The same Ant y’all see today, is the same Ant that would bully me when we played 1-on-1.

Raven Johnson

When my grandpa passed away in 2012, I knew he’d want me to keep playing, so Richard and I took it upon ourselves to push each other. 

When I got to high school, I understood basketball could be a serious thing for me, so I kept working. I really started to see a difference when I began training with Coach Justin Holland my sophomore year. Practice was never easy, but working with him changed my game in so many ways. 

He also had me training with Ant before he headed off to Georgia…. The same Ant y’all see today, is the same Ant that would bully me when we played 1-on-1. He’d talk trash, too. He’d be backing me down and saying, “Get your weight up.” And I can’t lie, it stung a little, but it also made me get real with myself. I needed to work harder and get better. I wanted to be just as successful as Ant. He had earned so much recognition and accolades at that point, I mean look how far he’s come. He became a role model for me when I still had a little ways to go before experiencing my own major milestones. 

I went from being ranked Top 30 as a freshman to the No. 2 player in my class when I graduated. To climb the rankings like that, knowing how hard I worked, made winning the Nasimith High School Player of the Year mean so much more to me. I cried so hard that day. There were so many talented players in my class too. Azzi Fudd, Saniya Rivers, Sanai Feagan, Amari DeBerry … SO MANY. And they chose me…. That recognition still leaves me kind of speechless. It was also at that moment that I realized that I, the athlete I’ve worked so hard to be, was joining such an amazing team in THE University of South Carolina with THE Dawn Staley. 

I couldn’t have been more excited to be on this team. I had so many goals for my freshman year, I couldn’t wait to get on the court. Instead of a breakout season, I tore my ACL. In my second game ever…. I know. That was my first real injury, too. I had to relearn how to bend my leg, how to walk again … I wouldn’t wish that level of pain on anyone. I got so depressed because I couldn’t play. I was scared … I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I remember screaming at my trainer, yelling, “I’M NEVER GOING TO WALK AGAIN,” almost in tears. The recovery felt so slow. I couldn’t be patient. So, if I wasn’t in rehab, I was passing the time in my room, eating. Food became such a comfort that I weighed almost 200 lbs. when I returned to basketball related activities….

I look back on that now and realize I’ve had a lot of moments in my life where I’ve had a decision to make: Do I tap out, or keep going? A lot of people would have quit if they were in my shoes.  Success is never easy. There’s going to be some bumps in the road…. And while the lows feel neverending, I made it out stronger every time.

Coach Staley always believed that I would come out on the other side of this. Our relationship has grown so much over these past two seasons. As a coach, she’s the best in the business. But, she’s also a different coach than she was last year, especially with this team. She’s so much more open with us and she lets us have fun (she calls us her daycare haha) … she’s really like another mom to us.

This season, Coach Staley gave us all the greenlight to do what we do best on the floor. 

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One day after practice, Coach Staley told us to make a circle. Everyone held hands, got in real close … and then she said, “Don’t let anyone break this circle.” No media, no outsiders … there was no one but us. As I continued to look around at the girls and our coaching staff, I knew we had something special. But so many people doubted us. They said we were too young … That we weren’t going to make it back to another Final Four … and you know, we really didn’t care about what they thought. With all the work we put in during the summer, we knew we were the best. Honestly, I wish you guys could have seen us so y’all could see how far we’ve come … how we earned every moment we got this season.

I remember dying in those workouts, some of us were throwing up. It didn’t matter how tired we were, we knew those were the days that mattered most for us. We’d make sure to stay after practice to put up shots, work on the little things individually … we were locked in. 

One thing about this team, we could be down, but we weren’t going to panic. We always knew we could find our way back. We knew our depth was unmatched. 

We all could show up and have big moments, no matter how old. Big shout out to our freshmen Tessa Johnson and MiLaysia Fulwiley. When their number was called, they were ready for the moment. And that was so big for us! 

Don’t get me wrong, being undefeated was amazing, but it wasn’t our main goal. We all had our minds set on winning a national championship. We knew the job wasn’t done yet. And what better way to win than against the team that sent you home the year before? 

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Actually, the night before the championship, I wasn’t even supposed to be guarding Caitlin. Of course, I wanted the matchup. So I was so mad. I’m asking Coach Staley why not, she’s telling me to calm down, explaining how she’s trying to protect me from foul trouble. Fast forward, we’re in the second quarter, and Caitlin was hot. I remember going into our huddle telling Coach Khadijah to put me on her. She did, and the second she bounced the ball in my face, I knew it was mine. And that steal, you could feel the momentum in the building shift. Seeing how hype the girls were after, it was exactly what we needed. That was crucial to our comeback. From that play on, I kept telling Coach that we were going to take it all the way. 

Hearing that buzzer … seeing the confetti fall … all I could feel was relief. Seeing Coach Staley cry made the moment all the more real. She does not cry.

We see what she’s up against, not only as a coach, but also as a Black woman. She does her best to be a great example for young Black girls and women watching. For Coach Staley, it’s bigger than basketball … She does it for the culture. And in that moment, we could see how much winning this title really meant to her. I’m so happy we were able to do this with her. Winning this national championship with this group … ugh, we all wanted this so bad. It didn’t matter who scored, who got an award or who went viral … we knew we couldn’t have done this without each other. 

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Actually, let me brag on my girls real quick. We won the title, so let me have this moment, OK?

Paopao, that’s our sniper. She got ice in her veins, OK! And she uses her experience to make us all better. She was a great addition to our team. Breezy, my roomie on the road! She’s always ready to make big shots. She’s a strong leader for us, she knows what it takes to win and she keeps us calm when we get a little rattled. MiLaysia, she’s definitely a generational talent. The things she’s capable of … it’s so crazy. When she’s in transition there’s no stopping her, so get out the way. Kamilla and I go back to our AAU days. We used to talk on a translator app because she only spoke Portuguese. She’s grown so much in her game and her dominance held us together throughout the season. I can’t wait to see what she does in the W. Man, I could go on all day. I love all of my teammates, these are my sisters for life

From Paris to Cleveland, we showed out each night and we made history while doing it. If I’m being honest, I don’t know if what we’ve accomplished will ever sink in. Being a part of South Carolina’s legacy in this way, at a time when women’s basketball is reaching new heights … it’s so surreal. There’s no telling what we’ll do next year.

We’re just getting started. I’m just getting started.

I’ve been challenged in every possible way, and instead of quitting, I let the hard times make good times. 

So yeah, you can call me Raven, Crockpot Johnson or “the girl who got waved off” … I really don’t care anymore. 

Just don’t forget to call me a champion.