One on Two with
Melissa and Sarah Johnson
There may be ivy above these sisters' heads, but there's nothing growing beneath their feet on the court as they help Harvard seek the Ivy League title.
It used to be that when you thought women's basketball powerhouses, Harvard University didn't often come to mind. All of that changed on March 13, 1998, when the Crimson took on the Stanford Cardinal in the West Regional of the NCAA Division I Women's Championships. That night, 16th-seeded Harvard defeated first seed Stanford 71-67, and entered the record books as the first #16 seed to knock off a #1 seed, in men's or women's tournament history.
While Harvard has not returned to the tournament since then, the prospects for this year's squad are bright, and made brighter by the exciting play of sisters Melissa and Sarah Johnson. The sisters are from Syracuse's Westhill High School, where in 1996, Melissa was named the New York Sportswriters Association Player of the Year. Sarah was selected as a USA Today Top 25 Pick for the state of New York her senior season.
Both sisters have contributed to a rebuilding Harvard team. Melissa Johnson is a 6-6 senior center and a captain this year. Last year she was selected as an Honorable Mention pick for the 1999-2000 All-Ivy team, despite missing seven games at the end of the season after suffering a MCL/ACL tear in her knee. At the time of her injury, Johnson was leading the team in rebounding with 11.4 rpg, and was the second-leading scorer, at 12.2 points per game. She was also selected as an All-Tournament Team selection at the ECAC Holiday Festival at Holy Cross in December, 1999, and as a First Team All-District I GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-American, a recognition of her outstanding performance in the classroom. Melissa missed a year of action due to NCAA rules that require transfer students to sit out a year. Melissa transferred from North Carolina to Harvard after two seasons.
Younger sister Sarah is a 6-5 sophomore forward this year. Last year, as a freshman, she was Harvard's second-best shooter, hitting 66 out of 125 shots (.528) from the floor. She also pulled down 102 rebounds, making her the third-top rebounder. In January, she was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which weakened her considerably during the second half of the season. For this year, it is expected that Sarah will be especially effective in the low post, and she is expected to dominate her opponents there.
The sisters played last year under trying circumstances. In June 1999, their father, Norman E. Johnson, died. Then, in December 1999, Head Coach Kathy Delaney Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer, and continued to coach Harvard to its second-place Ivy League finish despite surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy. Coach Delaney Smith's prognosis is good, and she continues to take medication that should help prevent a recurrence of the cancer.
We recently had the opportunity to speak to both sisters about the challenges they have faced both on and off the court. We also got the goods on the pleasure and pain of playing with a sister, first in high school, and now in college. And, the duo also filled us in on their plans for the future, their studies at Harvard, and their goals for the Crimson this year. Some of the questions were directed to both players, but the majority of the questions allowed each sister to tell it like she sees it.
GBALL: Do you feel as if you're being treated as a package, especially by the media? In other words, do both of you feel that you're getting enough attention individually? Does it feel like either of you is in the shadow of your sister?
Melissa: I have really never felt threatened by any attention my sister has gotten
from the media. Although people do enjoy making a "story" out of the fact
that we are sisters, this has always been a source of pride and happiness
for me, especially since, at the same time, I do feel like I am
acknowledged as an individual. In any case, I think it would be pretty
silly to get bent out of shape by excessive media attention given to my
sister (or any of my other teammates, for that matter.)
Sarah: I definitely do not feel I am being treated as a package. Melissa and I receive attention for being sisters but nothing to the point where we are treated as one individual. People that know us can tell you that we are anything but carbon copies of one another. The media might try to see us as a package, but they soon find out how different we are, both on and off the court. For example, Melissa is more high-strung, whereas I am more laid back.
GBALL: How important has it been to you to be on the same team as your sister? You had this experience at Westhill; is it a different dynamic at Harvard?
Melissa: I cannot possibly convey how thrilled I am that Sarah and I are getting to be on the same team again here at Harvard. In many ways, it is a similar dynamic that we experienced at Westhill--we have had an easy time getting along with one another since we were kids. However, it is different in certain respects as well. There is less of a "social" gap between us now. I really see her as not just my baby sister, but as one of my friends, one of my peers. She has matured a great deal; I see her developing more of a vocal, leadership role on the court here at Harvard.
Sarah: I did not realize just how important having Melissa here on the same team and at the same college would be to me until I actually experienced it. I knew it would be great to play with her again and be able to hang out together all the time, but I didn't realize the extent of how great it would be! Growing up, we have always been close, but since we have been at school together our relationship has grown exponentially. Playing together now is similar yet extremely different from high school. We still have a powerful connection on the court like we did back when I was a freshman and she a senior, yet the level of play has changed so much. Both of our games have grown and developed since then. So we know each other's fundamentals and favorite moves, yet still can surprise each other. It will be a major readjustment without Melissa here next year. I will miss her so much both on and off the court.
GBALL: You have recently suffered the loss of your father. How have the two of you helped each other through this awful time?
Melissa: The past year and a half has been exceptionally difficult for both of us.
My dad had been greatly looking forward to seeing us play together again at Harvard. I've found that this is the kind of thing that is very difficult for people to understand unless they have experienced it for themselves. I know that Sarah and I both tend to fall into the trap of "putting on a good front" at all times; it is reassuring to have her so near and know that we understand what the other one is feeling.
Sarah: It has been a very difficult time losing our father. The college life is a big enough adjustment without additional major life changes like a family death. God works in mysterious ways! He was looking out for us when I chose to attend Harvard with Melissa. It is has been unbelievably helpful to have Melissa here; I couldn't ask for anyone better to talk to, hang out with or just hug. There is no one like family.
GBALL: What is it like to play for Coach Delaney Smith? What kind of style basketball does she emphasize? Has Coach Delaney Smith's battle with cancer had an impact on the team? How so? How do you cope knowing that she's going through a hard time right now?
Melissa: Kathy is simply one of the most amazing people I have ever encountered. I absolutely adore having her as my coach. She challenges me physically and emotionally on the court, and consistently listens to the feedback I give her as a senior co-captain. I feel incredibly respected as a player and as a person, and know that this is one of those special people I will keep in contact with for the rest of my life.
I don't know how Kathy managed to do what she did last year while battling breast cancer. She missed perhaps a handful of practices due to chemotherapy, and that was it. Simply incredible. She has inspired so many people; in my last year here at Harvard, there is nothing I would like more than to give her an Ivy League Championship ring and have a fabulous showing in the NCAA tournament. She deserves it!
Sarah: I absolutely love playing for Kathy. Emphasis is placed on defense and controlling the boards in order to win games, with which I completely agree. I love to completely throw off a good team's offense by playing intense defense for 40 minutes. I know I made the right decision coming here to play for Kathy. I know this because, in addition to feeling happy here, I feel respected as an athlete, a student, and a person.
Kathy is the definition of a "tough cookie." Watching her go through the turmoil of cancer last year was unbelievable; what an inspiration she is to us all. Throughout all her treatments, she did not miss a beat. She was there with a smile at every practice, game and road trip. I can imagine that many times the only place she would have liked to have been was at home in bed. She made a huge sacrifice for the team last year, and really showed us what true strength means. I know Kathy's battle has had a major impact on the team. We not only were fighting to win for ourselves and for our own pride, but for Kathy's sake as well.
GBALL: What are your favorite off-the-court activities? Do you have favorite authors? What kind of music do you like?
Melissa: I really like the outdoors, camping, hiking, all of that kind of stuff. (Which Sarah hates--Hah!) I love movies, so much so that I am planning on pursuing film studies upon graduation. I read such a wide blend of authors, it is difficult to name one favorite. However, one book that I really enjoyed recently was Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible. It is the same story with music--I like so many different kinds. It really all just depends what kind of mood I am in...(We both love hitting the dance club scene.)
Sarah: I have two major off-the-court passions. The first is dancing. I love to go dancing in downtown Boston, especially with the team. We all are really tall as it is, and several of us wear big platform dancing shoes as well. It is so great to see the reaction we get when we show up to a club. The men don't know what to do...try to dance with us, or run away!! We are quite the dancing team, you should see some of the pre-game moves we bust out with in the locker room! My second off-the-court passion is shopping. Any free time I have, I can be found at the Cambridgeside Mall or perusing the shops of Harvard Square. If anyone ever needs a shopping buddy, please call me. When I don't dance or have any money to shop, I enjoy tennis, biking, movies, music (I love all kinds), hanging out with friends, and frequenting the diverse restaurant selection of Boston. I really want to learn how to sew better (so I can make some of my own funky things) and my golf swing needs some major attention.
GBALL: Are you roommates? Why or why not?
Melissa: We are not roommates. When you come into Harvard your first year you are placed into freshman housing, which kind of sets the tone for the "rooming group" you will have for your sophomore-senior years. So, technically, we could not have been roommates to begin with. Besides, although we do hang out a great deal, it is important that we have independent groups of friends as well. I think it is likely that after we graduate we will share an apartment somewhere.
Sarah: That is funny you ask, everyone always assumes that we are roommates. The answer is no, we have been there and done that when we were little! We got put in different dorms, or "houses," as they call them here at Harvard. We make up for not rooming together by seeing each other everyday at practice. We also visit each other's houses plenty, as well as go out to eat, go to movies, go to parties, and just chill together.
Questions for Melissa:
GBALL: At Westhill, you played on a tremendously good team. Harvard is not considered a top-ranked program. How have you made the adjustment?
Melissa: I am not quite sure what you mean by "top-ranked." Of course, the Ivy League is simply not as competitive as the ACC, it is difficult to attract all of the blue-chip players when you can't give them scholarships. However, we will prove that we are the best team in the Ivy League this season.
GBALL: It's tough enough to be a freshman at college. There's a whole new set of expectations to deal with in terms of adjusting to the academic rigors, practice schedules, traveling. How did you handle the transfer to Harvard? Was it like being a freshman all over again? How would you contrast the academic life at UNC with that at Harvard?
Melissa: The hardest part about transferring was, by far, not being able to play or travel with the team that first year (due to NCAA regulations). However, this gave me a chance to get involved in other programs that I never had had an opportunity to explore before. For instance, I began training to become a FOP (First-Year Outdoor Program) Leader, where we take incoming Harvard students out on a week-long adventure in the mountains of New England for a week to welcome and help orient them before classes start. I also started doing a lot of volunteering at a homeless shelter, and with some elementary school kids. This helped me stay busy, and feel like I was doing something worthwhile during those long weekends when the team was away.
GBALL: You suffered an ACL tear. Can you describe your rehabilitation? How did you stay motivated through it? Are you on any special training program to prevent a recurrence?
Melissa: Tearing my ACL was devastating. It happened during the peak of conference play; I felt absolutely helpless on the sideline as we lost our chance to come in first in the league, and ended up tying for second. There is no loneliness like injury loneliness. Over the past 9 months I have spent many, many hours in the training room, doing exercises that basically bore me out of my mind. Perhaps the saddest part is that I know this happens to so many collegiate and high school female athletes. I know a great deal of work is being done that studies the way in which women jump, and how we can "re-teach" or quads and hamstrings to fire more effectively, and likewise, help protect our ligaments. I have been working on a lot of jumping technique throughout my rehab.
Fortunately, I happen to have the greatest teammates in the country, and they have gone out of their way to help me keep my spirits up throughout
this very long process. I am also lucky to have a fantastic trainer, Lisa
Milani, who really makes me feel like she is in this with me. I can
remember several occasions when she came in on her day off, just to see how
I was doing. Knowing that people haven't forgotten about you, really care
about you, as a person (and not just the points and rebounds you represent)
has motivated me like nothing else. I am about to be cleared to play in my
first game since the surgery. I CANNOT WAIT!
GBALL: You have been selected as captain of the team for this upcoming season. What are the qualities of a good leader? How do you intend to lead your team?
Melissa: Captains I have enjoyed playing with have been exceptionally positive, enthusiastic people. Although they have been vocal leaders, more importantly, they have led through example every day, in practice as well as games. This is the kind of leader that I would like to be. My team means everything to me, I want them to have full confidence that I would go to ridiculous lengths for them--on and off the court.
GBALL: Do you find your height to be an advantage off the court? What advice would you give to girls who are very tall?
Melissa: I love being very tall. Sometimes it can being annoying off the court, like hearing for the 9,000th time, "Wow, you are really tall, do you play basketball?" I guess I was successfully brainwashed by my parents early on that being tall is something special, so it has become a source a confidence for me. To girls who are tall, especially during the invariably difficult times that high school entails, I say to you--stand up straight and be proud! (And if some dude can't deal with the fact that you are taller than him, that is just his problem now, isn't it?!?)
GBALL: You have posted some pretty impressive numbers of rebounds, having pulled down 18 boards twice. What do you think is the key to being a good rebounder?
Melissa: It isn't enough to just to go for the ball, you have to get low, make
contact, and push back. But the bottom line with rebounding is really who
just wants to get down and dirty and go for that ball harder.
GBALL: What do you think is your best skill on the court?
Melissa: My passion to win.
GBALL: You have indicated that film-making is in your future plans. How did you get interested in film? What kinds of things have you done to prepare for a future career in this field?
Melissa: I have interned for three different documentary film companies, taken several courses in film studies here at Harvard, and completed a summer film school program in Maine.
GBALL: Do you have any basketball goals for after college?
Melissa: I would be psyched to be able to play professionally for awhile after graduation. However, my focus right now really has to be on more immediate goals (like being cleared to play, getting back in the gist of things again...)
GBALL: Do you sometimes feel pressure to set an example for Sarah?
Melissa: I really don't, to be honest. I kind of have an ingrained standard for doing things; I'd probably be more worried about letting myself down than letting her down.
Questions for Sarah:
GBALL: As the younger sister, has it been hard to follow in your sister's
footsteps? What advice would you give to other younger basketball-playing
sisters out there?
Sarah: I would not say it has been "hard to follow in her footsteps." Instead I feel very fortunate to have such a role model to look up to, learn from and follow her example. I admire Melissa for many athletic and non-athletic reasons. Therefore, I do not see her as "shoes to fill" or competition. Instead, I see her as someone to look up to and respect. For those who feel it is hard to follow in an older sibling's footsteps, I think it is important to focus on what you do best. For example, if your older sister is a great shooter, and you are a great rebounder, you need not feel inadequate for any reason. Focus on what you best contribute to the team, keep positive, and all the other aspects of the game will fall into place with consistent hard work.
GBALL: Why did you ultimately choose Harvard?
Sarah: Harvard has the balance of everything I was looking for in a college. The academics are outstanding as well as the basketball program. It felt so right when I visited. The people, the setting, the atmosphere...it was like everything fit perfectly into the puzzle. I am a firm believer in listening to your gut instincts. My gut told me Harvard all the way!
GBALL: What was your freshman year like at Harvard? Were you intimidated to be
at such a prestigious academic institution?
Sarah: Once I learned how to do laundry, I had a great freshman year! I adjusted well to the college life. Homesickness was not much of an issue, perhaps because I had family right here whom I saw each day. I met so many new, amazing, interesting, diverse people, as well as made some great friends. Academically speaking, at first it was a bit intimidating. All the stereotypes about Harvard run through a freshman's mind a billion times a day. However, after attending classes for a bit, learning where things were, and getting into a routine, I learned that Harvard is nothing to be intimidated by, but instead taken advantage of with the abundance of resources and things to learn and experience.
GBALL: What is your major? Why have you chosen that particular field?
Sarah: My major, or concentration as they call it here, is social anthropology. It is the study of people and their cultures all around the world. It is what is most appealing to me right now. My long-term goals are most definitely headed in the entrepreneurial direction. I am very excited to open my own business some day. I think studying the people and cultures around the world will help me in the business world because it will give me more perspective as to what the people outside my familiar, comfortable realm want and need.
GBALL: Last year, you contracted mononucleosis, and it affected your play on
the court. How did you deal with having such an illness?
Sarah: Mono was a definite challenge last season. I did not know I had it and played through it for awhile. My play was sluggish and it frustrated me to think I was experiencing a slump during such a crucial part of the season (Ivy League play). Fortunately I had a "happy strain" as I like to call it, and got through the worst of it relatively quickly. The best part of experiencing mono during my freshman year is that I don't have to worry about getting it again.
GBALL: What was your favorite on-court moment last season?
Sarah: Last year, a definite highlight of the season was beating Ohio State early in the preseason at our Harvard Invitational tournament. This year, my favorite basketball memory was the early Saturday morning practice we all shot 100% from the free throw line. This may not seem like such a big deal, but here at Harvard we have a rule about shooting 100%. That rule includes making the entire coaching staff run the next practice! Kathy, Trish, Stacey, and Steve all ran with the team. Needless to say, very little running was scheduled for that day.
GBALL: What are your goals for this year's team? What are your personal playing goals? Is there a part of your game that you're most proud of? What part of your game do you need to work the most at?
Sarah: This year's goals are set on being Ivy League Champions and making it to NCAA's. If we come together and play like we know we can, this is a perfectly attainable goal. Personally, I want to work on the consistency of my mental game. I take pride in my defense. Among all aspects of the game, I need to especially work on my outside shot and clean up some of my footwork.
GBALL: What advice would you give to high school students about finding the right program?
Sarah: Seek out every possible resource, don't be intimidated to ask any and all questions, listen to team feedback regarding the coaches and program, follow your gut, and go where your heart tells you is right!
Interview conducted by Gball Assistant Editor Lorraine Berry.
Check out last year's q&a's by clicking here
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