August 18 2015
The 10-year-old girl was thrown into the spotlight earlier this month when her youth team from Virginia was disqualified from a basketball tournament because she played in it. Johnson was the lone girl on the boys’ team, the Charlottesville Cavaliers. The tournament had a rule, put in place this year, that girls couldn’t play on a boys’ team because there was also a girls’ competition. Johnson had been playing with the Cavaliers for the last few years because there was no girls’ team in her area until recently.
After the Cavaliers were disqualified from the tournament in South Carolina, her teammates came to watch the semifinals in pink uniforms in a sign of support for Johnson.
When the WNBA’s New York Liberty heard the story, they wanted to do something for Johnson and her teammates. So they brought the Cavaliers to Saturday night’s game.
“In this day and age it really is unheard of. Kids at this age, boys and girls, they play together,” Liberty president Isiah Thomas said. “Mo’ne Davis, she was pitching against the boys. I think these are the type of moments where you continue to break down barriers and shine the light and expose. A moment like this and a night like this for the kids in terms of basketball, it’s everlasting. What was a bad moment turned into memories that last forever.”
The Liberty honored Johnson and her team during a timeout Saturday night. The young squad received a warm, long ovation from the crowd. Johnson spent the second half sitting behind the Liberty bench.
“It’s been overwhelming, but exciting,” Johnson said.
New York originally was going to fly the team up, but the Cavaliers’ bus broke down on the way to the airport, so they ended up taking the train instead. The Liberty also set up a game for the Charlottesville team against a local group that was played on the Madison Square Garden court after the Liberty lost to the Tulsa Shock 81-76 on Saturday night.
About 1,000 fans and the Liberty players hung around to watch the exhibition game. Johnson, who along with her teammates were wearing T-shirts saying, “girls don’t sit on the bench,” started for the Cavaliers. She didn’t score in the 20-minute contest, but said she still had a lot of fun. She’ll tour New York on Sunday before heading back to Virginia on Monday.
New York guard Candice Wiggins said she could relate to Johnson’s plight. When she was younger, she played on an all-boys team and there were tournaments she wasn’t allowed to play in because she was a girl. Wiggins was disappointed to see things haven’t progressed much in the 15 years since she played.
“I think it’s crazy,” she said. “I think the perception that people in society have of girls playing with boys, I never understand it. It didn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to me now. It shows the sexism we face in sports. All we can do is bring awareness to it.”
At the time of the disqualification, tournament organizers claimed the Cavaliers were aware of the rule. National Travel Basketball Association president John Whitley said in a statement earlier this month that, “The head coach was notified that girls cannot play on a boys team for our national championship. He acknowledged this and said no problem to us. This was done during the team check-in process before any games were played.”
The NTBA allows girls to play on a boys’ team at certain competitions with a waiver from the organization, but that doesn’t apply at the national championship, where there are tournaments for both genders. The NTBA doesn’t allow mixed-gender teams at the championship.
Whitley said at the time that the Cavaliers hadn’t been disqualified earlier because tournament officials didn’t notice that Johnson had played in a game.
“In an effort to ensure that nothing similar happens in the future, the NTBA is examining its rule policies as well as its tournament intake procedures,” said Whitley, Cavaliers president Tony Payne and Cavaliers co-founder Waki Wann in a joint statement. “Further, Charlottesville Cavaliers Basketball is committed to ensuring that, in the future, its coaches and families are aware of all tournament rules well in advance.”