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Temeka Johnson Draws Inspiration, Motivation From Grandmother

Temeka Johnson has had a tumultuous 2008 campaign, but is ready to help lead the Sparks into the postseason.
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The WNBA's Rookie of the Year in 2005, point guard Temeka Johnson was expected to be a major part of the dynamic Los Angeles Sparks offense in 2008. But after missing all but 11 games in the 2007 season due to a serious knee injury and a tweaked ankle, the 5-3 sparkplug was taken away from the Sparks again in 2008, this time to attend to a far more serious matter.

Her grandmother, Jewel Johnson, the woman who raised her throughout her childhood in the New Orleans area, had cancer.

Jewel passed away on July 14, but not before Temeka and many members of her immediate family paid their proper respects. Temeka spoke with WNBA.com's Adam Hirshfield recently about the final days with the woman she called her "inspiration."

From what I understand, your grandmother played a big part in raising you. Is that fair to say?

That is 100 percent accurate. Because of her, I am the person I am now, the woman I am now, because of the things that she instilled in me about life and family. She has played a tremendous part in my life. I had some other great people that have come into my life, (former LSU) Coach (Sue) Gunter as well. What you see now is what she has helped transform.

This could be a difficult question, so feel free not to answer, but what was the deal with your mom? Why did your grandmother raise you?

My mom and I have a great relationship. My mom was just young (when she had me). She was a young mom and, like any helping mother, my grandmother took on that (motherly) role. Early on because she was a teacher, she saw something great in me, something special in me and she made sure she helped provide a better life for me.

My mom and I are great together. I love my mom. We talk everyday. Even though I lived with my grandmother, my mom was there every day. I guess I felt more comfortable being with my grandmother.

CONTINUING JEWEL'S WORK

Temeka Johnson wasn't the only WNBA player affected in a positive way by the life of her grandmother, Jewel. Temeka's friend and former LSU teammate Sylvia Fowles ("We're BFFs," says Fowles.) was nearly as close to Jewel.

Coming to Baton Rouge from Miami, Fowles, then a freshman, was a bit unnerved to be in a new place. But Jewel stepped in to help.

"She took me in once I got to college," says Fowles, "and (it's wonderful) to have that comfort of having someone who can help and provide that support when your mom's not there."

Even when Temeka graduated in 2005, Fowles remained just as close to Jewel. "Her grandmother was an extra outlet for me. It was amazing to drive down to New Orleans (from Baton Rouge) and visit her at home and sit down and get a nice home-cooked meal. She treated me like a granddaughter. And from my understanding, she didn't take to too many people.

"I was very blessed just to be in her presence and to be under her wing for a while when I was in college."

So after Jewel's death over the summer, Temeka began the process of setting up a scholarship fund in her grandmother's name.

"The scholarship will be for underprivileged kids," she says. "My grandmother was a public school teacher. She was a giver and she loved to make a difference in people's lives. I want to be sure that that work continues."

When Fowles was honored with the June WNBA Cares Community Assist Award (see photo above), which carries with it a donation of $5,000 to the charity of the winner's choice, the choice for Big Syl was an easy one.

She donated the entire check to H.O.P.E. (Heaven Opens People’s Eyes) to help initiate the new Jewel Johnson H.O.P.E. Teacher Scholarship program.

"Once I got the award, I started thinking about it… and I didn't have a foundation yet, so to be able to help Temeka out was the perfect solution. To be able to help her foundation get going was a wonderful thing for me and I know I made the right decision by giving it to her."

"My grandmother was just as important to her as she was to me," Temeka said afterwards. "(The donation) was a wonderful surprise, but that's just who she is. I was honored and thankful for it and she and I will be looking to do a lot of good things with the foundation in the future."

For updates and more information, please stay tuned to Temeka's Web site at Meek2.com.

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images
Was your grandmother a big fan of you playing basketball?

She started watching me more when I was in high school and in college. My grandmother was a typical grandmother who loved to stay home, who loved to make sure her house was clean, loved to cook and make sure everyone had something to eat. But she knew everything that went on with me and was aware of everything. As I got older, I wanted to show her how much I appreciated her. It was important for her to be there for me and she knew that. She was at almost every college game. On the road? She would come. She came (to New York with me) when I got drafted. She was involved. She was around.

You say she was a great cook… what was her favorite thing to cook?

To be honest with you, her favorite thing to cook was whatever we wanted to eat. Whenever I came home, everyone in the house knew we would have baby back ribs, macaroni and corn. I had another uncle… every time he came home, everyone knew we would have spaghetti and meatballs. It was my grandmother making sure we were happy and we were comfortable. So whatever made us happy, that is what she wanted to do.

In what other ways was she an inspiration to you? How did she fulfill that motherly role?

First of all, I could not leave the house without looking presentable. The clothes had to be ironed and the shirt had to be tucked in. Girls had to be in white. The white could not be dirty.

She was everything. She would also save me whenever my mom would try and discipline me. She would be like, "OK, that's enough. Ease up on her a little bit.” When I really needed to be disciplined, she never interrupted. That's when I knew for sure that I shouldn't have done whatever it was I was being disciplined for at that time.

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She raised seven kids of her own by herself, no extra assistance or anything, all off of a teacher's salary. To me that is amazing when you look back at everything she overcame. Plus she took (care of) me without even thinking about it. She also took on another one of my little cousins who is 13 now.

I thought my grandmother was amazing while she was here, but the way she left was even more amazing.

She died on July 14. The Friday before, my uncle was sitting next to my grandmother in the bed. Mind you my grandmother was paralyzed from the waist down. She had a tumor that was growing on her spine. It started June 3, when we played in Chicago. She had a cancerous tumor that was pressing up on her spine, so she was paralyzed from the waist down. She had had cancer since last year. But when I left to go to training camp in April, my grandmother was walking. She was going through chemo and everything but she was still mobile. It was really hard for me to get back home and see my grandmother -- who was a plus-sized woman, almost the same height as me -- cooped up in a bed and not able to walk.

That Friday night, she was in the bed and she was lying down and my uncle was lying next to her. She was sleeping. And I guess her sister -- who had passed away (previously) -- was calling for her to come home. My grandmother said, “Not right now.”

My uncle was like, "Mom, what did you say?"

"Oh nothing,” she said, “just get me something to drink."

And he said, "Oh no, not right now," because my grandmother was not eating, she wasn’t drinking, she wasn’t doing anything.

That Saturday my pastor and my mentor came to my house to pray for her. They are from Baton Rouge. My grandmother's house is in New Orleans, so they came all the way to New Orleans to pray for her. And we were sitting around, clowning around, and the day was going really well.

Saturday night she asked everyone to come to the house. We were not sure what was going on, so everyone was nervous about what she was going to say. But then she changed her mind and said that she didn't want to talk to everyone just then... maybe another time. Then she asked my aunt to bring her a notebook that she had put up in her room. She was in the bed and it was dark. We asked, "What do you need a notebook for?"

She says, "Don’t worry about that. I have to finish writing something."

It took a little while for us to realize it, but my grandmother was writing her own obituary.

One of my mentors called and asked how I was doing. I told him I was OK, but that I just needed to talk to him. I began by saying, "(My grandmother) is tired. She is really, really tired and I know she is tired."

He said, "I know, Temeka. You have to release her. Let her know it’s OK to go home."

I am thinking, "Are you crazy? I can't do that."

He said, "She is holding on because she doesn’t think everyone is going to be OK, but she is tired and that is not fair to her."

It took me about 40 minutes to an hour to actually get to that point where I was able to tell her it was OK to go home. I wanted to make sure I was strong enough to do it without breaking down and crying to her. But I finally asked everyone to leave the room.

I just thanked her for everything that she has done, for helping me become who I am, how much she meant to me and how I would never be able to repay her for what she’d done for me. There is no money in the world that could repay her for what she has helped me to become. And I told her that I knew she was tired and I let her know that it was OK for her to go home. I told her not worry about the family and that I would do all that I could to make sure the family stays together.

She looked at me out of the corner of her eyes and said, "OK." That was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do.

Sunday morning, my grandmother woke up and her heart was racing like she had just run a marathon. The air conditioning was on as high as it could go and the fan was on her. But she couldn’t seem to get cool. I called an ambulance and she went to the hospital. She was in the emergency room.

I finally got back to see her and we talked. She talked about the new oxygen that they gave her and she said it was the best oxygen she had had and to see if we can get it for her to go home. She said, "I don’t know, but this is some good oxygen." (Laughs.) We clowned around with that. I said, "I understand that you are tired, so I will leave you and I will see you tomorrow."

"Baby girl, I love you," I told her.

And she said, "I love you too, baby."

On my way out of the door, I turned around just to look at her and she raised her head up and said, "You take care of yourself, OK?" I said, "Yes ma'am I will." I knew what she was trying to tell me. As I walked out her door, the tears ran down my face. I wasn't sure when it was going to happen, but I knew it would be soon.

The doctors said she was going to go home on Monday at 5 p.m., so they were going to keep her overnight. Monday morning I got up -- I didn’t sleep at the hospital, but my mom did -- and I headed to the hospital and (my grandmother) was in great spirits. She wanted to eat, and in the week I had been home, she hadn’t eaten anything or even drank anything. But she was craving this pineapple soda. She made my uncle go to the store to get one for her. (Because she hadn’t eaten or drank anything) it was so strong. She was like "Whee!" but it was good to her. We all laughed and just enjoyed the moment.

Mind you, on Sunday the doctor told us that she is an amazing woman, and that with what is going on inside her body we don’t understand how she can understand you, hold herself up or comprehend what you are saying. There is some serious stuff going on inside her body. The cancer had spread all over. They said, "She isn’t taking pain medicine or anything. She is a really strong woman, but you have to know that she is sicker than she looks."

But like I was saying, on Monday she was in great spirits and she was supposed to go home at 5. She and I were in the hospital room by ourselves and she just couldn’t get comfortable. She just kept leaning and I tried to help her get comfortable. For some reason,when I tried to make her lay all the way back in the bed. I'm not sure what it was... it was like a steel rod or something that was preventing me from laying her all the way back. It was not a force from her, though, which really rattled me. To keep my mind off of what was happening, she asked me out of the blue to swing her legs. And I was like "Swing your legs? What?" Then she said, "One at a time, just take (my leg) and move it slowly in a slow motion."

So even though I didn’t really understand it, I was not going to be disrespectful. I was going to try and make her feel as comfortable as she could be. As I was swinging her legs, I noticed that she still couldn't get comfortable. I lay in the bed with her and she lays on my shoulder, and soon her weight is all on me. I thought at that moment, "Oh, no… I KNOW she did not just pass away on my shoulder." And she jumped back up and she said, "I was almost there." Now I am in a room with her by myself, and I am like, "Excuse me?!" But I thought about what she was saying, and then I was like, "Baby girl, it is OK, go ahead on home."

But that is not how she wanted to leave. She was the glue of our family. When she finally left, she wanted everybody to be around her. She and I were talking back and forth when my aunt walked into the room. She noticed then that I had a different look on my face, so she immediately asked me what was wrong. I told her that I wasn't sure and that I didn't know how to explain it to her. So she and I switched places. Once my aunt sat down on the bed, my grandmother laid on my aunt like a newborn baby. My aunt told me to call everybody in. My mom walked in and it looks like my grandmother passed on my aunt’s shoulder, so my mom starts screaming. "Mom, come back. Ma, come back." She pops up and grabbed the rails of the bed and my grandmother said, "I am right here."

At 1:42, that was the last time my grandmother looked at me. She told me to give her her medicine. At 1:50, she started passing over. I looked in her eyes and they were just staring into the corner. They didn’t move. I kept trying to get her eyes (to focus), but they were locked in that corner. People say that when you are leaving, your hearing is the last thing to go, so she had already started passing over. She couldn't see me anymore, but she could still hear what I was saying to her.

So the nurses are coming in and out of the room. My uncles are coming from every angle of the hospital. And I said a prayer. I asked the lord if he wasn’t going to manifest my grandmother to where she was going to get better in this lifetime on this side, then he should take her home because I had never seen her suffer before and I didn’t intend on watching her suffer. I also said that if you are going to take her, take her with her dignity. The nurses were there trying to draw blood, but her veins had already locked up. They were not able to get any vital signs.

They kept calling, "Ms. Johnson! Ms. Johnson!" and she was just going in and out.

My aunt said, "Ma, do you know where you are?"

"Yes, I am at the hospital," my grandmother answered.

My aunt then asked, "What s your name?"

"Jewel Johnson," said my grandmother.

"How old are you?"

"Sixty-six."

"Ma, can you see me?" asked my aunt.

"No," said my grandmother, "but I can hear you."

At 3:10, I watched my grandmother take her last breath. And nobody will probably ever believe me but I saw this light and I didn’t know what it was. I walked out of her hospital room and the lord showed her to me, dancing in the sunset with her sister that had been calling her. And I was like, “I am not going to tell anyone about this because no one is going to believe me.” But it’s 100 percent true.

I watched her take her last breath. When she passed away, she knew where she was, who she was, how old she was and who was around her. And she didn’t leave until our family surrounded her in the bed. I had to thank God because he had answered my prayers. My grandmother left with her dignity. The cancer had taken over her body, but it never took her mind.

My grandmother had everything set up. The notebook that she had… we thought that it was just her writing her obituary. But it was more than that. It was also the entire setup for her funeral. On the first page, it read, "There are some samples in here, use these as a guide." She had old obituaries. She had everything written out: her full name, her mom's and dad's names, her sisters and brothers, the ones that had passed, her two children that had died, the other seven, she raised me, she raised my little cousin, when she was baptized, elementary school, middle school, high school, trade school, years of service as a teacher… everything was drawn up.

The casket that we had was pink and sterling silver and we wanted her to be in a pink outfit. Looking back, I now know that we were doing everything backwards because we were not paying attention to this notebook. We went to the funeral home to set up the services, but we didn’t have anything written up: when she was married, when she was divorced, so we were trying to think of it all off the top of our heads (not knowing that she had already written it all out). Even with all the times that we had bugged her before trying to see what she was writing in this notebook, this particular time, no one thought to go through it to see what was really in it. After getting most of the details taken care of, we went shopping for her outfit... my mom, my aunt and myself. But we couldn’t really find the pink that we wanted. So we were tired and it was getting closer to the end of the day, so we went home to get something to eat.

When we got home, my aunt went into my grandmother's room, where I had been sleeping since I'd been staying there. There was a plastic bag sticking out of the closet. She came back and said, "You all won’t believe this."

"What?" we said.

"Your Momma left a pink suit starched and in the closet." It was in the closet, pressed and still in the cleaner’s bag. The suit she wanted to be buried in.

Amazing. She had specific instructions in her notebook for what she wanted us to do. I thought she was amazing while she was here, but the way she handled it was incredible… she had everything set up! She didn’t want the family fighting over anything. She had everything set up so the family didn’t have to worry about anything.

Does it help to come back to the Sparks and get back to the day-to-day traveling, the practices and the games? Does that help put her passing in the back of your mind a little?

I enjoy it and love being back with my teammates, but the toughest part for me is that I talked to her before every game, before every plane ride and after I got off the plane. She was the first and last person that I talked to. When I was leaving to go to Detroit, leaving the house two days after the funeral, I picked up the phone and I was like, “Oh no, I forgot to call…” (Long pause.)

And then it hit me right then and there. I couldn’t talk to her anymore. That is the hard part for me.

Even when I’m back on the court, I think about her all the time because I know she is with me. I know she is still here, but I have always thought about my grandmother in everything that I do. Making her proud was always one of my main goals. I know she would still be smiling down at me, but playing basketball does take (the pain) away for the moment. The times when we are not practicing or playing, it comes right back. I am sure it will take some time. … I don’t know how long it will be. That was my best friend, 100 percent. I shared everything with her no matter what it was.

I talked about everything with her. I didn’t have any secrets from her. Most of my friends and my mom and my aunt all thought I was crazy. Any subject I wanted to talk about, I talked about with her. She thought I was crazy sometimes. She was like, "You know what? I love you and I like it that you don’t hide anything, but some of the stuff you talk about I really don’t need to know." But she and I were close. We talked about everything. With the wisdom that she had, even if she didn’t have knowledge in a specific area, I knew she would be a great listener. And whatever we talked about, it would stay between us.

What is your last memory of her?

The last memory is when my mom and my aunt were talking to her and singing to her. They missed her saying, "I am going on up, y'all." I knew what she meant and I knew what she said. She was going on up and they missed it and they were like, "Ma, what did you say? Come back."

And I said, "You have to let her go because she is going on home." That was my last memory.

And now I know where she is. Everybody says that people are going off to a better place when they pass away, but they are not really sure. I know for a fact with the life my grandmother lived and the woman she was, she is going on up to be with God. I know this. I know that I now have another angel watching over me every day and everywhere that I go.

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