August 9, 2004

Making Of A Gem

This August, a young woman from the not-so-good side of Hartsville, S.C. — a girl who showed a lot of potential that many thought would go untapped — will travel to the other side of the world to play in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. She will represent the United States as a member of the U. S. Basketball Women’s Senior National Team. She will stake new territory for female athletes. She will be an ambassador for the United States from Hartsville, S.C., a small town of 7,500.

That young woman is Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson, the 5-7, 152-pound point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

“A lot of good athletes are from small towns,” Johnson explained. “Being from a small town, you don’t have as many distractions. You have your friends, but outside that, you can concentrate on little things like working out and getting better, and you can grow up a little bit more before some of the bigger issues come along.”

Growing up in a single parent home, Johnson had plenty of challenges at an early age. She was adopted and raised by her aunt until age six, when her mother was again able to care for three children.

“I grew up in a single parent home with my mom, my older sister and a brother. We lived from month to month, and we did our best at the time,” Johnson said.

In sixth grade, Johnson played volleyball, her first love of sports, and earned her nickname “Pee Wee” for being the shortest person on the team. The next year, Johnson tried out for the basketball team just because her friends were trying out. That tryout and subsequent talent and love for the game would open many doors for Johnson.

“Ever since I picked up a basketball, it changed my life and made me a very, very fortunate and blessed person,” Johnson said. “It’s a gift I was given.”

Johnson played on the middle school team in the seventh grade, but in eighth grade, she was ready to move on, or at least the coaches were ready for her to move on, and she played on the high school junior varsity team.

Basketball helped change Pee Wee's life during her high school playing days.
(Chris Covatta/NBAE/Getty)
“After school, I would walk to the high school for basketball practice with the JV team. I was a young kid and I would cry after practice because I felt like I didn’t belong. In the end it was a great opportunity for me to play with the older girls, and my friends eventually caught up to me the next year when they started ninth grade.

In grades nine through 12, Johnson played point guard for the varsity team. And what happened there, according to Johnson, changed her life.

Coach Patricia Hewitt, a veteran teacher and coach at Hartsville High School spotted Johnson and knew what she had on her hands.

“I saw Shannon playing when she was in middle school and I was thrilled. She was real tiny, maybe 5-1 and 95 pounds, but she could play. When she got to high school, she was what I call ‘wide open.’ She cut up all the time, she was always moving, she couldn’t stop and be still,” said Hewitt.

Hewitt quickly put in practice her philosophy of caring for and coaching the whole child, not just the athlete.

“I told Shannon that when I looked at her, I saw a diamond. But that when diamonds come out of the ground, they don’t always look nice. She was a diamond in the rough, and every year we were going to work on polishing a different facet.”

Johnson also remembers that time. “She (Coach Hewitt) said at that point I wasn’t shining, but eventually I would. I had to buy into it myself, because I really came from a rough neighborhood. I think I’m that one out of 99 or maybe one out of 2,000 that actually made it.”

To Johnson’s credit, she was much more than just an athlete. She was smart and popular, full of enthusiasm and generating lots of energy and laughs among her friends. Also, once she set a goal, she had the drive to achieve it.

When two of Johnson’s teammates spoke Spanish so that others couldn’t understand them, Johnson vowed to learn the language and signed up for Spanish class. She ended up in the Spanish Honor Club and later used her skill while playing basketball in Spain during the WNBA and ABL off seasons.

Johnson credits Hewitt with more than being a good coach who helped her learn the sport. She said Hewitt was like a second mother to her, who invited her into her home and gave her a second family.

“My mother had three kids on her own at that time and she just didn’t have a lot of time. There were times when I spent most of my time at Coach Hewitt’s house. For a while, it was like I knew her family better than my family,” Johnson said.

“I was with her family in the afternoons and sometimes for dinner; I was included in family vacations, everything. It was a good opportunity for me to grow up and see a different side of things. It kind of took me away and put me in a position to see that if I wanted those things and worked hard, I could have them.”

Of course, those years had their bumps, too. Coach Hewitt said that just as they worked on shooting and defense, they worked on manners and diction. And when Pee Wee broke her right arm (she’s suspected of playing a pick up game of football on her block), she wasn’t off the hook by any means. She practiced daily and ran all drills — shooting, dribbling and passing — with her left hand. In fact, Coach Hewitt requires all of her players to at least learn to shoot left handed as an exercise in form.

That effort only made her better, and — after making it to the State Championship game all four years of high school — when it came time to select a college, Coach Hewitt helped Johnson narrow down her choices before the search got too big.

“At that time, Shannon was just the kind of person who needed to be close to home. With that in mind, she named the top five schools she would like to go to. She picked Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and North Carolina State.

Johnson left Hartsville to attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and continue her path to success.

Moving Ahead

Johnson is among the top female point guards in the world.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty)
Today, Johnson is among the top female point guards in the world. This summer, she will have the opportunity to go for gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Away from the court, Johnson shines as well.

In addition to her busy schedule of playing an eight-month season overseas, a rigorous WNBA summer season and working out with Team USA, Johnson financially supports her mother and four younger siblings, brothers Sanquan, 14, and Savion, 6, and sisters Shquanda, 11, and Shaquetta, 9.

“I have the easy part,” Johnson said. “I send the money home. We didn’t grow up with a lot, and I feel it’s my responsibility to take care of them. I’m very happy that I can provide for them.”

“When playing overseas, I have three breaks from an eight month season that runs from September to April. Most of the time, I go home on breaks. I enjoy the play, and I think right now is the time I need to be traveling and playing while I can — enjoying what I do and making money doing it.”

Johnson also makes time to give back to the community. In addition to participating in the WNBA’s Read To Achieve initiative and events, she has also conducted camps and clinics in Hartsville, has spoken to many groups — some of those for former Coach Hewitt — and she has made time to speak to some of the classes of her younger siblings.

“We’ve got to be role models and give back to the kids,” Johnson said. “A lot of us didn’t have much. Going out to the schools and reading to the kids and talking to them can make a difference, and it gives us an opportunity to see the kids one on one.”

Turn up the heat

If that’s not enough, Johnson said she’s developed another hobby since leaving home — cooking.

“Growing up, my mom, like parents of most young athletes, took care of me and had food ready on the table everyday, so I didn’t really have to cook.” However, with Johnson away from home so much, she misses some of those home-cooked tastes that eventually inspired her to try cooking for herself.

“I miss my mom’s cooking. When I get a chance to come home and visit, she’ll cook homemade macaroni and cheese, collard greens and hog maws, something I acquired a taste for. I like Southern food. I don’t cook like my mom, but I wish I did.”

For now, Johnson says she’s content to experiment. And though she’s no gourmet, she has developed a small repertoire.

“I have two things that I cook a lot. One I call “Shrimp Bowl Mix,” and I mix shrimp and sausage with corn and rice and spices. It’s similar to jambalaya, but it’s my own version. I also cook garlic pasta with shrimp. I like seafood.”

And for down time, which there couldn’t be much of, Johnson finds plenty to fill in the gaps. She enjoys reading, playing her PlayStation, swimming and some occasional shopping.

“When I’m traveling in a new city, if we have some extra time, some of my teammates and I might go shopping.”

New season, new city

This summer, playing with a new WNBA team and competing in the Olympics, Johnson’s schedule will be taxing, but she says she’s ready.

“Having a league that will give us the opportunity to play at home in the WNBA and then put things on hold for a month so that we can compete in the Olympics is wonderful,” Johnson said. “I have been with USA Basketball since 1993, and I am very fortunate to get this opportunity. We have the opportunity to go to Athens, win the gold, and then come home and finish the WNBA season.”

Coach Hewitt, whom Johnson credits for being where she is today and who will join Johnson in Greece for the 2004 Summer Olympics said San Antonio is in for a treat.

Olympian and four-time WNBA All-Star Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson.
(Chris Covatta/NBAE/Getty)
“She can do everything you want a point guard to do. She can feed, funnel, direct and coordinate. Basketball has been blessed just like Hartsville has been blessed, because of Shannon Johnson,” Hewitt said. “She makes the game fun and brings it to the highest level.”

Down the line

As early as high school, Johnson had aspirations to own her own business, possibly a restaurant. With Johnson’s drive and her desire to continue to improve and be the best at what she does, it just makes you wonder what lucky city is going to get Shannon’s Place — serving up Southern food with a smile.

Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson
Height: 5-7
Weight: 152 pounds
Sixth WNBA Season; four-time WNBA All-Star
Hobbies: Cooking, playing PlayStation and swimming
Favorite Food: Southern style foods and seafood