Playing without limits

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Sunday, March 28, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Nobody moved.

Everyone stood stock still on the sideline.

The coaches. The players. The trainer.

They waited for the nod.

“That’s my rule of thumb,” the head coach said. “If she gives you the nod, then you go out there.”

On this night, Temeka Johnson – the diminutive point guard for the Louisiana State Lady Tigers basketball team – had hit her head on the floor while trying to corral a basketball that had gotten away from her, and now she lay on the court a bit dazed.

LSU acting head coach Dana “Pokey” Chatman stood in front of the bench, with her arms folded, waiting for the nod.

It didn’t come.

Johnson got up, walked around the court to regain her senses, and when action resumed, the player nicknamed “Meek” was still in the game.

Chatman had witnessed this kind of resilience before.

“Temeka broke a couple of bones in her face last year and played a day later and took the protective glasses off,” the coach said, “so we know she’s tough.”

So when Johnson did her header in the final minute of LSU’s 71-55 victory over Texas in the first game of the NCAA Division I Women’s West Regional Saturday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, everyone on the LSU bench knew that there was a very good chance she wouldn’t come out.

She couldn’t.

“I was trying to protect the ball,” she explained later. “I didn’t want to get a turnover.”

And they call her “Meek.”

What a misnomer.

It’s like calling Mike Tyson “Mild.”

“I always tell her she has little woman syndrome because she’s really, really fiery,” Chatman said. “If someone hits her, she’s going to hit (back) a little bit harder, and sometimes to her detriment. But for the most part, she’s really done a good job of containing herself.”

One time in the first half Saturday night, Johnson dribbled in, missed a layup, got the rebound, circled around, drove in again and missed another easy shot.

We can say easy. But when you’re 5-foot-3, nothing is easy. Or anyway it shouldn’t be, though Johnson makes some things look easy.

Like dribbling. She can weave through a covey of defenders as if they were statues, look as if she’s going to shoot, then hand off the ball as if she’s dealing a card. She did that Saturday night, whipping the ball to a teammate standing right underneath the basket and – whoops! – the teammate, perhaps startled, blew the layup.

The Lady Tigers had about a half-dozen of those blown gimmes or Johnson would have had close to 20 assists. As it was, she had 13 to go along with 12 points.

It’s such a pleasure to watch a player who knows how to get the ball to her teammates in places where they like to shoot. It’s almost an art form, and it requires good court vision, sometimes almost a sixth sense, an instinct that that player will be in that position when the ball is passed to her.

“She understands those little things,” Chatman said of Johnson, “and she’ll make those split-second decisions. Eight times out of 10, it’s the right one.”

When you’re 5-3, you’d better be able to handle the ball and pass it, because you’re sure as shooting not going to get many rebounds.

Oh yeah? Someone forget to tell “Meek” Johnson. She’s pulling down almost five rebounds a game. That’s in addition to her 12.8 scoring average and her eight assists a game.

“She’s 5-3 but she plays like she’s 5-8 because she can body up on you and she can jump out of the gym,” Chatman said. “Also, her ability to get to the basket and finish in traffic is uncanny. Most of all, she’s just a fiery competitor. If she has to get in somebody’s face, she’ll get in somebody’s face. She knows how to do that.”

She picks her adversaries carefully, though. You won’t find her challenging Shaquille O’Neal when the ex-LSU player shows up on the Baton Rouge campus for pickup games.

“Oh, no, I ain’t crazy,” the exuberant Johnson quipped. “I saw how he dunked on some of our guys. I’m not stepping on the floor with Shaquille. I come right to his knees.”

As the starting point guard in every game the last two years, she’s helped bring a lot of teams to their knees. A year ago, the Lady Tigers went 30-4 and advanced to the Elite Eight. This year they’re 25-7 and with a victory over Georgia tonight can reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

Until she reached the age of 10, Temeka Johnson was always the tallest player on the court. “After that, everybody else just started sprouting up,” she said. “I was trying to find out what they were eating so I could get bigger, too. I tried the protein and everything, but nothing worked.”

She was 5-2 at the time. “I don’t think I’ve grown much since,” she giggled.

She learned early – in “bitty basketball,” as she called it – to dribble the ball with either hand, recalling that she wore goggles that “came out to here,” she said, holding her hands about four inches from her face. “You couldn’t really have your eyes on the ball and you had to keep your head up all the time,” she said.

With one year of eligibility remaining, Johnson – who will graduate in August with a degree in sociology – considered turning professional after this season, but has decided to come back. “Merry Christmas to me,” Chatman chirped.

So, Temeka, you’re confident that you’d have been drafted by a WNBA team? “Yes I am,” she said. “I’m not going to sell myself short on anything.”

Speaking of short, someone asked her if she’d ever heard of Nate Robinson, the flamboyant guard for the Washington Huskies.

“No,” she said, “but if he’s small and he dominates, I’m pretty sure I’d like him.”

He’s 5-9, someone told her.

“That’s pretty small for a guy,” she said.

Nate ain’t meek either.

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