Did Johnson provide New London with a little help? Hmm ...
It is of some comfort, especially to those who watched the late James Johnson's final days battling cancer, to believe he is offering his old team a guiding hand. But this? This was almost literal.
And so it was the fourth quarter of the Class M state semifinals Friday night and the program Johnson once cultivated, girls' basketball at New London High, was giving its fans — some of the many new fans, actually — reason to squirm. This double-digit lead was shrinking, hijacked by foul trouble.
They really needed the free throws that senior Lexus Childs-Harris was about to attempt. Childs-Harris tossed her first one at the rim. It gently kissed the back iron and bounced. Bounced again. Again. Slowly. Sure looked as though it stopped, hanging there, waiting, paused as if at a stoplight.
There were some gasps in the gym of Branford High. Finally, it was as if someone had given the ball a nudge. Sort of like the apocryphal leprechaun of the old Boston Garden. And while no one would ever accuse Johnson of looking like a leprechaun, who's to say it wasn't he who helped out, making sure the free throw dropped through the net successfully?
"Oh, he's watching down," assistant coach Jasmine Arroyo, a member of New London's 1998 conference championship team under Johnson, was saying later. "I know he's proud. He's proud to see such strong girls here wanting the program to be good."
The 44-32 victory over Holy Cross elicited some happy tears Friday night. Even some adults joined the celebratory pile at midcourt. This is what happens during a program first. The first trip to the finals. The run to the Sun.
But it might have meant just a wee bit more to Arroyo, who knows the history. Like when there was none. Until James Johnson, who cared enough, when nobody else did.
"When I grew up, we didn't really have a rec program until he started the AAU Hoopsters," Arroyo said. "We played together from Hoopsters through high school. It started as the foundation for girls' basketball in New London when no one wanted to pay attention to us and everyone thought no girls in New London wanted to play."
Consider Arroyo's line: When no one wanted to pay attention. Now they have a city paying attention. Not to mention several male athletes, who brought only the most clever posters to the game Friday.
They used headshots of the New London girls and superimposed them on the bodies of NBA Players. Childs-Harris was LeBron. Deanna McCarvell was Steph Curry. Charee Osborne: Dwight Howard. India Pagan: Tim Duncan. Jada Lucas: Chris Paul.
They're sure paying attention now.
"This means a lot to me and (assistant coach) Alix (O'Neil)," Arroyo said. "It's finally paying off. Girls' basketball in New London means something. We have talent, we have people who want to support us. It's nice having girls interested in playing basketball."
Arroyo said that surrounded by several young girls who play youth basketball in New London. Why do they play? Because they can. Somewhere, Johnson smiles.
And he should. The program pulsates under new coach Kerrianne Dugan, several of whose old friends from Waterford were there Friday night. It would be difficult to think of another coach in the history of New London High who has authored a story of more positive influence over the kids.
"She cares about how they take care of themselves," Arroyo said. "She cares about their lives outside basketball."
Dugan managed a grin Friday night in the game's late moments when the outcome was inevitable. It was good to be a Whaler on this night, a night of history and remembrance. Somewhere, the man who began it must have been feeling like the proud father. Maybe he'll be there next week at the Sun sitting on the rim again.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
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