NEW CASTLE – Lots of people in Fort Wayne know about Leslie Johnson.
They know the former Northrop star was the first Fort Wayne player to score 2,000 points in her career, winning three regional titles with the Bruins.
They know she scored 29 points in the 1993 All-Star game in which Indiana annihilated Kentucky 113-51, and how she was named National Freshman of the Year at Purdue in 1994.
Basketball fans know that Johnson remains the only player from Fort Wayne to play in the WNBA.
But sitting in front of her display at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle this week as four of her five foster kids played nearby, Johnson, a 2019 inductee, said most people don't know how close she came to missing her shot to play professional basketball. Or the life she has built now.
Johnson, now 44, made an immediate splash in the Big Ten as a freshman, averaging 18.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, and that season Purdue became the first women's team from Indiana to reach the Final Four.
The Boilermakers lost in the semifinals to eventual champion UNC and freshman Marion Jones (“the fastest player in the world, as we later learned,” Johnson joked), but showed that a team from the Midwest could compete with traditional powers such as USC, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee, which had previously claimed most of the nation's top recruits.
“I told Coach (Lin) Dunn, that can never be taken away; we did that together,” Johnson said. Purdue would win the national title in 1999, and in 2001 Notre Dame beat the Boilermakers in the title game.
But it took years for that perspective to sink in.
“That first year, everything was fantastic,” Johnson said of the Final Four run and all her individual accolades. “It was so emotionally draining, and as much as I wanted it, once I got it, I was like, 'I need a break.' And I took it.
“Looking back, all this press and all this attention, it overwhelmed me without even knowing it.”
While the rest of her teammates improved over the summer, Johnson fell out of shape. And as the season wore on, her frustrations snowballed: she lost the weight she put on, but she felt like she was playing catch-up. She got injured. Her role on the team diminished.
A chance to play professional basketball, already uncertain with no steady women's professional league in the U.S., looked grimmer.
“They had the right to get better, they had the right to achieve, but it wasn't easy” for me, Johnson said. “It was a very difficult period for me, emotionally, and it was bad enough where one day I called (my parents) and I said, 'I just can't.'”
Johnson said that, at the time, she didn't want to discuss how depressed she was. She was scared that she would worry her family or lose the love of the people who admired her in Fort Wayne.
“When they came into town, I just remember my mom (Betty) looking at me, crying, and her basically saying, 'Nothing is more important than my child. If you need a break, you get a break,'” Johnson recounted.
Johnson left school and began looking to transfer. She warned her eventual landing spot, Western Kentucky, that she wasn't in playing shape, but when she arrived on campus in August of 1995, she had to reckon with the fact that she had gained 60 pounds since leaving Purdue.
“Honestly, my career was over, should've been over,” Johnson said. “I bawled right there on the scale. And (coach Paul Sanderford) said, you have two choices. You can quit, or you can fight back and give yourself a chance.
“I said, I'm here, so it's time to fight.”
Johnson had to sit out a year after transferring, and during that season she and the training staff adhered to a grueling schedule that got her back into playing shape while avoiding damage to her joints, sometimes starting sessions on the treadmill at 4 a.m.
“The more I started losing, I started hearing 'Rocky' music in my head. I'm going to come back,” Johnson said. “By end of junior year, 60 pounds were gone, and nobody saw it, because I looked like I looked at Purdue.”
Johnson was named Honorable Mention All-American in both of her playing seasons at Western Kentucky. And during those years, the WNBA kicked off. Johnson was projected to be taken in the draft, but her draft party ended without her name being called.
“I shook every hand, thanked everybody for coming, said, 'I've still got overseas,'” Johnson said. “Door shuts, I cried my eyes out.”
But after going through what she described as “hell” in her final months at Purdue, Johnson refused to fall into the same funk this time. Early the next morning, she went to a city YMCA in Bowling Green to work out. She continued to work out in Kentucky for several months after school ended, only packing up her apartment and moving back to Fort Wayne when her lease ran out.
“I pull up in the driveway, and I see my mom and dad running to the car – I didn't have a cellphone,” Johnson said.
“My mom's like, 'Leslie, Leslie we tried to reach you but you had already left!' My dad is like, 'The WNBA called! You're going! You're going to play for the Washington Mystics, and you leave tomorrow.'
“Nobody ever understands what that meant. It was bigger than basketball. ... To be teased one more time and not get drafted, it was a faith moment for me.”
Johnson played for a stint with the Mystics and played professionally in Greece, Turkey, Israel, South Korea, Portugal and Spain. She reveled in the fact that she could visit sites in the Holy Land between games and tour Athens and Rome, and her interests outside of basketball grew.
When her playing career ended, she knew she could move into coaching, but decided that she wanted to help people who needed guidance off the court. She became a department of corrections counselor, first working with juveniles and then with adults. It was a job she held for 12 years, loving most of what she did.
She felt she could relate to many of the inmates: She'd been through depression, extreme fluctuations in weight and other health issues. She'd flipped her convertible and survived the crash with nothing but a scratch. She hid her sexual orientation until well into adulthood.
Her older sister Arica Johnson, who she was very close to, died in December 2013. For much of her life she carried a lot of pain and secrets, and understood how easily a person, even a talented one, could be derailed. She took great satisfaction in helping people turn their lives around and avoid returning to prison.
But while she encountered disturbing things in her role as a counselor, the aspect of her job that shook her were the occasions when she had to put through a call to a judge, who would notify an inmate that their parental rights had been terminated.
“Those mothers screamed. And I never, in that moment, could refer to them as inmates,” Johnson said. “They would lay on me, lay on the desk, fall on the ground. It affected me. And you get trained, but that I just couldn't shake.”
And as bad as it was for the mothers, Johnson wondered, what was happening to those same children?
Becoming a family
In 2014, Johnson married Carmen, a mother of five who she met at church and was there for her as she grieved for her sister. Around the same time, Johnson was thinking about taking early retirement from the department of corrections, the idea hit her: What if she became a foster parent, taking care a few of those same children she'd always worried about?
When asked what age range she thought she'd best be able to serve, she said 10 to 13, thinking of the kids she'd met in juvenile corrections that she'd won over in the past. Instead, the first placement was a pair of brothers, ages 1 and 2.
“I grabbed my heart right there in the car. I was Baby Barkley! I was a power forward! I played so tough!” Johnson recounted. “Tough, always tough! And then I saw these babies, and I instantly turned into a marshmallow.”
That was three years ago. Those brothers still live with them in Avon, and she and Carmen have been caring for sisters for several months now.
“I just never saw this coming,” Johnson said as she soothed the 4-year-boy sitting on her lap. It's a statement that applies both to her house full of small children and to her being inducted to the Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility.
“Looking over my life, I still believe the best is yet to come. I don't want to say this closes a chapter for me, but I can't imagine too many more things being higher than (the Hall of Fame induction). But this is a moment to pivot.”
Leslie Johnson career highlights:
• 2,045 career points for Northrop (Fort Wayne career leader at time of graduation)
• Four-time All-SAC player (first to do so)
• Shot 71 percent for her high school career
• First freshman, men's or women's, to be named first-team All-Big Ten