LOS ANGELES - It would be inappropriate to call Jordan Johnson’s death a blessing. He was 15 years old, full of laughter and promise. What good can there be in a young man dying?
But what has happened to Aubree Johnson since her younger brother passed away has been nothing but a blessing.
Her family has grown closer. Her friendships have deepened. She has held on even tighter to her Christian faith.
And, although this might seem insignificant, she’s playing the best basketball of her career as Arizona State tries to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think a human being at her age (22) could possibly have handled it better,” ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said.
Jordan Johnson died the day after Thanksgiving. The Sun Devils were in the Virgin Islands for a tournament when Johnson, there to watch his sister, died in his sleep from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart).
There was no warning. No symptoms that indicated anything was wrong.
One second Jordan was the promising athlete who befriended everyone he met; the next second he was gone.
Aubree missed the Sun Devils’ next two games to be with her family and attend Jordan’s funeral. When she returned to Tempe in early December one of the first things she did was change her uniform number from 32 to 5 in memory of her brother.
Jordan always had an affinity for the number. One day, when he was 6 years old, he noticed that Aubree wore No. 32 and her older sister, Desiree, wore No. 41 when she played basketball. Three plus two equals five, four plus one equals five, and there were five people in the family.
So Jordan wore No. 5.
“I wanted to honor him because he can’t wear it anymore,” said Johnson, a Mesa native.
Stitching a different number on the uniform didn’t make it any easier to put on, though. For the first couple of weeks she was back on campus, Johnson couldn’t focus on basketball. She’d practice and forget what the team had worked on. She played, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“I didn’t want to be here,” she said.
Teammate Emily Westerberg let Johnson cry on her shoulder. She listened to her vent her anger. She held her and consoled her. But she also understood that Johnson couldn’t curl up in a ball and wallow in her misery.
So she took her out for breakfast. They grabbed a bite together after practice. She tried to make Johnson laugh.
The two had been best friends since childhood. But Jordan’s death brought them even closer.
“She’s been a lifesaver. I don’t think I could have made it without her,” Johnson said. “She really was the one that helped me see more of the bright side.
“I’ve always known we had a special relationship that I think a lot of people don’t have but since it happened I’ve realized how lucky I really am to have someone like that. I don’t think most people have a friend that is that close and that genuine and will do absolutely anything. I think we really are soul mates.”
“I love her with all my heart,” said Westerberg, who is engaged to former ASU offensive lineman Grayling Love. “It was extremely hard, but being with her during that time, I’d never trade those moments for anything.”
As Johnson slowly began to heal, a change came over her on the basketball court. For much of her college career she had been content to let others lead. But in the second half of the season, she wanted the ball. She wanted the responsibility.
She wanted it for Jordan.
“I think he’s playing with me every time I’m playing,” Johnson said.
Johnson scored in double figures in 10 of her last 15 games (she hit the 10-point mark in only three of the first 13 contests). She had 20 points and 10 rebounds against USC on Feb. 15, helping to make up for the loss of the injured Westerberg, and in her final home game scored a careerhigh 27 points against Oregon State. The closing stretch earned her all-Pac-10 honors for the first time, and she continued her strong play with 11 points and 10 rebounds in ASU’s 57-50 victory over UC Riverside Saturday.
“That’s the way she played in high school,” said Johnson’s mother, Cyndie. “She’s much more determined, much more aggressive and passionate and it’s because she’s honoring her brother.”
It’s easy to be cynical when coaches refer to their teams as families. Athletes will leave their brothers or sisters to get more playing time at another school, and coaches will dump their kids for a better job and more money.
But sometimes it’s not just a cliché. Sometimes, a young man dies, and the locker room becomes a home.
“We knew she was going back to them and that they’d take care of her,” Cyndie said. “You can’t imagine what a blessing that’s been.”
Arizona State vs. Louisville
Radio: KDUS (1060 AM)
Records: ASU: 29-4; Louisville 27-7
Series history: The teams have met just once; Louisville won 59-56 in 1983
Scouting report: Louisville — The Cardinals are led by 6-foot-1 center Angel McCoughtry, who was the Big East Player of the Year. McCoughtry averaged 21.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game. Like ASU, Louisville relies on its defense. It allowed opponents to shoot just 36.7 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from 3-point range.
ASU — The Sun Devils will need a better shooting performance from Emily Westerberg and Jill Noe, who were a combined 5 of 20 from the field against UC Riverside. ASU will try to wear down Louisville guard Patrika Barlow, who handles the ball on almost every possession and plays 30.7 minutes per game. Center Kirsten Thompson was ineffective against UC Riverside — she played just four minutes — and she’ll have a difficult time getting minutes against the quick Cardinals front line.