COVINGTON, Ga. — Tiffani Johnson will probably never be the coach who complains about the grind of putting on summer basketball camps.
That’s because she understands first hand what it’s like when a girl discovers the game a basketball at what some may call a late age.
From Tuesday through Friday, Johnson and the Newton Lady Rams basketball program hosted their annual summer camp, opening Newton’s gym to over 30 girls ranging from third grade to eighth grade. The objective? Give the young ladies an opportunity to see if basketball can do for them what it did for the Lady Rams’ coach.
“Having these girls here at the ages they are, it gives them a chance to put my hands on them and help build on the good foundations a lot of them are getting from their middle school coaches,” Johnson said. “It helps to get exposure to the game as early as possible. If these girls don’t play AAU or rec ball, they likely won’t touch a basketball until the seventh grade, which was my situation.”
Johnson says she was 13 years old the first time she ever picked up a basketball. A native of Framingham, Massachusetts before coming to Georgia for middle school, Johnson’s pre-basketball sports experience rested mostly with soccer.
That changed one summer when she showed up to visit her uncle and cousins in Albany, Georgia.
“My uncle coached football at Monroe High School in Albany, and he’s this big ol’ guy with this deep voice,” she said. “One summer when I was there, he says, ‘Come here, girl. Let me see your hands. You got these big ol’ hands. You need to play basketball.’”
The next summer, Johnson’s uncle signed her up for a camp at Monroe High — much like the one Newton hosts each year.
“Their coach welcomed me in, and the girls were cool,” she said. “When I came back home to Albany to live, I spent my seventh grade year playing at Cousins and then my eighth grade year was first year Clements was open, and so I played there and the rest was history.”
Johnson went on to a solid career at Newton High School and then matriculated to Appalachian State. Not far removed from her college career, she returned to Newton to take on head coaching duties with the Lady Rams, and has coached them to region championships and a state championship appearance two seasons ago.
But it was the big uncle with the large voice and an unassuming basketball camp in a south Georgia high school that got it all started for her. It also gave birth to her passion and heart to work with girls to find their niche on the basketball court, even when it may prove difficult to find.
“I just think that we try to cancel out athletes too early sometimes,” she said. “It’s more important to keep them exposed to as much as possible for as long as possible. I’ve been accused of having maybe too big of a heart and not having difficult conversations with players that some thing I should have. But that’s just because for me, I know basketball saved my social life.
“I was different coming here because I came from the north, but a lot of that was naturalized because I could play basketball. And I even think about what coaching has done for me coming into my womanhood. I just want to see basketball do that for these girls.”
At the Lady Rams’ camp, Johnson, a couple of coaches from her staff and several program alumnae returned this week to help provide instruction, including Lex Chatman and Jurnee Smith — two players from Newton’s 2017-18 state runner-up and region championship squad.
Johnson said having those girls back to not just help her with the young ladies at the camp, but to stay in touch with them as they move through college is priceless.
“One of the best parts is being able to see the fruits of your labor,” she said. “That group was a great bunch of kids just like the ones I have now. And for them to come back and give back is definitely a thing I’ve tried to instill. (Thursday) six alumnae were here at the camp, and I want the girls who are currently here to see that and to keep the tradition going.”
As for the camp’s attendees, the skill levels varied from as novice as one can get to Clements rising eighth grader Sanaa Tripp who seems poised to be one of Newton High’s next stars.
A program seemingly always in search of sizable post players, Johnson said she was encouraged “to see some height and length coming up” through the middle school ranks. And these aren’t just warm bodies on the hardwood. Over the years, Johnson said she’s noticed how much more skilled middle school players are as they transition to high school.
“I think it comes just from the awareness of girls basketball and the publicity of it,” she said. “The popularity has increased over time. You’ve got it on social media, the WNBA, collegiate sports. Just everything becoming more popular. Girls are interested at an earlier age, and the middle school girls come in with a greater knowledge of basketball which shows that our middle school coaches are doing a great job at developing these girls.”
One thing that makes that development easier, Johnson says, is the fact that rules have been changed to where sixth graders are able to participate and play with seventh and eighth graders.
“Getting sixth graders more involved definitely helps me out as a coach,” she said. “They get at least three years of basketball before they get to me.”
And while the Newton coach is all business on the sidelines during the season, at summer camp she allows a smile to flash across her face more frequently, and that’s by design. She wants the girls to learn and grow, but having fun, she says, is just as important.
“The game is way more than just wins and losses,” she said. “The experience of basketball, it really keeps me coaching. It’s hard to leave something that’s shaped and molded who I am and really has become a part of my identity. It’s definitely difficult to think about coming to a point that I reach where I think I’m ready to leave.
“If and whenever that comes, it’ll be hard, because basketball adds so much value to the lives of these kids. Just sports in general helps your way through all the emotions of growing up. I want these young ladies to experience that as much as possible.”