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The first thing people notice about women’s basketball player Kierra Johnson is her smile. From the moment she enters the gym, she doesn’t stop grinning.

It is hard to say who is more proud of Johnson’s prowess on the court, her coach or her teammates. Johnson, who has autism, has overcome many challenges to play—and succeed in basketball. Maybe it is because she loves the game so much. “It has a good pace, it is exciting, and it tests your emotions,” Johnson says.

Teammate and sophomore Sheri Addison played with Johnson at Wootton High School. Addison says Johnson isn’t as shy or quiet as she used to be, and she has stepped up her performance on the court as well. “Her rebounding is excellent. When we need her, she is there, for rebounding, playing defense, or guarding someone,” Addison says. “And she works hard and never gives up.”

Head Coach Tarlouh Gasque agrees. “I have never seen anyone work so hard. She gained a lot of muscle and worked very hard in the off-season. She is really dedicated and focused and we are seeing the results.”

Gasque worked with Johnson early in the season to overcome nerves and build her confidence. Now that Johnson feels more comfortable, she can score, get a steal, or block a shot. The coach says Johnson “can really get in and get a rebound. She’s stealth-like!”

“Once she got comfortable, she got going,” Gasque says. “It is wonderful to see a pep in her step when she scores or the great smile on her face.” That smile is especially meaningful, as people with autism can struggle with demonstrating emotion.Kierra-350x375

Johnson’s joy is contagious. Gasque says the whole team stands up and cheers when Johnson scores. The players are very supportive of their teammate. “They really support Kierra. You do not ever sense any differences.”

Basketball is a big part of the Johnson family. Kierra’s father, Kevin Johnson, played Division I basketball, one of her aunts played in the WNBA, and extended family members have numerous athletic accomplishments. But they are most proud of Kierra.

“She is tenacious,” says Kevin Johnson. “Half the battle is showing up—and my daughter shows up!” He adds that, on and off the court, Kierra is a great role model for her four younger siblings.

In the classroom, Johnson, a freshman, majors in general studies with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concentration. She hopes to combine her love of basketball with her math skills to become a statistician for a professional sports team.

Johnson has some good advice for athletes who may be facing their own struggles. “Never give up. Stay positive, and look at the bigger picture. I think anybody who plays, whether autistic or not, can achieve their goals.”

Photos: Michael Simone

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