Posted: Wednesday March 7, 2012 9:09AM ; Updated: Wednesday March 7, 2012 10:22AM
Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman>PEARLS OF WISDOM

Oregon's Amanda Johnson a student-athlete in the truest sense

Story Highlights

Oregon's Amanda Johnson has struck ideal balance between athletics, academics

Ducks coach Paul Westhead: Johnson is unlike any player that he has ever had

Johnson wonders if role sports play in college is too great, but realizes its benefits

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Oregon's Amanda Johnson averages 19 points and 9.6 rebounds per game as she works toward a masters degree in couples and family therapy.
Oregon's Amanda Johnson averages 19 points and 9.6 rebounds per game as she works toward a masters degree in couples and family therapy.
Elaine Thompson/AP

EUGENE, Ore. -- The beauty of America's smartest basketball player isn't in a layup or a fadeaway jumper or a no-look pass. It isn't in a classroom, or in a dorm room, or even in the numbers of a near-perfect GPA.

No, the beauty is more pure. More poetic. More ideal.

Simply put, the beauty of Amanda Johnson is that, in a world of confusion, she gets it.

By it, we mean, well, everything. College. College sports. The money and the craziness and the splendor and the ugliness and the wonder and the inanity. As Johnson, a senior forward at Oregon, sits down with a reporter for an interview, she wears a gray Ducks T-shirt and green shorts -- neither of which she had to pay for. She settles inside a room inside a building created specifically to meet the every need and whim of Oregon's athletes. After practice, she might retreat to the state-of-the-art weight room, to be used only by the school's jocks. Or she might meet with the academic adviser, whose job is to assist the school's jocks. There are seemingly dozens of perks at the university for those who play sports, and Johnson -- recipient of them all -- isn't sure how to take it.

"You know, it's weird," she says. "As a student-athlete, it's really great to have so much at our disposal. And yet, were I not a student-athlete, I'd probably feel differently. A professor allows one absence before your grade drops, and that's the rule. But, as an athlete, I'm going to miss several classes, and it'll be excused. How is that fair? How is that not fair? I debate these things with myself all the time."

As Johnson knows well, in 2012 the term "student-athlete" is loaded and, quite often, inane. An ever-increasing number of Division I men's programs shuttle players in and out as if they were mufflers at an auto plant. Grades seem to matter, but only in the context of eligibility, not enlightenment. When a star sticks around for two years, he is lauded. When a star sticks around for three years, he is knighted. And when he sticks around for four years, well, scratch that. It hardly ever happens.

Johnson, who leads the Ducks (14-14) with 19 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, never had the option of leaving Eugene for richer lands. She is, at best, a borderline WNBA prospect ("Too slow," says one Pac 12-coach). Yet even if she were Lisa Leslie or Diana Taurasi, Johnson's focus would most certainly be on her studies.

Upon arriving at Oregon four years ago from Maria Carrillo High in Santa Rosa, Calif., Johnson came armed with 67 AP credits -- four of which were earned via an Intro to Sports Psychology class at nearby Santa Rosa Junior College ("I thought it'd help my game," she says. "It introduced me to serious athletic reflection."). She earned her bachelor's degree from Oregon in 2 years, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a double major in psychology and sociology, and is now completing her master's work in couples and family therapy. When she is not in a classroom or on a basketball court, she can be found at a local nonprofit agency, pursuing clinical work. Johnson is a three-time Academic All-America -- a first for Oregon women's hoops.

"The key thing is I put all I have into everything I do," Johnson says. "I expect results, and if I don't get them I'm hurt." This is hardly an exaggeration. As a fourth grader, Johnson's teacher gave her a B+ -- the first non-A of her life. "I didn't cry, but I was pretty devastated," she says. "A B+? No, no, no."

Paul Westhead, the Ducks' coach, says Johnson is unlike any player he has ever had and he has coached plenty of stars, including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and Taurasi. Earlier this year Johnson missed 11 games with a broken finger -- a final-season malady that would have led many to the brink of depression. Instead of sulking, however, Johnson insisted on traveling with the team and worked out feverishly as her teammates practiced. One day, while running the steps at Stanford, she slammed her skull into a long-hanging pipe. "So Amanda's got this big lump on her head," Westhead says. "But she never said a word. Most people break a finger and chill for three weeks.

"She's got something about her that's very unique and different," Westhead says. "She's driven. She's talented. But there's even more." For example, for the 2011-12 basketball media guide, each Duck was asked to list something under the heading MOST PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT I ...

Laura Stanulis, a junior guard, confesses she has "a small case of OCD." Senior guard Jasmin Holliday "snores only on Wednesdays." Sophomore guard Ariel Thomas loves "to read." For her part, Johnson is "currently exploring Buddhist philosophy."

Uh ... what?

"I'm fascinated by the way different people approach life," she says. "It tells you a lot about the world."

Yet it is her own world, here on campus, that continues to perplex. Johnson loves being an athlete, loves wearing her Oregon uniform, loves playing in front of 1,500-plus fans at most home games. But she still wonders -- openly and often -- "Sports probably play too important of a role on college campuses," she says. "But without them, where what would I be?"

The answer, truth be told, is obvious.

Amanda Johnson would be smart.

Very, very smart.

 
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