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Homelessness didn't deter Bona basketball player Asianae Johnson

ALLEGANY – During Asianae Johnson’s sophomore year of high school, her mother, Sasha Robinson, told her to meet her at the Knickerbocker subway station in Brooklyn after Johnson came home from an AAU basketball tournament.

“But this isn’t our train station,” Johnson said. “Where are we going?”

“Just meet me at the Knickerbocker station,” her mother said.

Johnson wasn’t going to question Robinson about meeting her at an unfamiliar stop on the M line of the New York City subway system. Johnson followed the rules, and always reminded herself to make good decisions. Work hard in school, go to basketball practice and stay out of trouble. And never disrespect or question her mother.

Johnson met her mother at the new station. They walked a few blocks, and stopped in front of an unfamiliar building. Her mother told her that their new apartment was inside. Robinson worked job after job to raise her two children, as Johnson's father was incarcerated, and Johnson only knew packing and unpacking her belongings every few months to move into another shelter or into a spare bedroom of a relative's home.

When Johnson walked into the living room of the apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in December of 2016, she was in disbelief. That day, Johnson didn't expect to move into a home with separate bedrooms for her, her mother and her younger brother, Zyaire.

A few seconds later, she exhaled. For the first time in five years, Johnson was no longer homeless.

Now a sophomore on the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team, Johnson is ambitious, upbeat and talkative. She didn't let five years of homelessness define her, and she didn't use it as an excuse to take shortcuts. Basketball sustained her as her family struggled, and she discovered a purpose beyond basketball -- to start a nonprofit for homeless teenagers.

“My life, it was always basketball, basketball, basketball," Johnson said. "But after going through that, I want to give back to people who need it, who were in the same predicament I was in and they didn’t have a helping hand that I had. Anybody I meet later on in life, I’m going to get the word out about this.

“But this also how my mother raised me. She raised me to give back to people who have less than you. Me, doing that, it makes it easier for someone to step into my shoes, and they’ll be able to do the same thing.”

An indiscriminate epidemic

Johnson was 11 when she, her mother and her brother could no longer afford a home. Living in Brooklyn, Johnson explained, is very expensive. Even moreso for a single parent with two children.

Johnson, 18, explained that her mother could not afford housing in Brooklyn. Over five years, Sasha, Asianae and Zyaire lived with Sasha’s mother, Sonya Robinson (Asianae and Zyaire’s grandmother) or they rotated through the shelter system. Sasha Robinson, Johnson said, set her own goal of having her own apartment where she could raise her daughter and her son.

“Just be independent,” Johnson said. “And that’s when she decided she needed to go in the shelter system."

Homelessness is an epidemic in Western New York, in New York City and across the country. According to the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,000 people in Erie County experience homelessness over the course of one year, and about 25 percent of them are under the age of 18.

The New York Times in November reported that there are more than 114,000 students who experience homelessness in New York City, and that the number of school-aged children who live in shelters or with family and friends in apartments has grown by more than 70 percent in the last decade.

Homelessness is an indiscriminate epidemic, too.

“When someone thinks of homelessness, they think of a scraggly man who is disheveled and pushing a shopping cart down the street, that’s the stereotype,” said Dale Zuchlewski, the executive director of the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless. “But they don’t think of a young mom that can’t afford the rent anymore, or a parent who is stretching an income, and trying to get by, day by day. Victims of domestic violence can end up homeless or in a shelter. Teen pregnancy, gender identity, a family can be the source of abuse, and you don’t have a place to turn to."

If Johnson carried a burden, she never showed it. In high school and in college, she formed immediate friendships with her teammates, and she showed she could hang on the court with the older girls and play as well as some of the boys. Socially, she had the ability to connect with every kind of classmate, whether they were an athlete, a musician or a science nerd. She didn’t command attention, but she was consistent athletically and academically.

“Honestly, I learned a lot, but I have to look back at it as an accomplishment," Johnson said. "If I could go through this, then I can go through anything else. Just looking at my mother’s struggle, it made me want to push myself to the point that, where, my kids don’t have to struggle. Where my mother doesn’t have to struggle. My grandmother doesn’t have to struggle. I want to tell my mother one day that, ‘You don’t have to work anymore.’ ”

Johnson credits her family for her discipline and the self-motivation that sustained her through her homelessness and the absence of her father, George Johnson, whom Asianae said died on Jan. 30, 2017, while he was incarcerated. Johnson didn’t share why her father was in prison, or where he was imprisoned. But she remembers how her mother woke her up at 2:30 in the morning in their apartment and told her he was no longer alive.

“I went to see him, and it was a horrific experience,” Johnson recalled. “I don’t know how he died. I don’t want to know, either.”

She said that in the days before her father’s death, she was in a dark place. She was excused from school the day she learned of his death. But she went to basketball practice.

A 'tough, New York City' kid

Corey McFarlane remembered that Johnson was living in the Bronx but commuting to Brooklyn to go to school at Grand Street High School for the fall semester of 2014-15.

“I knew what was going on with her,” said McFarlane, her coach at Grand Street. “She was living in the shelter system and sometimes, you’re in one location for two or three months and then you go to another location, and she was in that cycle, between coming into school and going into her junior year of high school.”

One goal was paramount: Johnson was not going to let mother spend a dime for her to go to college.

“There was a point where I was worried I wouldn’t be able to achieve that goal,” Johnson said. “But my mother always believed in me, as a kid, and what I did and how I did.”

Johnson made the decision to play college basketball when she was in the 10th grade. She’d watched as college coaches came through the gym at Grand Street to watch her older teammates practice. When assistant coaches from Rutgers watched one of Grand Street’s players, they inquired about Johnson. That’s when Johnson knew she had a chance to create a future for herself, and how she could help fulfill the vow that her mother would never have to pay for college.

When Bona coach Jesse Fleming was scouting in the July of 2017 to assemble the Bonnies' freshman class for the fall of 2018, he and the women’s basketball staff noticed a point guard who played for the New York Gauchos at a tournament in Chicago. She wasn’t afraid to drive the lane or shoot from the outside.

She was a 5-foot-8 slasher named Asianae Johnson.

Bona needed inside height. But when the Bonnies lost a slew of players to transfers and graduation in 2017, Fleming and former Bonnies assistant Andrea Mulcahy thought of Johnson. She still hadn’t committed to a college program.

Fleming makes a point to mine New York City for prospective players, and made an in-home visit with Johnson in March of 2018, in her Bushwick apartment, where Fleming met Johnson’s mother, grandmother and younger brother. Fleming had no idea of what Johnson experienced until she enrolled at Bona.

“Asianae isn’t a person who is going to divulge details,” Fleming said. “She’s a private person and I’ve always really respected that about her.

"She’s one of the most positive people we have. She’s smiling every day. She’s dancing at practice. If you ask, she’ll talk about it, but this is not something she is going to share on her sleeve.”

Mulcahy, who was Johnson’s primary recruiter, didn’t learn about Johnson's homelessness until well into the recruiting process.

“We talked about her family, and her background, but it never came up,” said Mulcahy, who now lives in Blacksburg, Va. “Not that someone would bring it up, but you never know with kids … but she was never trying to get attention. She’s not someone who would put that out there.

“But that’s her personality. She doesn’t want to be a sob story. She is a tough, New York City kid who has been through a lot but she won’t necessarily talk about it. She doesn’t want you to think differently of her, or treat her differently because of something she experienced.”

Johnson considered Seton Hall, Rutgers, La Salle, Ole Miss and Pittsburgh, but made her only visit to Bona in April of 2018, with Robinson. She signed with the Bonnies that day, and the tears finally flowed. They were tears of relief, accomplishment, sacrifice and happiness.

During the visit to Bona, Sasha Robinson offered a few words to her daughter.

“ ‘I’m proud of you, and I support any decision that you want to make,’ ” Johnson recalled her mother telling her. “ ‘Because you are going to get where you want to be.’ ”

Less than five months later, Johnson returned to Bona as a freshman.

'That speaks so much to her strength'

On the court, Fleming describes Johnson as “our energy leader.” Entering a noon tipoff game Saturday against the University at Buffalo at the Reilly Center, Johnson leads the Bonnies (1-7) in scoring (12.9 points per game) and is second in rebounds (5.9 per game). Fleming noticed that what Johnson feels and communicates extends to her teammates, whether its happiness or frustration.

There’s no pretense about Johnson, either. What you see is what you get. Having experienced homelessness, though, is not something Johnson openly shares. She’s not ashamed of what she has experienced, either, because it was formative in who she is as a college sophomore.

“That speaks so much to her strength,” Mulcahy said. “When we saw her play in high school, we said ‘Yeah, she’s got that New York swagger.’ But that doesn’t even touch on what she’s been through, and it proves how tough she is, how humble she is and how she knows there’s more to life than basketball.

“Asianae wasn’t given anything. She wasn’t handed anything. To earn what she has earned, it is great, but she is not going to stop there.”

Basketball gave her more structure in a life that she’d already structured through discipline and adherence to a set of her own personal rules, even in the face of experiencing homelessness during her formative years.

Her maturity and her desire to create a better life for her family motivates her.

“The fact that she wants to give back because of her life experience, it says she’s an outstanding human being, and it’s a reflection of what she’s experienced and the people who have surrounded her,” McFarlane said. “She might have been homeless. She might have faced her own obstacles. But she had a lot around her and she used that. She’s gotten so many messages from people, that basketball is tough, but it’s insignificant at the end of the day.

"She saw the big picture. She knows that you’re going to be doing something bigger, and sometimes, it has nothing to do with basketball."

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