A few weeks after the world seemingly turned on her, Jenna Johnson finally decided to watch the video of her lowest moment.
She couldn’t watch it before. She wouldn’t watch it again. But here, as all eyes landed on her, Johnson knew what everyone wanted to ask her about.
Of course the audience of about 30 Utah athletes, gathered for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, had already seen it. Everyone had already seen it.
But still ...
“I think everyone in the room [gasped]. Like ‘She is talking about it?’” Johnson said.
The video starts with 4.7 seconds left. Johnson goes to the line for two free throws with an Elite Eight berth in the balance. Make two, Utah moves on. Make one, force overtime. Miss both, LSU dances on and Utah’s dream season ends.
Johnson’s first shot came up a foot short, barely grazing the bottom of the net on the way down. The camera panned to the bench and then back to Johnson, who stared at the rim hoping her 75% free-throw form would return. But the line is a lonely place after an airball.
Then the second shot went up, hitting the front end of the rim and then the back. It never fell. Johnson walked back to the bench in tears, looking up at a score — 64-63 — that would finish Utah’s season.
How do you handle missing the two biggest free throws of your life on national television? And then how do you take the social media hate that follows as LSU goes on to win the national title. That could have been your national title, you’d have to think.
Johnson handled it the only way she knew how: head on, through faith.
“For athletes, you could say this is the worst nightmare,” Johnson said. “... If this happened to me, I might as well [talk about it] and give glory to God.”
The moments after the free throws are blurry, everyone involved admits. Johnson remembers bits and pieces, but others fill in the rest.
The main images are obvious. How she was sitting on the bench with her head in her hands crying. Utah head coach Lynne Roberts had her arm around her, putting on a brave face.
“I just had mom instincts for her at that moment,” Roberts said.
But once everyone was in the locker room, that’s when it really set in. Johnson had 10 minutes where she was inconsolable.
Utah guard Issy Palmer reminded her she had missed free throws earlier in the night. This loss, she insisted, didn’t come down to Johnson. But her teammates’ words did little to help.
“It was brutal, to be honest,” Roberts said of the locker room. “I think we were all devastated.”
As the media shuffled in, Johnson quelled the tears momentarily. A reporter came up and asked, “Did you think you were going to make the free throws?”
“I was like what kind of question is that. [Should I say] I had actually no confidence?” Johnson said. “I ended up being kind and said, ‘I guess I did.’ But yeah, bad question.”
And right after the media filed out, Johnson reverted back to sobbing. As the bus silently pulled out of the area — with Johnson’s occasional sniffle cutting through the quiet — she saw the social media messages start to flood her phone. Many were positive at first, a few NFL players sympathized, but then the cutting ones hit. She glanced at one.
“God ain’t going to save you now.”
“Her parents were concerned for her,” Roberts said. “People can be rotten.”
When the bus pulled into the team hotel, Johnson’s parents escorted her back up to their room, away from the noise.
They turned off the comments on social media, knowing the onslaught that awaited, and tried to talk about anything else.
“She just couldn’t read the comments anymore,” Rachel Johnson said. “A lot of athletes, including her, have to block people. You know, that makes you worry. You just never know. I mean, obviously people were upset. Everybody wanted her to make those free throws and some people can take things a little too far.”
Johnson retreated to her room as the night calmed and scrolled through Twitter. She saw a clip of Roberts saying she would take Johnson in that situation every night.
“That meant something. ... It is tough, it is hard,” Johnson said. “Social media is hard. Everything is hard. I think I felt a level of shame and guilt in some way after. Just being like we could have gone another step further and felt like a lot was on my shoulders.”
Nobody knew what to expect from Johnson the next morning as the team boarded a plane back to Utah. But she went up to Roberts and said she was glad it happened to her and not somebody else.
Roberts was stunned. Johnson was resolved.
“My faith helped me in times like that,” Johnson said. “I just know where my worth is and where my identity is. God loves me the same whether I made those free throws or I hadn’t. ... That is something I always reminded myself.”
Johnson didn’t grow up in an religious household. Her father, a swimmer from Northwestern, and her mother, a high school basketball player, took her to church for holidays and on special occasions. But it wasn’t a way of life.
Instead, growing up in Minnesota, her life was sports. Johnson and her two siblings tried everything from gymnastics to lacrosse to dance.
“Seriously any sport. They tried it,” Rachel Johnson said.
Basketball, ironically, came last.
And for Johnson, basketball became everything. She rose up through the recruiting rankings and played on one of the best teams in the state. Her high school would play Hopkins, where UConn star Paige Bueckers went. NBA players would show up to their games, often ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state. Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns pulled up courtside once.
Johnson averaged over 20 points a game and rolled into a commitment to Utah, choosing it over Iowa among other schools.
But then life came to a halt one month after she signed. She tore her ACL her junior year and lost her basketball life.
For the first time, she didn’t have anything to do. Her anxiety and depression, which lingered before, worsened.
“Suffered a lot through anxiety and depression in high school. Didn’t really want to be alive anymore,” Johnson said. “Basketball had always been the one thing that kept me afloat. It was my identity and it was great. … Life really took a turn for the worse.”
She reached out for help; therapy and medication did little. Eventually, she stumbled upon a couple of YouTube videos that had Evangelical sermons.
“I was out of options. I was like God, I’m really not sure if you are real, but if you are I could use some help right now,” Johnson said.
Rachel Johnson watched her daughter from afar, trying to support, but didn’t know how.
“To be honest, she did a lot it on her own,” she said. “I mean, I tried, like our whole family was always there for her and I feel like we’re a close family. But I think a lot of it was her and her having to figure it out for herself.”
It worked. She filled her spare time with her faith and Utah kept its promise to keep her scholarship. As the nine-month process went on, Johnson gradually tried to become defined less about basketball.
It would lay the groundwork for three years later.
“I couldn’t even imagine what my life would be like after doing that back then,” she said. “It would have crushed me. I wouldn’t have wanted to have talked about it.”
In the week after Utah returned home, Johnson pieced her life back together. She went on long walks with her roommate, guard Gianna Kneepkens. She played recreational sports — pickleball is her current favorite.
“It was pretty normal,” Kneepkens said. “We hung out. Just things to get our minds away from basketball.”
They weren’t allowed in the gym, a mandate from Roberts after a long season. But they kept tabs at night as LSU advanced to the Final Four and eventually won it all.
Kneepkens would watch the whole game. Johnson would filter in and out of the room as it was on.
“As hard as that was — it sucks watching the team you could have beat win — but at the same time it is also like, ‘Good for them, life moves on. We’ll win it next year,’” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say I was sitting there in my feels.”
One night, Johnson’s boyfriend handed her a manilla folder with no label. Johnson opened it and saw stacks of handwritten letters from her family, friends and teammates.
She sat on her bed and read each one.
“Nobody wrote about basketball or you had a great season,” Johnson said. “My little sister wrote me a letter and I was just bawling. In my journey of faith, she’s someone I’ve come back and mentored a little. Some of the things she said about me as a role model and role model.”
In many ways, though, those letters were exactly what she had built up in three years. She was no longer a person defined by basketball. Now, the label of being the person who cost Utah a Final Four is something she can wear.
“I’m sure it’s going to follow me the rest of my career honestly,” Johnson said. “Eventually people will move on. But it will always be interesting to talk about and ask about. I’m sure there will be a lot of questions but it is part of my story. Even talking about how I’ve turned it around.”
It brought her back to sitting in front of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group addressing it head on. How fitting, she thought, for her to be explaining this situation in a faith setting that saved her.
“It brought it full circle,” Johnson finished. “It gave me some closure. Like this happened to me and I got through it.”