Playing With Heart

ASU senior plays with heavy heart following brother's untimely death at season's start

March 22, 2007

By Lara Boyko

Special to


Lara Boyko

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Of all the memorable moments in life, it is usually the ones that take your breath away that are never forgotten.


For 6-foot-2 senior forward Aubree Johnson and the Arizona State women's basketball team, their two come from behind performances in Los Angeles this past weekend not only enabled them to advance into the Sweet Sixteen, but also took away the breath of everyone watching or following along on She's on Fire.


While last weekend had two great breath-taking moments, it was an off-court experience for Johnson on Nov. 25, 2006, that made her and her teammates stop and catch their breath with a reminder on how precious life can be.


"I've learned to value every day we have because any day can be your last day," said Johnson, who is getting ready to graduate from ASU with a major in Kinesiology. "I have an amazing group of family and friends that have supported me through this. [Fellow ASU senior guard] Emily Westerberg has been my rock as she is with me constantly and just the greatest friend. She is one of the biggest reasons why I've continued to play and get through this."


The news that Johnson was told of on that fateful morning was about her 15-year-old brother Jordan, who passed away from an undetected enlarged heart in his sleep after watching the ASU women play their first game of the Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands.


"That morning my coaches went to get me in my room after my parents rushed my brother to the hospital, but I had gone with a couple of friends down to the beach to do some bible study," remembered Johnson of how she learned about her brother's death. "After coming back from being at the beach we decided to go get some breakfast when one of the coaches saw me and told me I had to come with them. They walked me up to the lobby and I had no idea what was going on.


"Then I saw coach Charli Turner Thorne and assistant coach Joseph Anders getting out of a car where my mom was crying. At first I thought there was something wrong with one of my grandparents until my mom said that my brother didn't make it. I still didn't understand as I thought that my brother just didn't go with them to wherever they had been. Then my dad grabbed me and told me. It was shocking and I absolutely couldn't believe it."


Johnson's disbelief was understandable as it was less than 24 hours earlier when she saw Jordan cheering her and her teammates on during their game and then enjoyed some quality time with him during the second game of the day.


"He always wore a No. 32 ASU football jersey [which was one of two that her brother-in-law bought for the two of them to wear to Johnson's games] and he was right there in front where I could see him the whole time," said Johnson. "Then during the second game, I sat with him in the stands and watched the game with him and also talked with him since I don't get to see him too much with being at school in Arizona. We also watched an episode of Reno 911 on his iPod. He was totally fine, himself and normal the night before."


This life-changing event happened so quickly, but it was the weeks following that day that seemed to take place faster than the quickness of how ASU plays.


"The following weeks were a blur," said Johnson, who took a 10-day leave from the team and school to be with her family in Post Falls, ID. "It was amazing to see how awesome our friends and family were in their support and encouragement. Then I got back to school during finals, but my teachers gave me extensions so I wouldn't have to worry too much about them. Playing basketball was pretty meaningless."


Yet it was through basketball that Johnson found a way to honor the person in their family that understood at an early age what it meant to pay tribute to everyone else in the family.


"My sister Desiree wore No. 41 when playing sports as a kid because that was our dad's number while participating in sports when he was a kid and I wore No. 23 while playing sports because that was our mother's number while she played sports as a kid," said Johnson. "Jordan wore No. 5 because he realized when he was six or seven that four plus one and two plus three equaled five and with their being five people in our family, it was a great idea to be No. 5. I asked Charli the day he passed away if I could wear No. 5 because he would never be able to again. Luckily no one else was wearing the number at the time so I didn't have try to kick anyone out of it."


In addition, Johnson also honors Jordan in the way that she continues to cherish the time they spent together.


"He was hilarious and always had everyone laughing," reminisced Johnson of Jordan or as she called him `Gordy-Pop.' "He was only 15, but knew how to act in any situation no matter if there were older people or little kids around. He was one of my best friends.  Since I was only home for a short time during the summer, he wouldn't hang out with his friends so he could spend time with me. He would do my workouts with me and last summer he just got his driver's permit so he drove me around everywhere. Jordan was really fun to be around, he had a fun personality."


Johnson and the ASU women's basketball team are currently having a lot of fun and enjoying their season being extended this year and the impact they are having in the world of women's college basketball. However, it is the way that Jordan's passing took away everyone's breath that seems to be having the biggest impact on their lives.


"I really feel like there is a reason I am supposed to playing basketball," said Johnson, who has been further supported by the ASU women's basketball program in their help of establishing the Jordan Johnson Scholarship Fund. "I look at it as my brother is playing with me."


For more information on the Jordan Johnson Scholarship Fund, please contact the ASU Women's Basketball office at 480-965-6086.