Reporter shows she has game
She was 2 years old when the Portland Trail Blazers won the 1977 NBA championship.
Kelli Johnson, a tiny toddler growing up in the Palouse country of Moscow, Idaho, was already carrying a basketball around with her by then.
Johnson, who would blossom into a polished player for the University of Idaho, later learned of the exploits of Larry Steele, Bobby Gross and the rest of the Blazers following their championship.
Last Saturday night, she got an up-close look at Steele, Gross and seven other former Blazers when she played one quarter for the Lithia Honda team against former Blazers in an exhibition to benefit Lone Pine Elementary School.
Johnson, 23, a first-year sports reporter for KTVL television of Medford, has turned to sports journalism to sustain her love and contact with sports.
She says she thought about trying women's professional basketball after graduating from Idaho in 1998.
Coming from Idaho, I didn't have a lot of exposure, says Johnson. I've always thought about being a sports reporter. I like to talk.
You might have seen the 5-foot-10 blonde patrolling the sidelines with a video camera on her shoulder compiling highlights for the late news. But on Jan. 16, she was patrolling the as a point guard.
Johnson scored six points and dished off four assists in the third quarter. She displayed her Pistol-like (as in Pistol Pete Maravich) skills as a passer and ball-handler against the Blazers as nearly 2,400 fans looked on at North Medford High.
It was pretty cool to be out there with those guys, says Johnson, a former three-time all-state player for Moscow High.
I said, `Wow, this should be fun.'
It was. She had the crowd buzzing over a couple of no-look passes that found their marks for easy hoops.
I was a little nervous at first, says Johnson. I had no idea so many people would be at the game.
Liz Morris, director of the exhibition game, which earned more than $15,000 for new computers for Lone Pine Elementary School, says the crowd was bigger than expected.
The large crowd was a big reason why we made more than $5,000 more than our goal, says Morris. It was a nice surprise.
When she was growing up in Idaho, Johnson played for the Little Vandals kids' team out of Moscow, which appeared in ball-handling and basketball skills exhibitions. That experience enhanced her ability to pass, shoot and handle the ball.
But Johnson is more than a trickster in basketball sneakers. She was an 85-percent free-throw shooter at Idaho. She averaged 14.1 points and six assists a game as a shooting guard after playing point guard and leading Moscow High to three straight state titles.
They wanted me to shoot the ball more at Idaho, she says. But I still handled it a lot, too.
It didn't take Blazer Michael Harper long to figure out Johnson has skills.
As soon as I got in there, he (Harper) came up to me and said, `All right, where did you play college ball?'
Harper made the mistake of graciously handing the ball to Johnson as a gesture of goodwill. Johnson took the ball, took a couple of dribbles and popped in a 15-foot jumper.
He didn't give me the ball again, says Johnson, who also stripped Steele of the ball on one play and drove for a layup.
She also picked Gross once and fed a teammate with a no-look, over-the-shoulder pass for an easy layup.
It should be noted that the Blazers, as evidenced by the 76-76 final score, didn't treat this with the intensity of the sixth game _ they beat Philadelphia 4-2 in the best-of-7 series 22 years ago _ of the NBA Finals.
Still, it was a good show.
Mike Fischer helped the locals jump out to a 12-2 lead in the first quarter with a 3-point bomb from the corner.
I was pretty nervous at first, but you settle down after you run up and down a couple of times, says Fischer. It was fun to play against the Blazers, even though they've slowed down.
Our plan was to try to run them, says Fischer.
Dave Willard, Phoenix-Talent superintendent of schools, was selected by the Blazers as their honorary coach before the game.
It was a thrill for Dave because he's a big Blazer fan, says Morris. It was a nice touch by the Blazers to ask him to do that.
These guys did a great job as ambassadors, and I'm told this was their biggest crowd of the year.
The Blazers donated two Blazer jackets and two autographed basketballs from the current Portland team for a halftime auction. The jackets went for $400 each and the balls for $500 apiece.