By Joey Lamar
After that first practice, her father never thought she would pick up another basketball. Johannah Leedham’s seventh-grade basketball coach made her feel the size of a mustard seed. The teardrops displayed clearly on her practice jersey.
Leedham possessed enough talent to be an elite player. Her abilities were evident well before that first practice, which was one of the reasons coach Mike Burton asked her to play on the boys’ seventh-grade team. Leedham wanted to play shooting guard, but Burton placed her at point.
Burton never let up on his new point guard during that first practice. He yelled and screamed to no end. The pressure of proving herself to male teammates, paired with Burton’s constant pushing, finally caused the tears to pour. She stood embarrassed in front of all of her peers.
Only two choices remained: Fight back or quit. Leedham chose the former.
She fought back because she loved basketball. The moment she touched the leather of the ball it stayed glued to her palm. A coach with a strong personality would not drive her away. As Leedham’s skills continued to develop she demanded stiffer competition, which helped compel her to a collegiate career in which she became not only a star at Franklin Pierce but also Division II’s all-time leading scorer.
Johannah Leedham was homesick for a while after coming to the U.S. from England, but her decision to stay was a good one for Franklin Pierce.
Growing up in Ellesmere Port, England, Leedham is the middle sister of three. Jennifer is the oldest. Kirsty is the youngest. Two years separate Jennifer and Johannah. Their parents were hard workers who instilled those same values in their children.
All three of the Leedham sisters possessed extraordinary basketball talent, and the family quickly discovered the girls required specialized training that Great Britain could not provide, mostly because a large percentage of Great Britain plays a derivative form of basketball called netball.
The kind of hoops help the Leedhams needed was at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Conn. Jennifer and Johannah were both eager and excited to travel to the United States, but they also were nervous about being alone and so far away from home.
“My mom was really upset. She was crying,” Jennifer recalled. “We were saying things like, ‘We’ll see you at Christmas.’ We were hoping everything would work out, but seeing our parents cry made us have doubts.”
Being in America for the first time created a swinging pendulum of experiences and emotions. Experiencing a new culture provided several learning opportunities outside of the classroom. The taste of the food was the first revelation.
“At the time, I loved it. I began to indulge myself in everything,” Johannah said. “I think I gained 10 pounds. I went home and my mom told me I looked a little bit bigger.”
In Connecticut, the sisters were free to explore a campus in what seemed like an enchanted land. A new adventure was just around the corner from a good night’s sleep. However, the Academy’s rigid academic and athletics schedule helped keep them grounded.
The school required its athletes to play three sports, so the Leedham sisters could not focus solely on basketball. One of the alternate sports they picked up was volleyball, which was an adjustment. The challenge provided Jennifer and Johannah with enhanced footwork and athleticism that would translate to the basketball court.
Days at Cheshire were long. Wakeup calls at 6 a.m. for morning workouts were followed by a full load of classes during the day, practice after school, and studying at night. Somewhere between they would fit in time to eat.
The days would typically finish around 9 p.m. – the perfect time to call mom and dad. But, mom and dad lived across the Atlantic Ocean and in a time zone five hours ahead of the United States.
There were other adjustments as well.
“Our parents called and said, ‘You need to stop with the spending. We can’t keep up,’ ” Jennifer said. “We were going crazy because of all the basketball sneakers.
“On top of that, we had our English cellphones and were using them to speak with our friends back home, which was costing crazy money. At the end of the conversation, my dad said, ‘The spending has to stop.’ ”
Dealing with the time difference graduated into severe homesickness for Johannah. She missed her parents and her childhood friends. Thoughts of leaving Cheshire crossed her mind more than once.
Ultimately, she decided to stay.
Johannah struggled adapting off the court, but on the court, her game flourished. She grew into her 5-foot-11 frame and reaped the benefits of her labor as a senior, being named New England Prep School Player of the Year. She and her sister thought she was a lock to attend a big-time Division I college.
Jennifer, who had already graduated from the Academy, was playing at Division II Franklin Pierce University at the time. Mark Swasey, the head coach, asked Jennifer to gauge her younger sister’s interest level in joining up with her.
Jennifer quickly dismissed the thought. Johannah had just received player of the year honors from the New England Prep schools and Division I schools would soon knock down her dormitory door. But, surprisingly, those knocks never came.
After holding out until May after her senior season, Johannah eventually decided to join her sister.
Johannah was named Division II Player of the Year in both her sophomore and senior campaigns, and she led the Ravens to a national championship appearance in the 2008-09 season. Other awards and records quickly piled up.
“I was losing track of them,” said Jennifer, who would eventually become head coach of the team in 2012-13. “There was the school scoring record and that was like a big thing. Then, she had the conference scoring record for women. Then, she had the conference record for men and women. And then, the NCAA women’s scoring record. It was so surreal that one person could accomplish all of this.”
Leedham finished as the all-time leading scorer in Division II women’s basketball history. She scored 3,050 points in an illustrious four-year career, but college was just the beginning.
She began training for the 2012 Olympics the summer after she graduated and was eventually selected to join the Great Britain Olympic Team. Leedham felt no greater honor than playing for her home country. She took in the sights and sounds of London, but a couple of experiences stood out above the rest.
“It’s so crazy trying to be normal with Lebron James and Kevin Durant walking into the dining hall,” Johannah said. “Or Pau Gasol is walking by you to get some cereal for breakfast. In your head you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so and so.’ You have to keep in mind that you are here as a participant as well.”
Leedham earned a spot on Great Britain’s Olympic Team and led the squad in several categories during the 2012 Summer Games.
Johannah excelled on the Olympic court. She led her national team in points, rebounds and assists during the 2012 Games. Great Britain did not record a win, but that didn’t mean the experience wasn’t a success.
“Being in the Olympics is hard to put in words,” Johannah said. “If someone would have told me when I was growing up that I would play for my country in the Olympics, I would not have believed them.”
Most recently, Leedham took part in the 2013 WNBA preseason as a member of the Connecticut Sun. The Sun held a special place in her heart because she remembers watching them play in her youth with her father. She dreamed to have her dad watch her play for them.
Her dream came true. In her first preseason game, Leedham was more nervous than when she saw LeBron James. She had a good reason: Her father would be in the stands.
“Having my dad see me play was a milestone for my family,” Johannah said. “When we first came to the United States, we all went to a Connecticut Sun game together. I was 16 and never imagined I would actually be playing in uniform.”
“I just wanted to make my dad proud. I tried not to get distracted and just play hard. To walk away from that game and have him say something positive meant everything to me.”
Johannah played in all three of Connecticut’s preseason games before her release. Playing for the Sun, even though in exhibition play, was an experience Leedham will never forget.
“It was so intense. It was probably the toughest training I have ever done,” Johannah said.
She made it to the final cuts. Head coach Anne Donovan waited to the last possible moment to trim her team to the required 11-player roster.
Leedham was disappointed but not deterred. She is currently in Great Britain continuing her career with her country’s national team.
Her performance in college garnered her a spot on the Division II 40th Anniversary Tribute Team, an honor of which she is extremely proud, despite the fact that it took her sister a couple of times to grasp the magnitude.
“I don’t think she really got how big of an honor this was at first,” Jennifer said. “When I called her, she was like ‘What?’ I was trying to explain to her how huge this award is. I think she finally realized how big it was when she looked at the list and noticed all of the other elite athletes.”