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Basketball sisterhood snaps into action when one of their own battles ovarian cancer

Noel Johnson battles stage 4 ovarian cancer as she enters her 12th season at the helm of the Midwestern State women’s basketball program. Midwestern State photo

As with any opponent she faced, Noel Johnson needed a game plan. 

The 46-year-old had faced many challengers in life, and she was used to coming out on top. She is the winningest coach in Midwestern State women’s basketball history. She was the starting point guard for the 1993 NCAA national championship Texas Tech team. She remains one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in Lady Raiders history. Her hard-nosed intensity on the court earned her the nickname “Ice.”

But this opponent was unlike any other. The initial shock pierced her when she heard it called by name: stage 4 ovarian cancer.

Johnson received the terrifying news April 2 after completing her 11th season with the Mustangs. She made the hardest call first, to her parents, Dean and Agatha Johnson. Little brother Nick and big sister Leslie came next. Then, Johnson turned to the mentor who had guided her through countless game plans: her former Texas Tech coach, Marsha Sharp. 

Hearing the news by phone, Sharp fell into a chair, stunned. But it didn’t take long before the two coaches got to work doing what they do best. 

“Almost immediately, we went into our coaching mode,” Sharp says. “Immediately we started to make a plan about how to go about trying to defeat cancer.” 

That’s when Johnson says her mindset shifted back into its familiar form — the one that has propelled her success on the court over decades. “It’s that same mentality of resilience, of being able to handle the adversity,” she says. “The next play is the next treatment or the next blood test. If I get bad news, it’s just, ‘All right, we’ve got to turn this into something good and make the next play.’”

As in any game, Johnson was instantly reminded that she wasn’t going to face this opponent alone. Along with family and other loved ones, a vast network in the women’s basketball world has rallied to her side, from fans in Lubbock who remember her smooth 3-point shot to players and community members in Wichita Falls, Texas, who feel her intensity on the sidelines to the teammates who took the court with her during that memorable NCAA championship run 26 years ago. 

“Once I had the game plan, it was a united front,” Johnson says. “Just like planning for a game or a season.” 

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Noel Johnson, No. 23, was the starting point guard for Texas Tech, the 1993 NCAA Division I championship team. Today, her former teammates have rallied around her in her fight against cancer. Texas Tech photo

Diagnosed during the week before the 2019 Women’s Final Four, Johnson had to cancel her trip to Tampa, Florida, where she had planned to attend meetings of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and catch up with other coaches and former teammates. One of those Texas Tech teammates, UT Arlington coach Krista Gerlich, called that week as Johnson was driving to meet with her gynecologic oncologist. The news of the diagnosis rocked Gerlich, who had remained close with Johnson since college.

Gerlich (then Krista Kirkland) was a leader on the ’93 Lady Raiders championship team, along with the legendary Sheryl Swoopes. So, upon learning of Johnson’s battle, Gerlich stepped back into that leadership role, starting a group text with the other 10 members of their team and serving as the point person to share information and shepherd support efforts.  

“Everyone immediately started sending ideas and thoughts,” Gerlich says. Janice Legan, formerly Janice Farris, made national champion T-shirts for the ’93 team in honor of Johnson, with the word “sisters” emblazoned across the front in teal, the color representing ovarian cancer awareness. Others sent care packages as Johnson began chemotherapy. 

And Sharp has continued to coach her up, with few days going by where they don’t text or talk. 

“She knows how to motivate me,” Johnson says. The motivation now is just a little different — listen to the doctors, keep a positive attitude, remember your physical strength. “At the end of those calls, she’ll ask me, ‘What are the three things I told you to do?’”

Gerlich has remained determined to build as much support for her former teammate as possible. At the Final Four, she ran into a fellow coach in her conference, Appalachian State’s Angel Elderkin, who was diagnosed with stage 3 endometrial cancer in May 2016 and continued to coach as she successfully battled the disease. Gerlich thought Elderkin’s story could help Johnson, so she asked Elderkin to reach out.

Elderkin thought back to a moment in 2016 when her Appalachian State team traveled to UT Arlington and Gerlich, the opposing coach, met her in the locker room before the game to give her a card and a cross.  

“It was like, I have to pay this forward at some point in time,” Elderkin recalls. She started with an email to Johnson, knowing this was her chance. 

“Here’s this woman who was going through almost identically what I went through around the same moment in time,” Elderkin says. “Maybe this can help her.” 

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Johnson remains one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in Texas Tech history. On Aug. 31, she was inducted into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame. Texas Tech photo

While she leans on others, Johnson continues to lead a team of her own. She is heading into her 12th season at the helm of the Midwestern State women’s basketball program, with no plans of slowing down as she undergoes treatment. A week after her diagnosis, Johnson gathered her team in the locker room and shared the news, along with her game plan. 

“This changes nothing for what we’re going to do next season,” she told them. “This changes nothing about my mentality. And this changes nothing about what you’re supposed to do here at MSU.” 

She wanted them to know the high expectations were still there — both for her team and for herself. “I wanted them to hear I’m beating this. Cancer is going down.”  

Johnson also hopes to spread awareness about a disease that is considered a “silent” cancer because any symptoms experienced are often mistaken for benign conditions. Approximately 22,530 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2019, according to the American Cancer Society, and many of those cases will be discovered after the cancer has evolved to a more advanced stage. This was the case with Johnson, who was being treated for gastrointestinal issues for several months last basketball season before her general practitioner ordered a scan that revealed cancer. 

Johnson immediately began treatment through Texas Oncology. And when she met her gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Reagan Street, the two had an instant connection. “I was wondering if this was going to be the same Noel Johnson,” the doctor told her. Street was in medical school at Texas Tech while Johnson was a Lady Raider and remembered watching her play. 

Johnson underwent three rounds of chemotherapy through Texas Oncology before undergoing surgery in June that included a hysterectomy and the removal of her appendix, omentum and spots on other organs. She started her final three rounds of chemotherapy Aug. 12. Throughout it all, Johnson has continued to work for the Mustangs, taking only two weeks off after her surgery in which she “about went crazy.” She already was looking ahead to next season, and she yearned to get back to work. 

Her unrelenting drive to keep moving forward surprises no one, especially not the teammates who knew her as “Ice.”  

Before they tip off in the regular season, Johnson and Gerlich will bring their teams together for an exhibition game Oct. 30 to raise money for ovarian cancer. Several members of the ’93 championship team will be in attendance, along with their Hall of Fame coach. Johnson’s players will honor her, and the arena will be speckled in teal. 

It will serve as yet one more example of a message both Gerlich and Johnson hope they’ve instilled in their players: That the women they take the basketball court with today will be the friends they lean on with other challenges later in life. 

Says Johnson, “It’s definitely a sisterhood.” 

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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