IOWA CITY — Laughter is audible through a telephone. But a simple smile?
Lisa Bluder swears so.
It was during the recruiting process, when Morgan Johnson was a skinny, awkward post from the Kansas City suburb of Platte City, Mo.
Even though Johnson was 6-foot-5 and mobile, women’s basketball coaches from nearby Missouri and Kansas told her they weren’t interested.
Iowa State said no thanks.
“I really wanted to go to Iowa State,” Johnson said Friday during an interview at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “They came down to watch me play, and I thought I played really well — something like 25 points and 15 rebounds.
“My coach came up to me and said they had decided to go a different direction. I was a tall, skinny girl, I got pushed around a lot, and people said I wouldn’t overcome that.”
Mid-major schools showed the most interest. Johnson visited Creighton and Drake. The University of San Diego was an option.
Bluder, the coach at Iowa, saw Johnson at an AAU event in April of Johnson’s junior season.
“I was watching a game on one court, and she was practicing on another,” Bluder recalled.
“She wasn’t the most fluid, but I loved how hard she worked. I stopped watching the game on the court I was watching, and just watched her practice, because she was practicing harder than anyone was playing.”
Not long after that, Bluder and Johnson had a phone conversation.
“I was in the basement talking to her on the phone, and I told her she was good enough to be a BCS-league player,” Bluder said. “I swear I could hear her smile on the other end of the phone.”
Iowa wanted Johnson, and Johnson wanted to be wanted. She committed, then signed.
Once a skinny “project” — she weighed 155 pounds when she stepped on Iowa’s campus as a freshman — Johnson has blossomed to the point in which she is in the conversation as “best center in school history.”
Every year, her scoring average has increased — from 8.7 points per game, to 10.8, to 14.9, to 17.7. Every year, her shooting percentage has risen, both from the field (she’s at 57 percent this year) and from the free throw line (76 percent).
She is the school’s all-time career leader in blocked shots, with 262.
Mid-major? How about all-Big Ten?
“Morgan has developed into a heck of a player,” Ohio State Coach Jim Foster said. “She’s got great hands, and she has really adapted to the pace of the game.”
When Johnson was a freshman, the plan was to serve as an apprentice and a backup to Jo Hamlin.
But Hamlin suffered a blood clot in her leg, ending her season. Welcome to the big time, Rookie.
“It was a bad situation that turned out to be a good situation,” Bluder said. “It was a bad deal then, but we’re reaping the benefits now.”
Due to a steady diet of milk shakes and protein shakes, along with Iowa’s strength and conditioning program, Johnson steadily put on weight. Now at 190 pounds, she’s not so easy to push off the block.
And she still plays with the memory of her recruiting rejections.
“That’s definitely been a chip on my shoulder,” she said. “When we played Iowa State this season, their recruiting coordinator told me they made a mistake with me, and that’s what you want to hear.”
Basketball has brought Johnson visibility, even celebrity. But she’s so much more than a basketball player.
She’s an accomplished pianist. She’s an excellent student, compiling a 3.7 grade point average in the school’s pre-med curriculum. And she is a devout Christian.
“Morgan has such a strong faith, and she bases her judgments and decisions on that. She has a genuine, servant-like attitude,” Bluder said.
“She’s hard-working. She’s fun. If I could clone her, and show what all Iowa Hawkeyes should be like, there’s your model.”
Off the court, Johnson is approachable. Children gravitate toward the big girl with the big smile.
“It’s funny, when we were freshmen, I thought Morgan was going to be really weird,” said fellow senior Jamie Printy, who came to campus as a close friend with Trisha Nesbitt. That pair allowed Johnson into their fold, and the three have been roommates since.
“Morgan is goofy and kooky, but that’s what makes her Morgan. Trisha and I say we’re the ones that made her cool.”
Johnson said, “What can I say? Normal is overrated.”
At media day in October, Johnson said basketball would end for her after this season. She has chronic pain in her knees (both were in ice packs during Friday’s post-practice discussion), and she was ready to get on with life.
Now, she’s not so sure.
“I’m not ruling it out,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to have another chance.”
Whether she plays or not, Johnson has her post-basketball life planned out.
She was turned down to Iowa’s med school the first time, but will reapply there, and possible elsewhere if necessary.
Morgan Johnson has a life to fulfill. An extraordinary life.
“I want to go to a third-world country and spread The Gospel and medicine,” she said. “There’s is somewhere that I am needed.”
No. 12 PURDUE (15-2, 4-0) at IOWA (13-5, 2-2)
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
Tipoff: 3 p.m. Sunday
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WMT-AM (600), KXIC-AM (800)
Notes: Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder takes her second shot at career win No. 600 (the Hawkeyes lost Thursday at Michigan State). Iowa Hawkeyes are 4-0 against ranked teams this season. The home team has won the last six games in this series. Purdue’s two losses have come against top-five teams Connecticut and Notre Dame.