Depiro BC’s import player HANNAH JOHNSON has become a household name for the local basketball community since joining the side from NCAA Division 1 side the Washington Huskies back in 2019. Kurt Aquilina spoke to the American player about her experience and how she is bringing it all into the women’s game in Malta…
Coming to Malta straight from the United States, one might find that both the difference in the size of the country and basketball community might be a shock. Johnson admitted that size, culture and the nine-hour time difference were the main things she found she had to adapt to the most.
“(Malta)’s pretty small compared to the United States. I’m originally from California and I’ve been to school in Washington, so I’ve been in big places. So, adapting to Malta, which is smaller than I’m used to, was the first thing,” Johnson said.
“Second was the time difference to figure out when I get to speak to my family. The culture is different – even the side of the road the cars are on. It was all foreign to me, but I felt I adapted quickly. I enjoy being in new places and just the experience is beautiful to me.”
Asked about the disparity between the game in the US and that in Malta, the fact that players face around 15 to 20 different teams in a season compared to just four is one of the major differences.
“I’m used to playing many types of basketball, so playing against the same four teams here was definitely a big adjustment,” she explained.
“The pace is definitely different, but I’ve also been able to take this opportunity to help my team-mates grow in their game because I’ve had a big opportunity to play in the US.
“I got to bring my knowledge and help develop the girls here because there’s not a lot of resources here compared to America, so I used this to kind of give back what I was given in my country.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen that lacks is the consistency of working hard. I know it’s completely different because there are girls who get paid while it’s a hobby to other players.
“The players who want to succeed and go to the next level can – like Sophie (Abela) in the US, Julia (Borg) in the UK and Monique (Caruana) who also played in the UK – and I wish more girls would strive for that opportunity because it’s such an amazing thing.”
With Abela in Colorado, on the books of the Otero Rattlers, and Kristy Galea in West Virginia with the Alderson Broaddus Battlers being the only Maltese players currently in the US playing collegiate basketball, Johnson encourages more to follow suit as she believes it is a great experience ‘as a player and also as a person’.
“I would tell every player here ‘If you have the opportunity, go do it!’ It’s very hard because you have to think about the other players being recruited in America from all over the world so you have to have something special in order to get that opportunity, but it’s not impossible,” Johnson said.
“It takes a lot of work and discipline. Malta’s a great place for beaches and parties but if you’re trying to go play (abroad), unfortunately you have to go to the gym instead of the beach or the party. That’s just what it takes to get to that level. It’s very possible and I would encourage every single player here who is young – if they love the game of basketball – because it’s so rewarding.
“Even showing you’ve gone outside your comfort zone, leaving a small island to go to a huge country is big.”
Asked about the number of American import players entering the Maltese league, the 24-year-old believes it to be very positive as it creates more competition.
“The biggest thing I saw in my first couple of months here was that we need more competition because it helps players develop more and can get them prepared for the next level,” she said.
“There are girls in this league that are solid, but we need more of it. I think it’s amazing that we’re getting more foreigners in the league to help competition for the Maltese to get better. Even if the American wasn’t a starter in Division 1, the fact that they played and competed and came here – bringing that kind of exposure is great.”
“My advice for the girls would go further and be to play against boys. My roommate in college, who went on to be the number one pick in the WNBA a few years ago, always played against boys because they’re stronger and faster. That’s what the game is like in American college basketball – fast and strong.”
Coming to Malta, Johnson has brought over experience such as being part of a Huskies team which made the NCAA Final Four tournament in 2016.
“It was really cool being in that setting which besides the finals of the NBA Championship, is the next big thing. Getting to experience that and watching the talent and atmosphere for women’s basketball was pretty cool. Plus, it was a spoiling experience because there were four Nike teams so they gave us as the Maltese would say ‘Xeba’ (a lot) gear,” she said.
Just like every other athlete, COVID-19 has taken its toll on players like Johnson, who returned to the US to be with her family as the pandemic halted the league in March.
“I was home for five months and I started missing basketball. Fortunately, I’ve been able to come back in August,” she said.
“I still don’t know if I like one game every two weeks or not. At first, I liked it but waiting two weeks to play another game sucks, so I feel both ways about it. But I think we’re lucky to be playing and this is a much better place than in the US with COVID so I can’t complain.
“We’ve had some cases in the club. So, getting swabbed before every game is a hassle, but at the end of the day, as long as we’re playing, so be it.”
This season, Johnson has been at the forefront of Depiro’s basketball despite suffering an injury which saw her out of both games against Starlites before the break.
“I love my team this year – we have a great group of girls and we have a lot of talent. As a team I think we’re more solid than last year,” she said.
“I hurt my ankle before the Luxol game but played. I also played against Hibs but missed the games against Starlites. But the team was pretty solid anyway. I think our team has definitely grown a lot. I’m excited for the future of this team.
“We have a good group of girls who are doing a great job and I enjoy playing basketball with them. I hope for my team to keep working and believing in themselves.”