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Mercer Basketball Lives on In Heart and
Actions of Alum Deitra (Primas) Johnson
Will Return to Campus to Honor Coach Howie Landa Sept. 15


West Windsor, N.J. - There are decisions in life that define everything that follows. That was the case for Deitra (Primas) Johnson '80 (A.S., Telecommunications) when she agreed to play basketball for Mercer County Community College in 1978 under then head coach Larry Jackson.

"The way I look at it, I was supposed to go to Mercer," Johnson says. "It all began there. I buckled down. The camaraderie of the MCCC Athletics Department was priceless."

A graduate of McKinley Tech High School in Washington, D.C., Johnson recalls being recruited by Coach Jackson after he watched her play in the D.C. All-Star game. "At the time, I had delusions of grandeur, but honestly, I didn't take high school seriously enough," Johnson says. She recognized that she needed time to grow.

Johnson's Mercer years provided that and more, as sports and, increasingly, academics became her focus. After a stellar basketball career at Mercer, she transferred to Howard University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism with minors in Physical Education and Sports Management.

"I was always torn between my love for writing and my love of athletics, so I learned to combine the two," Johnson explained.

In addition to playing for the MCCC women's team, Johnson served as a public address announcer for Vikings men's basketball and then she served as an announcer for women's basketball at Howard. During her senior year there, she earned a National Football League (NFL) scholarship in sports writing and was a program assistant for the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports (NAGWS) in Reston, Va.

These days the versatile Johnson wears three hats: as a long-time sports writer and editor, as a substitute teacher, and, in a connection that bridges her own history as an athlete with the next generation, as a middle school basketball coach.

Johnson says her commitment to coaching is a clear reflection of her time at Mercer and her understanding of the positive role of sports in the lives of young people. As a first-year college student at MCCC, she says her first lesson was developing self-reliance. "During those first months, I grew up. And even though it was junior college athletics, it was one of the best."

All she had to do was look to the men's basketball team for inspiration. Coached by the legendary Howie Landa, the Vikings had won two consecutive national titles in 1973 and 1974. During Johnson's first year, the Mercer men went to the national tournament and lost the championship game by one point. She recalls that all of Mercer's teams competed in national tournaments while she was a student.

She quickly learned that playing time was not so easy to come by. Johnson came off the bench her first season, waiting until second year guard Debbie Yurtz graduated. Then during Johnson's sophomore season, she played in every game. The Lady Vikings won the Region XIX title in 1980 with a regular season record of 25-1.

"Our one loss during the season was against Union County College," Johnson recalls. "Then we played Union in the Region 19 championship and won by 7 points, the same margin of our earlier loss. Redemption!" Her teammates included Terry Dorner, Marchel Wilson-Simmons, Denise Randolph (a.k.a. Nikki) and Petheria McIver, (a.k.a. "P"), a fellow player from D.C. The Vikings headed to nationals, winning two and losing two, as they completed a record-breaking 27-3 season.

In addition to her appreciation of Coach Jackson, who passed away in 2011, she vividly recalls Coach Landa. "He inspired us on a daily basis. His energy level was remarkable and he just had that way of explaining things -- basketball or otherwise -- that made an indelible mark on our lives."

Deitra (Primas) Johnson '80
In the locker room at MCCC, circa 1979, from left, Denise Randoph, Deitra Primas and Marchel Wilson.
On the sidelines with Coach Larry Jackson, right.

Johnson recalls that during her second season, Landa took a break from coaching at Mercer to serve as head coach of the New Jersey Gems, one of the first women's professional teams. "He gave us the chance to scrimmage his squad, which helped us win Region XIX," she maintains.

Johnson also remembers sports journalist George O'Gorman, the long-time, old-school writer for The Trentonian newspaper. "At that time, there were very few women covering sports. This was only a few years after the passage of Title IX [the law that equalized the playing field between men's and women's sports]. I am grateful to him for his coverage of our team during those years." Johnson says she still has most of O'Gorman's articles about the Vikings, including the memorably titled "Pee-Dee Show Heads West - Lady Vikes Set" that appeared as the Vikings traveled to nationals. (The headline refers to the two players, Petheria and Deitra, who had played against each other in high school and became close friends at Mercer.)

After graduating from Howard, Johnson became sports editor for the Northern Virginia Sun in Arlington, Va. She began a family and eventually moved to Atlanta, but never got derailed from her goals. Today, she is the sports editor for the Atlanta Daily World, recognized as country's oldest Black daily newspaper. Now in its 83rd year, she has worked there off and on since 1989.

"We cover all major sports news for the pro teams in Atlanta - the Hawks, Falcons, Braves, and near and dear to my heart, the WNBA's Atlanta Dream," Johnson says. She recruits college students to help with coverage. "It's great for them and gives them professional opportunities before they graduate. They get press credentials and conduct locker room interviews."

Johnson's beat also includes Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Georgia Tech (Atlantic Coast Conference), the University of Georgia (Southeastern Conference) and Georgia State University (Colonial Athletic Association).

Also working as a substitute teacher for the Clayton County School District, Johnson just completed her first season as head basketball coach for a group of sixth grade girls at Atlanta's KIPP Vision Academy. She notes they knew nothing about basketball when they started. "It's a challenge, but the good thing is they don't have bad habits yet. It's a clean slate." She predicts that by eighth grade, they will be the team to beat.

"Coach Landa is one of the reasons I began coaching. I only hope that I can continue to do it with the same zeal and intensity as he did," Johnson says. Formerly she was the assistant coach at another KIPP school, which won the championship three of the four years she worked there.

Johnson is hoping to reunite with some of her teammates on September 15 when Mercer will host a tribute to Coach Landa with the unveiling of the Landa basketball court at the West Windsor campus, followed by a celebratory dinner at the MCCC Conference Center.

"To be back on campus will feel great," Johnson said. "I've had recurring dreams about returning and visiting the staff and old teammates. It will be a dream come true." See details about the plans for the Landa Tribute here.

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