Kiara Johnson limps onto the basketball court in Alumni Arena, having recently gotten out of her walking boot following an achilles injury. Her day starts at 7 a.m.
By 5:30 p.m., she’s sitting courtside, watching her teammates practice in preparation for their games this week.
Afterward, she’ll go to her parents house, where her 1-year-old son, Joseph Johnson, is waiting for her. She hasn’t gotten to see him today.
This is what Johnson — a fifth-year forward on the women’s basketball team — does everyday as she tries to balance three lives at once: mother, student and Division-I college basketball player.
“It’s so hard. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not,” Johnson said. “I just know nobody was expecting this from me. He is just going to be like, ‘My mom did what?’... I will be tired, but when I see this face all of that goes away.”
It was the Fourth of July when Johnson found out she was pregnant.
She had spent weeks feeling sick with neither her nor her trainer knowing why — until she took a pregnancy test.
A few days later, she found out she was eight weeks along.
At the time, Johnson was playing at Towson University. But once she started showing and wasn’t able to complete team workouts anymore, she returned from Maryland to her hometown of Buffalo.
She took extra classes online at Towson while dealing with her high-risk pregnancy to prepare for life with a child.
“The hardest part was being alone. I had to go to my appointments alone,” Johnson said. “I was a high-risk pregnancy. So every time I went to a doctor’s appointment it was just a wonder and question. That was the hardest part.”
Johnson gave birth to Joseph in February 2022. Her mom, Maria Johnson, was by her side as much as possible. But Johnson spent some of her time in the hospital alone.
Throughout her pregnancy, Johnson questioned if she would return to the basketball court — and even school — again. She considered getting a “regular job” and not returning.
Pregnant, she sat in the stands of the Gallagher Center, watching her friends play for Niagara University. When she saw her peers play, she knew she had to be on the court again.
With a baby to care for and her academic future uncertain, Johnson decided it was time to leave Towson and permanently come home. After Johnson entered the transfer portal in the offseason, UB assistant coach Wyatt Foust received an email from Johnson’s mom last summer, explaining her daughter’s situation. Maria Johnson sent the email with the hope of getting her daughter a spot on the team.
“99% of the time when someone sends you an email they’re probably not good enough,” Foust said.
He quickly learned this wasn’t any other email.
“This girl can really play,” Foust recalled saying when he and the other UB coaches watched Johnson’s film. After a phone call with Johnson, Foust said he “could hear in her voice” that she had the drive to play for UB. He believed in her.
Johnson grew up coming to UB basketball games as a 12-year-old, regularly taking pictures in the stands with her family. She previously played for Eastern Michigan and Towson, but never got an offer from UB until her family connected with the current coaching staff.
UB named former USC Upstate head coach Becky Burke as its next head coach after former Bulls head coach Felisha Legette-Jack left for Syracuse. A local to the area, Johnson took advantage of the opportunity to hit it off with a new coaching staff, who were new to the area and needed more players.
After evaluating Johnson’s game tape and hearing her story, UB offered her a spot on the team in April.
“I was like, ‘I can play for my hometown and be eight minutes away from my kid,’” Johnson said. “I love this sport so much, I just got to. I wanted it so bad. I knew it was gonna be hard but I worked. That was just my motivation, knowing that a coach [Foust] understood me and wasn’t just saying it.”
Foust’s wife, like Johnson, went back to playing basketball after having a child in college. This made Johnson feel much more supported and understood at UB.
And Johnson isn’t raising her child alone. Joseph spends half of his
time with Johnson’s parents and the other half with her at her apartment.
“They [my parents] see how happy I am on the basketball court and that’s why they still help me with everything, financially, everything they help me,” Johnson said.
Her return to play was “an uphill climb,” according to Foust. Johnson was out of shape and had been out of the game for over a full year after not playing the entire 2021-22 season at Towson.
She and Foust started with a training plan. Every Sunday, Foust would get on a call with Johnson and reflect on the week. He admired how honest she was on the calls, telling him everything that had gone right and wrong that week.
“I’ve never seen anybody go from where she was and get to where she got,” Foust said. “It was awe-inspiring.”
After averaging 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds over six games to start the 2022-23 season for UB, Johnson suffered an achilles injury in December. With a recovery timeline of nine to 12 months, Johnson was ruled out for the season.
While the injury was frustrating after the work she put in to return to basketball, she said one benefit of not being on the court is getting more time with her son. Ironically enough, the two are at a similar point in their lives.
“I’m just now starting to be able to walk a little bit,” Johnson said. “My son is actually learning to walk now. It’s like we are learning together.”
Johnson said the most surprising part of her journey has been the support she’s had. Last week, Burke’s fiancée looked after her son when she couldn’t find a babysitter.
“If that [support] wasn’t something we are going to be able to provide her, then she wouldn’t have chosen to be here in Buffalo,” Burke said.
Johnson, 22, is the first in her family to pursue a college degree. She’s currently finishing up her second bachelor’s degree in criminology and has another year of eligibility, though she hasn’t decided whether she’ll take it or not.
One of the most important things to Johnson right now is making sure she’s able to set her son up with a good life. As a mother, she feels it’s her responsibility to show him everything she was able to overcome and accomplish.
“For now, I want to work hard because this is only temporary and I want to set him up for the rest of his life,” Johnson said.
Foust said Johnson’s experience of training while raising a child is “something truly remarkable.”
“She’ll have to share [her story] with him forever,” he said.
After having her son, returning to school and regaining her footing on the basketball court, Johnson has yet to decide her next step after recovering from her injury.
“I’m excited to see what KJ’s future holds,” Foust said. “And no matter what the basketball future holds, she’s gonna be an absolute winner in life.”
Amy Maslin is a sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com