The learning curve was steep, the journey daunting.
Long before they were high school basketball stars, Lynette Johnson and Dakarai Allen struggled to grasp the game and their growing bodies. They were nonfactors on their middle school teams, planted at the end of the bench.
Now versatile senior wings, Johnson of Kennedy and Allen of Sheldon bow out as decorated players, punctuated by earning The Bee's 2012-13 All-Metro Player of the Year honors.
"I wasn't very good at all in middle school, so I knew I had to get better if I wanted to ever play," Allen said. "It started to come together, and then I felt like I could help my team. I tried my hardest in games. You have to as a leader. You do everything you can to help your team win."
Johnson said hard work and determination helped bring out the talent in her game.
"I was a bench warmer before high school who needed a lot of work," Johnson said. "It takes a lot of effort to become a good player because hard work beats talent. And if you have that hard work to go with talent, then you can become pretty good. It's a good lesson."
They combined to reach seven Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship games, winning five. In their four varsity seasons, Allen won 108 games and Johnson 97.
The 5-foot-10 Johnson and the 6-6 Allen were difficult to compete against because they could do a little of everything with and without the ball: score inside and out, defend well, grab rebounds and pass. They were their teams' leading scorers: Allen averaged 18 points, seven rebounds and 4.0 assists; Johnson went for 17.5, 7.6 and 2.0.
While Allen and Johnson excelled in high school, it's only the beginning of their careers.
Both landed college basketball scholarships. Johnson is headed to Utah State and Allen to San Diego State. Both will compete in high school all-star games this spring, locally and out of state.
Both will be missed by their teams and coaches.
"Dakarai does it the right way," Sheldon coach Joey Rollings said. "He played hard. He can score in a lot of ways. He guards the other team's best player."
Said Salesian of Richmond coach Bill Mellis, whose state-ranked No. 1 team lost to Sheldon in the Northern California Regional playoffs: "He's really good now, but his best days are ahead. He plays hard and is a nice young man."
Kennedy coach Dave Parsh said Johnson emerged as his team's top player. She played so hard for the Cougars that she sustained three concussions diving for loose balls or crashing into the bleachers.
"She could do it all," Parsh said.
Said Oak Ridge coach Steve White: "The thing about Lynette is she's likable as a person and a player. She's unselfish with the ball. She can shoot the three, play defense, box out. She's the complete package."
Johnson and Allen have another common bond that will benefit them in college and perhaps beyond. They live for their sport. They never tire of it, and they said they cannot imagine being without it. They cherish victories, agonize over losses.
This season, Johnson led Kennedy to the NorCal Division I playoffs, where the Cougars fell to eventual champion Berkeley.
Allen helped power Sheldon to four consecutive section Division I titles. This season, the Huskies reached the NorCal Open Division championship game, losing to Archbishop Mitty of San Jose.
"Basketball is my life," Johnson said. "It's literally everything for me. It's always something I can do. I don't know what I'd do without it."
Said Allen: "Basketball is something I always wanted to do, needed to do. It's been a big part of my life. Sometimes it is my life."