Johnson At Peace With Decision to Retire
One of the greatest point guards in WNBA history is hanging them up. Seattle Storm guard Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson announced Friday that this, her 11th season in the WNBA and 14th as a professional, will be her last before retirement.
"I'm making a decision to leave right now because my body, from injuries and different things, says it's time to stop," Johnson explains. "Playing here under Brian (Agler) and playing with my teammates this year gave me a sense of peace that I'm going out the right way."
"I'll continue to play in Europe, but as far as the WNBA I'm going to stop because I'm at a stage where I'm very pleased with my career," says Johnson. "The WNBA has given me a lot. It's given my family the opportunity to see me play in the states, and that's pretty much why I do it on a regular basis - for my family."
Johnson leaves an important legacy in the women's game. She finishes her career third in the WNBA in career assists - one behind teammate Sue Bird, who passed her late in the 2008 season. Along with Bird, Johnson is part of an elite group of three players in league history to record at least 3,000 career points and 1,000 career assists. (The other, San Antonio's Vickie Johnson, is also retiring at season's end.)
During her WNBA career, Johnson was highly honored, especially during her heyday with the Orlando Miracle. She was an All-Star four times, was named to the All-WNBA Second Team three times and was generally regarded as the league's point guard early in the decade. Johnson was also a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 2004, winning a gold medal in Athens.
"Pee Wee's had a great career," says Bird, who played alongside her for the USA in 2004. "I can remember when I first played with the National Team and came into the WNBA, she was the standard for point guards. Going up against her was always something that was very difficult - offensively, defensively ... she's a very tough player to go up against."
"I've been on different teams, been in different situations and reached most of my goals," Johnson says modestly. "As an athlete, you set goals, and I was able to do that."
The lone thing missing from Johnson's WNBA résumé is a championship. She came close in 2007 with the Detroit Shock, playing in the WNBA Finals but falling to Phoenix in five games. There's a sense of urgency for Johnson to take a last shot at a title with the Storm this postseason.
"You work so hard throughout the season to get to that position," says Johnson. "Now that we're in the playoffs, you've got to step it up now. You're out there playing and it's win or go home. That's something that we're thinking about right now: We either win or we're out."
Johnson did experience the thrill of winning a championship twice in the ABL, where she first teamed with Agler on the back-to-back champion Columbus Quest. Fresh off of her senior season at South Carolina, where she ranked second in the nation in scoring at 24.6 points per game, Johnson started at the point alongside talented players like Nikki McCray and Katie Smith and helped the Quest emerge as the league's dominant team.
Little did Johnson realize then that she would still be playing professionally more than a decade later. She's one of three players from the ABL's inaugural season still active in the WNBA, along with Smith and her former teammate in Orlando and Connecticut Taj McWilliams. Johnson credits Agler with helping her enjoy such a lengthy, productive career.
"He mentally got me prepared for what I would endure throughout these 10 years," she says. "I can remember my first year playing with him. He didn't let up. He mentally made me tough. I was a little kid coming out of college, thought I knew basketball. He put me in the mindset of if you want to make a career of it, you've got to have the right mindset of knowing that if you want to make a career out of it, mentally you've got to get yourself focused. I think that's the edge I've had throughout my career, being able to play as well as I have."
"It was such a pleasure to coach her. I thoroughly enjoyed it," says Agler. "Her first couple years out of college, she was in a lot of ways very similar to who she is now in terms of personality, but just so energetic and athletic and made things happen. She was a rookie; she was learning how to be a pro and brought a lot to the team. Now, she's the opposite - she's the veteran, she knows the ropes, she can make veteran plays. She's been a great benefit to our team this year backing up Sue, especially down the stretch - she's played huge minutes and done a great job for us.
"The world of women's basketball will miss her. She's got that great personality and she's a great competitor. I just feel real fortunate I had a chance to work with her. She and I have been friends since day one and will remain friends."
Like Agler, Bird has seen her relationship with Johnson come full circle. Once fierce but friendly rivals, they became teammates this season, often playing alongside each other. Bird enjoyed having Johnson in the locker room.
"As I got to know her through the National Team and being her teammate, I learned there was a lot more to her - her ability to engage everybody on the team, her personality," Bird says. "She really brings out the best and is a very good teammate.
"Now that I've been able to see her every day, that's just been reinforced. I already knew it, but I see it more and more. She's just a really cool person - she's easy to be around. She likes to have a good time, but at this point when I got to play with her on a day-to-day basis, she is more of a leader, more of a vet than I had seen earlier. You could just see how her game transformed."
With Bird sidelined by a neck injury during the season's final week, Johnson got a final chance to relive her younger days as the Storm's starting point guard. Twice in a three-game stretch, she played a full 40 minutes. The other game saw her play 41 because the Storm went to overtime. Yet Johnson held up very well, averaging 13.7 points and 3.0 assists in the three games.
"She would joke a lot about having to play all those 40 minutes, but she did a great job," says Bird. "That says a lot about being a veteran. No matter what her role was going to be in a particular game, in a season, she was going to be ready and willing. That shows what kind of player and person she is."
Johnson's WNBA legacy is multifaceted: She has been an elite point guard and a backup, a promising youngster and wise veteran. She has played for five franchises in six cities over 11 seasons. Yet what Johnson hopes fans remember about her is much simpler.
"I'm just a tenacious, outgoing person," she says. "Someone that you always saw with a smile on their face. Someone that loved the game and kept giving back to it. Just somebody that was a tenacious guard who enjoyed going out there and playing basketball and gave the fans what they wanted every night."