NEW YORK – The first day of the WNBA season was a surreal one for former All-Star Vickie Johnson, who made her head coaching debut inside the arena where everything started.
Johnson played in New York from 1997-2005, helping guide the Liberty to the inaugural WNBA Finals and three more Finals appearances. A member of the Liberty’s Ring of Honor, she still ranks as the franchise’s all-time leader in points (3,246), rebounds (1,053) and games played (282). Saturday afternoon, Johnson led the huddle for her San Antonio Stars for the very first time at Madison Square Garden.
During a timeout in the second quarter, the Liberty played a tribute to Johnson on the video screen, featuring highlights from her time at The Garden and an emotional interview. Johnson said, “Deep down inside, I’m still a New York Liberty.”
The enemy this time around, Johnson received a standing ovation from the crowd at MSG.
“It’s exciting. This is where I started, The Garden,” Johnson told WNBA.com. “I was excited to bring my team here, in front of these amazing fans. I’ll always remember the energy we brought and the amazing fans. It was about the little things. It wasn’t about what showed up on the box score, it was about how you played, the energy, the hard work you put in.”
The game didn’t pan out as Johnson hoped – the Stars falling 73-64 to the Liberty – but the circumstances were difficult for her heading coaching debut. San Antonio was missing arguably its top three players in Moriah Jefferson (knee), Kelsey Plum (ankle) and Kayla McBride (overseas commitment). It didn’t help that they faced a Liberty team that finished first in the Eastern Conference each of the last two seasons.
That didn’t stop the short-handed Stars from holding their own for most of the contest. After trailing 21-13 at the end of the first quarter, they ended up losing by just nine despite shooting 38 percent from the field and 17-of-29 at the free throw line. Against a New York team that led the league in opponent field goal percentage the last two years, the Stars played some solid defense themselves.
Tina Charles, last year’s MVP runner-up, was held to just 12 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Epiphanny Prince added 11 points off the bench for New York, while San Antonio’s Monique Currie finished with 23 to lead all scorers.
“I thought if we would have made some free throws, some open shots, we probably would have won,” Johnson said. “But we worked hard as a team. …I think the fourth quarter, we played aggressive and with a sense of urgency. We can’t wait until late in the game to do that. We have to play the whole game like that.”
The Stars will have a quick turnaround, as they next face Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics on Sunday. Johnson said neither Plum nor Jefferson will play against Washington.
Although the Liberty spoiled her coaching debut, Johnson will remember Saturday’s game for many years to come. It was only a matter of time before she became the leader of a WNBA franchise. After she spent six seasons as an assistant, the Stars promoted her when former head coach and GM Dan Hughes retired.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for four or five years,” said Johnson, who also spent four years of her playing career in San Antonio. “I knew that in time, God would work everything out. To have the opportunity now to coach for the Stars, the team that I loved, played for and cried for, I can’t even put it into words.”