Growing up in Coushatta, La., (population 2,999), Vickie Johnson dreamed of playing basketball for Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techster program had a rich women's basketball tradition and legendary head coach Leon Barmore. After a few weeks under Barmore's tough rule, Johnson started thinking maybe LSU would have been a better choice. So, she did what any other college freshman would do. She called her mama.
After reminding Johnson that scholarship papers constituted a contract she needed to honor, Johnson's mother, Susie, hung up on her. Then, she called Barmore and tattled on her 18-year-old daughter. Barmore still chuckles at the memory. "I do remember her mother pretty much telling her you ain't coming home," he says more than 15 years later. "She should feel blessed she has a mother like Susie."
Johnson adjusted to the not-so-easy life of big-time women's college basketball and finished her career at Tech as a two-time All-American. In the fall of 2007, the school inducted her into its sports Hall of Fame. Barmore has high praise for his former star. "I love Vickie Johnson," he says. "I love what she's done. She was just so smooth. She might have 18 points and if you didn't understand the game, you'd think she only had two or three. She's a quiet assassin."
In the spring of 1996, her Lady Techster career over, Johnson headed to France for her first professional season. Seattle had drafted her into the ABL, but the ninth-round selection was so late in the draft, Johnson preferred to take her game across the pond. It was there, while playing for the French team Tarbes, that Johnson first encountered Cynthia Cooper. Preparing to play the Cooper-led Lavezzini Parma, Johnson called Barmore and asked him to tell her about this Cynthia Cooper person. Barmore just laughed and told her, "VJ, call me after the game and you tell me who Cynthia Cooper is." The meeting launched an intense rivalry. Johnson still says Cooper is the only player she ever lost sleep over.
While Johnson and Cooper were embroiled in a Ronchetti Cup playoff battle, the WNBA was getting ready to launch its inaugural season back in the United States. The Houston Comets claimed Cooper and Johnson, despite praying to go anywhere but, was tabbed to join the New York Liberty. The small-town Louisiana girl just couldn't see herself in the big city. "It was intense," says Johnson. "New York is a place where people love and understand sports and they really love their New York teams. The first three years, we sold out The Garden every game. We were the talk of the town in summer. All the celebrities were courtside. I went over to get a couple of autographs and it was funny because they asked for mine."
As intense as the spotlight was in New York, nothing compared to the intensity behind closed gym doors. The mix of old school players, young guns and media darlings rumbled through practices not for the faint of heart. "Every day Rebecca Lobo would get a black eye," Johnson says. "The games were easy because practice was hell. For the people who didn't play, practice was their game. It was a different mentality." While the Liberty mixed it up in practices, they were a united front on the court, battling to the WNBA Finals each of the first four seasons where time and again Cooper's Houston Comets triumphed. But those games aren't the ones Johnson remembers as the most intense.
"The rivalry between New York and Houston was good, but the one between New York and L.A. was a hot mess," she says. "All five starters would get T'd up. I used to get T'd up at least 13 times a year." While Johnson was happily collecting technical fouls, her mom, Susie, was not enjoying the show. "She said, 'VJ, you're embarrassing me. Every time you get T'd up, you have to pay me $150,'" says Johnson. "So, it went from 13 times to like two times."
While Susie kept a tight leash on VJ's temper, the trademark competitiveness and intensity stayed strong. Teammate Becky Hammon has many memories from years of playing with Johnson, one of which is how hard Johnson hit her during her rookie season in New York. "Once, she hit me so HARD," Hammon says, shaking her head. "I got up, I didn't say a word and after that, they left me alone... kind of a welcome to NYC orientation."
Johnson remembers when it came time to evaluate the guards that season and the coaches asked her and Teresa Weatherspoon about Hammon. She says the veteran duo voted in favor of keeping Hammon because every time they hit her (which was often) she got right back up.
"She wanted to see how tough I was," says Hammon. "She was testing me." It was a test Hammon clearly passed and nine years later, the duo has played more than 200 games together. "I can tell you it's been an honor and a blessing to play with her," says Hammon. "I think she has humility and this quiet strength. It's unshakeable."
The strength Johnson exudes went largely unnoticed by the general public during her New York days, falling in the shadow of a big city and a team with larger than life personalities. But in 2006, Johnson left the Big Apple for San Antonio and had an immediate impact. A late training camp arrival because of a conflict with her European season, Johnson strolled into the AT&T Center during a preseason game with Charlotte, meeting her new team for the first time. Clad in jeans with a newsboy cap stylishly angled across her braids, Johnson sat on the sidelines and silently watched. The following day, she stepped foot on the court in Silver Stars gear for the first time. Immediately, the team's intensity level tripled.
"She knows the right way to do things," says Barmore. "She simply does what it takes to win and she's so unselfish doing it. She sets an example and you just want to fall in and do what she does. As long as she's involved with that team, then her presence will be felt. She's obviously one of the greats the WNBA has ever had because she's played the entire time and played with such integrity."
The WNBA's all-time leader in games and minutes played, Johnson has quietly put together an unparalleled resume with points, rebounds and assists totals well into the thousands, and she easily eclipsed the 4,000 point mark last season. On June 13, 2008, she played her 11,000th career WNBA minute. When told of the milestone, Johnson replied, "No wonder my legs are so tired."
But how has the 36-year-old veteran played at such a high level for so long? Johnson credits God first, but adds, "I love playing basketball. I love competing. It's been eating right, staying in shape and praying."