As the calendar closes on Women’s History Month, Michelle Smith checked in with first-year Dallas Wings head coach Vickie Johnson. Johnson, a 23-year veteran of the WNBA as both a player and a coach, had a successful playing career with the New York Liberty – establishing herself as one of the best defensive players in league history.
The Dallas native is now the only active Black Female head coach in the WNBA, and only the second active former WNBA player to be a head coach in the league (Phoenix’s Sandy Brondello is the other). And from her basketball beginnings to guarding Cynthia Cooper and learning from Gregg Popovich, the concept of role models has played a significant role in Johnson’s life.
Who were your role models in basketball growing up?
VJ: Growing up I loved Magic, his style of play, his knowledge, how he got his teammates involved, his passion for the game, his professionalism. Magic was my man. I watched him and then I wanted to go out and duplicate what he just did. When I was on my own teams, with my teammates, I wanted to be a leader in that same aspect. I just loved what he brought to the table every day, the passion of it, the dedication of it. It was about more than just basketball for him, it was more about his teammates.
I remember his first game in his rookie season when Kareem got injured and he played center. Just went right in, that he could do that, those are the little things about what I loved about him.
Who are your role models outside of basketball?
VJ: My mother and my grandmother. They taught me discipline, they taught me how to be honest, and transparent. They always reminded me that your word is your bond, and you only have your bond, to mean what you say, and say what you mean. Also, God. That was the foundation of our home. I didn’t grow up in a rich environment. We were very poor, but I didn’t know I was poor because of the love and commitment of my mother and grandmother. They raised our whole family, it was a lot of work raising us. I got to be surrounded by a lot of strong individual women.
My father left when I was 2, and my grandmother and my mom were the backbones of our family. They didn’t believe in handouts, they didn’t believe in asking for help. They were about doing it themselves and that’s who I am. I was taught that hard work will get what you want. That everything you want is earned, not given and that’s it is bigger than you and me and it’s about what you do for the next person.
When did you know that you also wanted to be a role model?
VJ: It was early, had to be eighth grade, junior high. It was very early in my career when I realized all the things that Magic was doing to help other people, how he was creating all of these businesses outside of basketball. I really wasn’t thinking about becoming a great basketball player. But my brother told me that girls couldn’t play and I wanted to prove to him that I could. I practiced for a whole year by myself, wherever I could I would play three-on-three, and when my brother came back home, he said ‘You can play’. And he told me I had a gift from God.
When I started playing AAU, we were going to different cities and playing different teams and playing against the best and I always wanted to see where I ranked. I always wanted to make a statement. And when AAU season was over and I came back to my high school team, it was my goal to be that player-coach to show what it takes to be a good basketball player and a good person. I have always prided myself on being a caring, loving person. I don’t look to gain anything from being a leader, and I think that made people willing to follow me. I have always believed in putting in the work as well as being passionate and driven.
Have you ever been disappointed by someone you thought was a role model and what did that teach you?
VJ: I was being recruited at the time and I had five visits to make. But I was always a big Louisiana Tech fan and I had wanted to go there since I was nine years old. I went on a visit there and I met an NBA player, I won’t say who it was, who was another role model for me, someone that I really looked up to. I was really excited. I asked if we could take a picture and he was such a jerk to me. He didn’t want to take a picture. He acted annoyed and he signed his team name, not his name. I couldn’t believe it. I have a lot of pride and when he looked at me, I took it and ripped it up and threw it in the trash right there and said “I will never be like you.” That experience drives me to take the time for people. I really understand that my name on a piece of paper means something to people. At the end of the day, we are able to be role models as athletes and coaches because of the fans. Sometimes, I think we can forget why we are role models and who made us role models and I vowed not to be that person who ever forgets.
Who were your WNBA role models when you played?
VJ: It was a different generation and growing up, we didn’t have the WNBA. I knew there were players that I loved watching in college – Cheryl Miller and Theresa Edwards and Katrina McClain and Bridget Gordon. And then when I went to play overseas after college, I had the opportunity to play against Cynthia Cooper. I was in France, a rookie on a Euroleague team and we were about to play Coop and she was a god in Italy basketball at that time. I called coach Leon (Barmore of Louisiana Tech) and he said to me ‘I don’t care what time it is, but whenever that game is over, you call me and tell me who Cynthia Cooper is.’” He wouldn’t tell me anything else.
Now our team is preparing for the game and our coach tells me I’m too young to guard Coop, even though I’m known for my defense. And she had like 58 in that game. I said ‘Hey coach, she won’t have 58 the next time we play them.’ So we played them again and I guarded her and she got 23. After the game, I was too embarrassed to go talk to her, but people were coming up to me and congratulating me and I was mad that she got 23. But she was averaging 45 or something.
We used to play Houston when I was in New York and I would be up all night, rewinding highlights and moves. I always knew when we played them, that we would be on television and that my friends and family would be watching. And I always wanted to make sure I would guard her in a different way. To make things hard on her.
To this day, every time she sees me, she says that ‘VJ was the hardest person who ever guarded me’.
Who are your coaching role models?
VJ: For me, it would be Coach Barmore, Richie (Adubato), Dan (Hughes) and Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich). Coach Pop has been amazing to me, allowing me to watch his practices, see how they do things. When I first started coaching, somebody told me that you don’t want to be close to your players. That was the worst advice ever. We are influencing the younger generation at a critical time in the careers and the mark that we leave on their lives is huge, on the court and off the court. We are teaching them how to be great pros and great people. I want my players to look to me for that advice. I’m that person who has been a player where they are and now a coach. At the same time, I am one of those coaches that will tell you the truth. But then I will teach you and help you get there.
What do you think about the current activism of the WNBA players and their status as role models?
VJ: I’m very proud of our league, and of the young players stepping up to make their voices heard. Women are powerful, and these athletes, are not afraid of consequences. Maybe it’s because their mothers, sisters, and aunts and grandmothers were always the backbone of their families. I think being a role model is embedded in them and they are not afraid to stand up for what’s right. The one thing I will tell you is that in the bubble everyone stood together. They didn’t wait to follow anyone. When NBA players stand up, they have millions of dollars behind them. When the WNBA players stand up, they have hundred-thousand-dollar salaries they are putting on the line.
Are these players role models for you?
VJ: For sure. I encourage them. I look up to them. When I played, we just wanted to be recognized as a professional league in the United States and to be able to sustain that pro league for the younger generation. This generation has a seat at the table and is leading the discussion and I’m definitely proud of them.