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Vickie Johnson didn’t know what to do or where to go. After nine seasons with the New York Liberty, she had become a free agent, a 34-year-old guard with a glorious past and uncertain future.
Johnson had been a two-time WNBA All-Star, the first Liberty player to score 2,000 points, one of the league’s bright lights in its early years. Now here she was in 2006, playing with a team in Hungary and pondering her future, alone, in the dark of night.
In her two-bedroom apartment in Pécs, a city founded on mountain slopes in the 2nd century, Johnson considered the possibilities. She was used to winning – the Liberty had made the playoffs six of the past seven seasons – so Johnson imagined relocating to a contending franchise. But which one? Indiana sounded good. So did Sacramento. A woman of faith, Johnson decided to ask God.
“Where would you like me to go?”
The answer was clear but so shocking she fell to her knees. Johnson wondered if she had heard correctly or perhaps if God had misspoken. She asked again, “San Antonio? Are you sure?”
More than 10 years later, Johnson, the San Antonio Stars‘ new coach, offers the story as a defining life moment, a time when what she wanted was challenged by what she believed.
Johnson wanted to play on a championship team, but she believed God was directing her to a team that had gone 7-27 the previous season. Since relocating from Utah, the franchise had never made the playoffs.
As Johnson wrestled with the answer she did not want to hear – San Antonio? Really? – she climbed into bed. Then a vision unfolded: An arena packed with fans. A team winning a championship. She saw herself playing and coaching. The vision, clear and vivid, sealed her decision. Johnson called her agent, Bruce Levy, and asked him to negotiate a deal with San Antonio.
“Are you serious?” Levy asked. “I know you can do better.”
Levy laughs at the memory of that conversation. “I recall it with great embarrassment,” he said. “She knew better than I did. She was right, wasn’t she?”
The prayer offered in Hungary was an extension of the faith born in a young child. In Coushatta, La. (pop. 1964), Johnson attended St. Savior Baptist Church. Baptized at 12, she went to services every Sunday and Wednesday, read the Bible, sang in the choir, and performed in church plays. She grew particularly close to her grandmother, who was a minister.
In her youth, Johnson was either in church or on a basketball court. When she started playing at age 9, the boys wanted nothing to do with her. They told Johnson, quiet and soft-spoken, to go in the house and bake a cake. Instead, she took her ball and practiced. In time, Johnson proved she could hoop with the boys and, before long, outplay them.
A star-spangled career at Louisiana Tech – where she was a two-time All-American and Sun Belt Conference MVP – preceded a sensational, nine-year run with the New York Liberty. Then came free agency and that night in Pécs, Hungary, on the slopes of the Mecsek mountains. It was there she saw her future, almost 6,000 miles away in San Antonio.
Dan Hughes, the Stars coach and general manager at the time, remembers taking the call from Bruce Levy. The coach’s heart leaped, his mind raced. Vickie Johnson wants to play for San Antonio? It sounded too good to be true. Would New York really let her go?
“It was a blessing,” Hughes said. “I went into don’t-screw-this-up mode. Good golly, you don’t get a lot of those phone calls.”
Johnson brought skill, experience, and a coaching mindset to the Stars. Though shy, she brought a leadership-by-example model to the team, but knew when to speak up. Johnson told a certain teammate in New York to join her San Antonio. That teammate, Becky Hammon, politely declined.
The Stars improved to 13-21 in Johnson’s first year. In the off-season, when she was playing overseas, Johnson received a phone call. The Stars had acquired Hammon in a trade. “I was super happy,” Johnson said.
The Stars made the playoffs the next seven seasons, advancing the the WNBA finals in 2008, Johnson’s third year in San Antonio. As she had seen in the vision, fans filled the arena. The Stars played for the championship.
Stars general manager Ruth Riley played with Johnson on that team. “VJ was an extension of the coaching staff on the floor,” Riley said. “She was more of a silent leader but a very significant piece to that success.”
Johnson does not know when she decided to coach. But she recalls telling Hughes in 2006 that coaching was her aspiration. “When you retire,” Hughes told her, “I’ll give you your first job.”
In 2009, Johnson retired from the WNBA. When she retired from playing overseas, Hughes hired Johnson as an assistant coach in 2011, another piece of the vision fulfilled. Johnson served as the No. 2 assistant, rose to No. 1 and recently experienced a circle-of-life moment.
When Riley hired her to replace the retiring Hughes, Johnson became head coach of a team that went 7-27 in 2016 – the same record it had when she arrived as a player. The team outlook, though, is promising. The Stars own the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft and return point guard Moriah Jefferson, named to the league’s All-Rookie team, and All-Star shooting guard Kayla McBride, who missed half the season with a fractured foot.
Johnson brims with optimism. “That No. 1 pick can do a lot of great things for us,” she said. “We already have great young pieces. My expectation is to win a championship.”
Bruce Levy remains Johnson’s agent after all these years. He marvels at the career she’s had in San Antonio as a player and as a coach. He never imagined his client would flourish in a city beset at the time with a losing franchise.
“She’s a very spiritual person,” Levy said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that helped guide her. Whether it was the Lord or any other force, she certainly got good advice.”
She can still hear that voice, she can still see the moving picture. The audio-visual plays on, the details coming to pass, one at a time, as the years unfold. The one unfulfilled piece is a championship. Will it happen?
“I have already seen the vision,” Johnson said. “I just gotta have faith.”