Vickie Johnson, WNBA pioneer and new Dallas Wings head coach, tells us her story

Since the ending of the 2020 WNBA season in Bradenton’s Wubble, only one franchise made a major staff change. Brian Agler and the Dallas Wings parted ways and Vickie Johnson is the new sherif in town.

The nomination of the former WNBA All-Star guard with the New York Liberty and the San Antonio SIlver Stars is significant in many ways. She will be the only WNBA black woman head coach next season, in a league with a majority of Afro American players. In terms of representation, her apointment is crucial. But “VJ” deserves to be talked about for many other things besides the color of her skin and her gender. She’s a WNBA pioneer, who also had a great career overseas, particularly in France, and a lot of stories to tell.

We had the chance to talk to her a few days after a nomination. The Dallas Wings fans should approach the future with optimism. Their new head coach is fiery, passionate and very ambitious.

Talking about basketball with Vickie Johnson was delightful and we’re hoping you’ll like this interview as we had pl

Swish Swish is a french speaking media but we like to share some of our interviews in English. They can be found here.

The youngest WNBA fans may only know you as a coach, but you were an All-Star and amazing player in the young days of this league, can you please take us back to this era and tell us what was different from the game as we know it today ?

I’m not that old, I’m only 48. But I guess it is an era, right ? (she smiles) I started in the league in 1997, I played 13 years in the WNBA, 15 years overseas and had 10 years of coaching. I think the biggest thing between my generation and this generation is accountability. Holding players and each other accountable. We didn’t need coaches to hold us accountable. We held each other accountable by the way we played, the way we approached the game and practice. I think it’s missing from the game now. They all want to be friends and not give their honest opinion to each other, they don’t want to lose their friendship. To be honest, these players are more athletic than we were. They can jump out of the gym, they are faster, they are stronger, they are amazing athletes. This, and accountability are the two biggest differences.

You were part of some amazing teams in NY and San Antonio, who were the players you found the most impressive back in the days ?

Anyone who knows me knows I have to say Cynthia Cooper. She was amazing. She is probably six years older than I am. I had the opportunity to play against her during my first year in France. She played in Italy and once we got into the WNBA, she was incredible. Cynthia was by far the toughest competition for me. I have to say Tamika Catchings as well. I had to guard her at 5 ft 9 and she is 6 ft 3… She played every play like it was her last. It was a challenge for me. And then, Michele Timms (a former Phoenix Mercury player from 1997 to 2001). Not a lot of people talk about her. You may not even know Michele Timms. She was from Australia. She was a quick point guard, she liked to shoot the basketball from the hash mark. She was an older player who understood the game very well.

Let’s do another time travel. You were born and you grew up in Louisiana. You also studied at Lousiana Tech. How important is Louisiana to you as a person, but also as a basketball player ?

Very important. It is where I was born, where I was raised and where the foundation was laid. I am who I am because of my mom, my gandmother, my uncle, my coaching staff at Louisiana Tech… They instilled a lot of values in me. My uncle taught me the game of basketball as a young player. He taught me the right way to play the game and he is the reason why I am so competitive. I hate losing and he instilled in me that with the right mindset and the determination in your heart, you can beat anybody. You just have to study their game and that’s why I am one of those coaches that are well prepared. I watch my opponent, I study my opponent. I could tell you their strengths and their weaknesses after three or four possessions.

I read that you were also very talented in another sport, track and field,. Did you have to make a choice or was it always basketball ?

I don’t know if you want me to answer this if young kids are reading (she laughs). My coach in high school played professional football. He is from Louisiana and became my new basketball coach during my freshman and sophomore year. He told me I had to pick a sport. Track or softball. I said : “I’m not playing softball, it’s too slow !” I loved the action, so I ran track. It was a great experience but also the worst experience of my life. I’m so competitive and in order to make the regional and the state championships, you have to be this very focused athlete and put in the time. Everyday I had to be out there with him and just working, running bleachers and doing all types of stuff. I made it to the state championship during my freshman year in high jump. But we didn’t have a high jump in our school, so it was just natural talent. I came in fifth place. I walked off the field in LSU, and I told him : “Coach, I’m coming back next year, I’m winning state and long jump and then I’ll quit”. He was like “OK VJ, yeah, whatever…” The next year, I came back. I won state and long jump. I gave him the trophy and I was like : “I quit !” (laughs). So I was into basketball only for my junior and senior years. I had already commited to Lousiana Tech in my sophomore year. It was the number one team in the country.

What’s the story of you playing in France ? You had a great college resume (Louisiana Tech played the NCAA Tournament Finals in 1994) and the French league was not as competitive as today.

I got drafted in the ABL in 1996. Bruce Levy – he was an agent that had 80% of the players in the league at that time – asked me if I wanted to play in the ABL or the WNBA. I said : “Well, I believe in the WNBA. Let me get overseas to get some experience”. So he sent me to France. It was the greatest experience of my life, because I wasn’t playing with kids anymore. I was playing with adults. Some of the best players were on my team in Tarbes and on the national team. There were vets and older players. So it was a great experience. My coach was amazing. And then I came back the next year and I played in Bordeaux. I love France, I have always appreciated the kindness that the people showed to me. I will truly be forever grateful for my stay here. I can’t wait to get there for the 2024 Olympics.

How hard was the transition from your life in the US to a new experience like this one ?

I’m from a small town in Louisiana. So the most important thing was to feel comfortable and I did. I wasn’t a player that liked to party or stay out. I’m more of a family person. So as long as I can get some chicken, some fish and some vegetables, watch my movies and speak to my family, it’s easy. The transitions were never difficult. I played 15 years overseas and even after I retired from the WNBA, I played two more years. I loved playing overseas. I made a lot friends

You also played in Israel, Turkey, Hungary, how were the experiences for you on a personal and professional level ?

I never had a bad experience, every organisation and team I played for was first class. Even when I went to play in Israel, for Ramat Acharon, a second division team that won the championship and moved to first division, and they still had second division players on the team. The experience with them was amazing. We finished third in the league, but I had to work hard to help them reach their full potential. I’m truly blessed, because there are a lot of things going on there now. In Hungary, I have a thought for my former assistant at Pecs, may he rest in peace. He had a car accident, it killed him and some management people. It also injured a lot of players. It was the same road we travelled all the time. I was blessed not to have ben part of th accident. I wasn’t part of it but it was one of the saddest moments for me.

For the people who never watched you play back in the days, what kind of player were you and to whom would you compare yourself to ?

If we’re talking NBA, I’m a mixture of Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade. Mid-range, killer instinct, clutch, fearless, who would do anything to win. Even if we have to cheat, we’re going to win (she laughs). I was gonna elbow you, I was gonna hit you a couple times…

Were there players you were looking up to when you started your career ?

Teresa Edwards was one of my favorite players. Bridget Gordon was also one of the players I idolized. Cheryl Miller was amazing, the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, Teresa Weatherspoon as well. She played at Louisiana Tech, I learnt a lot from her. Their styles of play were all different, but they all had the killer instinct. They played the game the right way and that’s how I hope I played the game for 15 years. I left everything on the court. When I retired, I was really pleased to walk away saying : “Hey, I have nothing left in the tank”.

To talk about the present, everyone talks about the fact that you will be the only black woman head coach in the league next season. Black women are still not represented enough in high rank positions in the society. Are you confident it will change sooner than later ?

Oh yes, for sure. Dallas is moving in the right direction. They are changing the culture and that’s what it’s all about. We have to lay a stone, one stone at a time. I will continue to be a role model, but not only for black women. For all women. And at the end of the day, I’m a coach. I have playing experience for 25 years, a coaching experience for 10 years, and hopefully through my experience, more teams will take a chance and believe in our ability as leaders, as role models, and as teachers. At the end of the day, it’s about being a woman and a role model for all kids. Not just girls, but for guys as well. It’s very important for them to see a person who looks like them. A person of color, a female and a quality athlete with character and beliefs. I hold beliefs. I’m an honest person, trustworthy and dedicated to help this league grow.

So who is Vickie Johnson as a head coach ?

Like I said, I’m honest, very hard working and very prepared person, on and of the court, I believe preparation is the key to everything. The time we put in as coaches, as a team, as individuals, will pay out in the long run, but it’s about the team first. I’m holding them accountable. It’s important for me not to be a victim and to see what we can all do to make the team better and to win. Win or lose, we are winning, because we are learning. Some people look at losses like : ‘Oh, we lost’. No. It’s a learning experience to get better. And to be better at winning as well. I have this 24 hours rule. Win or lose, we move on. We watch film, we discuss, we move on. There are too many times in sport and in life where we just dwell on the past. Ten years from now, twenty years from now… We’re still dwelling on the past. Even bad relationships. Whatever ! We’re stuck in these moments and that’s not something we can do. I will not allow my players to be stuck in the moment. The season is too short to dwell on the past.

During your presentation, you said you wanted to build a championship team. When do you think the Wings will be a contender ?

Now ! I’m very competitive. I know it will take time, and I have a group of young ladies, but they are very gifted and passionate about winning. My team consists of players that played in the most prestigious universities. Notre Dame, UConn, South Carolina or Tennessee, the Mecca of women basketball, are all winning programs. So they know how to win and I have to be able to bring them to this level to be able to win. You can’t go to a university like that and not learn how to win and how to be competitive, consistent.

San Antonio starting line-up in 2009 vs Phoenix in the WNBA playoffs

Half of our crew at Swish Swish is Belgian and the other half is French. What can you tell me about your former team mates, Ann Wauters and Edwige Lawson-Wade ?

First of all, a lot of people don’t know that but I played with Edwige when she was 17 ! She was a young guard with a lot of passion. I’m not surprised that she’s in the position she’s in today, being a General Manager and a role model for the French players. Also, Ann Wauters ! (she smiles) I love her. She’s a sister for life. I had the opportunity to play with her in New York and San Antonio. I love her to death. I love her family and everything about Ann. My last year in 2009, she came over late and she didn’t know I was going to retire. She felt so bad… She was like : “Next year, I’m coming early !” ‘No, Ann, I’m done’. “What ?! No one told me, I could have come early !” ‘Oh, really Ann ?’ (she laughs). She cried, she begged me to come back and play. But I said : “Ann, I’m done. I don’t have anything else in the tank. I want to coach the game and give back to this game that gave so much to me”.

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