Vickie Johnson was the WNBA’s Iron Woman, giving her all from the birth of the league to the day she retired in 2009, playing more games in that time than anyone else.
She quickly realized she still had more to give, jumping into coaching with the same passion and desire that made her one of the sport’s favorite hustle players.
When she arrived in San Antonio in 2006, Johnson was the Stars’ first free agent signing, the first one to say she wanted to start something special in South Texas. Johnson is still following through with that commitment a decade later, after four seasons in San Antonio as a player and six more as an assistant coach.
Now, Vickie Johnson is ready for her next step as head coach of the Stars.
Johnson was promoted to head coach on Thursday, succeeding Dan Hughes. Selected to the Stars’ All-Decade team in 2012, Johnson has dedicated her career to establish the tradition and culture of the Stars organization.
“When I signed with San Antonio, the first thing I said to fans was ‘I will bring a championship to you guys,’” Johnson said. “It’s still my goal.”
A two-time WNBA All-Star, Johnson was the first player in WNBA history to record 4,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists in a career. At the time of her retirement, Johnson was the WNBA career leader in games played with 410. She still ranks 25th all-time in career points (4,243) and 14th in assists (1,205). She played in five WNBA Finals, including the 2008 Finals with the Stars.
Johnson, 44, was a two-time All-American at Louisiana Tech before she was taken No. 12 overall in the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997. She spent her first nine pro seasons in New York before she signed with San Antonio in February 2006.
Johnson had a ton of success in New York, but saw a new challenge in building a team with the Stars.
Ten years later, she’s still at home.
“I believe in San Antonio,” Johnson said. “This is where my heart is. This is the team I played for, I pray for, and I cry for. It’s only right to finish what I started.”
Johnson said her favorite thing about San Antonio has been the devotion of Stars fans.
“The fans have been faithful to us,” Johnson said. “They’ve always been there for us and they deserve a contending team. I’ll do everything I can to give that to them.”
As a player, Johnson was filled with determination and resolve. Considered one of the league’s top defenders, Johnson said she always believed in giving maximum effort, especially in practice.
At the beginning of one season in New York, Johnson kept drawing an undersized training camp invite in practice and put her to the test.
Johnson knocked the player over and over again, and she kept getting back up. By the end of the camp, Johnson told the Liberty GM, “I don’t know that white girl’s name, but you need to keep her.”
Johnson and Becky Hammon would end up being teammates for 11 seasons, including three in San Antonio.
“V.J. is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Hammon said. “You knew she demanded so much of her team because she demanded more out of herself. If I had to go to battle, she’s someone I’d enlist to go with me right away. You want her in the next foxhole.”
Johnson is reunited with another teammate in the front office, Stars general manager Ruth Riley, as they played together for the Stars from 2007-09. With the WNBA entering its 21st season as a league in 2017, they are the first former WNBA teammates to become a coach and general manager for the same team.
A league that was just beginning when Johnson finished college and looked for a place to play has turned into a thriving path for former players to make the leap to coaching and management ranks.
“We have a very aligned vision,” Riley said. “We have a similar passion for the game, for our league and for the city of San Antonio. Teaming up with V.J. again shows the growth of our league, and with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, we really have a unique story developing with our franchise.”
Riley was named general manager in April when Hughes stepped down from the post to focus on his final season of coaching the Stars.
Hughes would also hand the coaching reins over to Johnson at points in the 2016 season. Johnson focused on working with guards and defensive schemes as an assistant for her first five seasons with the Stars, but in 2016 she worked with post players and designed offensive sets and plays as well.
Johnson also spent three weeks in October observing the Spurs’ training camp with the Stars staff.
“People don’t know especially what a positive force she has been to the team on a daily basis,” said Hughes, who stepped down at season’s end after working in the WNBA for 17 of the league’s 20 seasons. “I lit up like a Christmas tree when I found out V.J. would replace me, that’s the only way I can describe it. Sometimes the world seems right, and that was one of those moments.”
While the Stars transition from their run as a contender in the 2000s to a young team on the rise, Johnson is a coach who knows the culture and San Antonio and also has strong relationships with rising stars Kayla McBride and Moriah Jefferson. With the franchise holding the No. 1 overall pick in April’s 2017 WNBA Draft, the are many pieces Johnson is thrilled to work with.
“One promise I can make is we will focus on defense first, be well prepared and the best-conditioned team,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be an exciting time to be a Stars fan.”