Vickie Johnson Q & A – New York Liberty
Though the New York Liberty’s Vickie Johnson may not make a lot of noise, she certainly makes an impact. Frequently called upon to guard opponent’s best shooters – Cynthia Cooper called the 5’9″ guard one of the toughest defenders in the league – Johnson also makes an impact on the offensive end. The 1996 Louisiana Tech graduate is the Liberty’s all-time point scoring leader. In her fifth WNBA season, fans voted “VJ” a 2001 East All-Star starter.
WB: How has the game changed since 1997?
VJ: People are taking the game more seriously. Even though it’s a summer league, people come in better shape. We know as players that this may be our last game – or our last season. You’ve got to give it 110% every time you step out on the court, because someone out there is trying to take your job. [Houston point guard] Kim Perrot woke a lot of people up. How can someone in great shape like herself, pressing and scoring, leading her team to the championship – and four months later she’s diagnosed with a brain tumor? And she dies in less than a year. You just never know. I think that we as athletes – and people in general – just take life for granted. We just need to take it more seriously, because you never know.
WB: You’ve said you didn’t want to get drafted by New York…
VJ: Well, being from Louisiana… (Laughs) But I didn’t want to go to Houston; I didn’t want to go to LA. I really didn’t really know where I wanted to go. But now, I would never want to play in another place but New York. It’s just a great atmosphere. We go play in different places and the fans are not the same. The fans boo their team. I don’t think we ever got booed. They appreciate us, even though we may lose. If we’re down by twenty, and there’s two minutes to go, they’re still standing up, thinking we’re coming back to win. (Laughing) Now that’s incredible. I’m like, “You guys know we’re not going to win, but thank you anyway. (Laughs).
WB: Compare your Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore and Liberty Coach Richie Adubato.
VJ: They both demanded a lot from me – expected me to be a leader. Playing under Coach Barmore made the WNBA or going overseas easy for me. He taught me the game – not just to play the game, but to think the game. Not just to look, but to see, not just to listen, but hear everything. They like to TEACH the game. Richie has been teaching me a lot of things, like how to get over the pick. Little things like that I didn’t know. I mean, I knew how to get over a pick, but I didn’t know. He taught me an easier way. (Laughs) They both love the game. They’ll talk the game 24/7.
Differences? Richie approaches you differently. He’ll come up and tell you, “Great job.” Coach Barmore was always in your face. I think he told me… twice, maybe, that I played good. (Laughs) Once, I separated my shoulder – couldn’t even lift my arm to shoot — but because I played with a lot of heart at the end he said, “You played good.” (Laughs)
WB: Did you choose Louisiana Tech because it was one of the best programs, or because it was in Louisiana?
VJ: (Laughs) I never told anyone this…. I was playing with my brothers outside one day, and my mom called me in the house and she said, “VJ, there’re some girls on TV playing basketball. I think [La Tech] was playing against Cheryl Miller. And I said, “You know what? You see the team in the blue with the stars? That’s the team I wanted to play for – with the stars,” ’cause I wanted to be a star. (Laughs) That’s why I went to Louisiana Tech. The stars.
WB: What basketball has given to you?
VJ: My education, for sure. A full scholarship to Louisiana Tech. Being able to touch people’s lives. And the friends that I came in contact with – and still am in contact with. Those are the three most important things.
Though the New York Liberty’s Vickie Johnson may not make a lot of noise, she certainly makes an impact. Frequently called upon to guard opponent’s best shooters – Cynthia Cooper called the 5’9″ guard one of the toughest defenders in the league – Johnson also makes an impact on the offensive end. The 1996 Louisiana Tech graduate is the Liberty’s all-time point scoring leader. This season, fans voted “VJ” an East All-Star starter.
WB: Considering the word “under appreciated” has often followed your name, what did being voted onto the All-Star team mean to you?
VJ: It gave me a different outlook on everything. The first year I was chosen by the coaches – Rebecca [Lobo] was hurt and I replaced her on the team. But this year was special because the fans chose me. It made me realize they really appreciated my game. I don’t go out there and score twenty a game. What I do I get is from hard work, second shots or transition. Very seldom do I get a screen set for me, or a play called to me. I just work hard and give it a 110%. For our fans in New York — and throughout the league – to understand my game touched me a great deal.
WB: How would you describe your personality?
VJ: Quiet, but vicious. (Laughs) Off the court, I’m quiet. On the court, I’m vicious. It’s like night and day. I’m just going to play my game, but once someone starts talking trash, my personality changes, the intensity level increases. Off the court I’m soft spoken and don’t really talk a lot. So [players] consider me quiet and think, “We can push her around and she’s not going to stand up for herself.” But it’s not like that. Once they see that I won’t back down from them, it’s like, “VJ’s quiet, but she’s not that quiet on the court. (Laughs)
WB: Who does the opposition see when you’re on defense?
VJ: I think they know that I’m not going to give them their first move. Not even their second move. They’re going to have to do their third move in order to beat me. And in order to beat me, you’ve got to do something you’re uncomfortable doing. It’s about pride. It’s about you, with your individual pride, and me with my individual pride. It’s that person thinking they can score on me, and I’m thinking there’s no way I’m going to allow you to score on me. There’s no way.
WB: What is the challenge in switching from a defensive to an offensive mind set?
VJ: You’ve got to be in good shape. To get down and play defense and then on the other end be able to get into your shot, use your legs, follow through or go to the basket– it’s very difficult. But it’s really rewarding. I know in my game I can score, I can defend, rebound and pass the ball. So, if I’m having a bad night shooting the ball, then that’s okay, because I know I can bring something else to help my team win a game.
WB: Increased pay be an issue in the next collective bargaining agreement with the league. Do you think money will affect the relationship between WNBA players and fans?
VJ: I don’t think that will ever happen. I know that everyone in the WNBA plays this game because we LOVE this game. We don’t play because of the money. To be honest with you, we go overseas for the money to come back here and play. We enjoy touching people’s lives. We enjoy playing in front of our families. If we get more money it won’t change who we are or the way we play the game. We just want the money because we DESERVE the money. But if don’t get the money, (Laughs) we’re still going to play. (Laughs) I’ve talked to a lot of NBA guys and they say, “You all are CRAZY. We wouldn’t play. Go on strike!” We’re going to make stand this year, because we believe we deserve more money. We just don’t want to be taken advantage of.
I think, personally, nobody in this league should make less that $100,000. If we’re professional athletes, let’s be treated like professional athletes. $100,000 is not much, but it’s enough for people to do what they want for eight months – take care of their families, go overseas if they choose to go overseas. You may see more people doing clinics, doing charity work. But now they can’t, because they’ve got to work. They have to provide for their families.
WB: Is the increase physical play making the WNBA comparable to the NBA?
VJ: I wouldn’t compare it to the guys. I think this league is very competitive. The players are competitive and there’s a lot of trash talking. People get away with certain things and sometimes you can’t take it. It just depends on the flow of the game. I think it just makes fans appreciate our game. We don’t make millions of dollars like the guys, but we’re out there busting our butts just as hard as they are. I think it’s good for women’s basketball. We just love the game, and we play it with our heart.
WB: Liberty coach Richie Adubato came from the NBA to the WNBA. What was the first season like?
VJ: (Laughs) He was confused. We were confused. He didn’t know anything about women’s basketball. (Laughs. Pauses.) No – because women’s basketball and men’s basketball are pretty much the same. But he didn’t know about the personalities, how to deal with the emotion that we bring to the game. How to talk to the women. Overall, he expects the same thing that he expects from the guys.
WB: Like what?
VJ: Offensively, for example, [he’ll say] “If you go to the right and somebody cuts you off, spin and shot fake and lean your body to the goal and draw the foul. Just simple stuff. (Laughs) He teaches you to step back to shoot the three. It’s just one dribble and step back. That’s a very difficult shot for a girl because of the strength that you have to have. But we do that in practice every day.
WB: Your college major was in Sociology and Psychology. Where does that sit in your life?
VJ: When I retire from basketball a millionaire…. (Laughs) I want to work with juveniles. I worked [at] in Louisiana Tech with 16 and 17-year kids on the edge of suicide, drugs and dropping out. Just bad, bad kids. They spent 8 weeks with a group of us college players. To talk to them, listen to them, and give them direction in their lives was real touching for me. At first they didn’t want to do nothing but sell drugs or drop out and drink beer – just hang out. Then at the end of the school year, they’d write me and say, “I got a scholarship,” “I want to be this.” “I want to be that.” It’s unfortunate that kids look up to us more than they look up to their parents or teachers. I think athletes don’t want to take the role, but we’re all role models.