Former Stars head coach relishes assistant’s role with Aces

Updated June 23, 2018 - 6:53 pm

Aces assistant Vickie Johnson still occasionally has the urge to lace up the sneakers to practice against the younger players she coaches.

She hasn’t played this season, but she did last year as the head coach of the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars.

“It was good, but I’m too competitive,” she said jokingly. “I forget, might hit them a little too hard or something.”

Johnson, 46, was retained as an assistant coach by Bill Laimbeer after he took over the Aces’ franchise in October.

Laimbeer valued Johnson’s experience and relationships with the returning players and lauded her adaptability from head coach to assistant.

“Going from a head coach back to an assistant with the same teams is kind of different,” Laimbeer said. “You worry about players not listening to the head coach, or listening to a prior relationship. And that wasn’t an issue, either. Once I overcame those two things, it was no problem.”

Johnson always wanted to coach because she likes telling people what to do.

Seriously.

She was a two-time All-America guard at Louisiana Tech and played in the WNBA from its inaugural season of 1997 until 2009. Her career continued overseas for two additional seasons, and she debuted as an assistant coach for the Stars in 2011.

“I was always a player-coach on the court,” she said. “I wanted to win every drill. I wanted to practice hard … I still had that player mentality.”

Thus, her transition into coaching was admittedly difficult.

But she adjusted and fulfilled her playing fix by participating in practices with players — namely the guards, whom she worked with directly each day.

Then Stars head coach Dan Hughes retired in 2016, and the organization promoted Johnson to fill that role, providing her with the learning experience of a lifetime as the team finished 8-26.

“It was a lot of hard work,” Johnson said. “The team was so young, and I had to think the game for them and show them how to play basketball … How to be competitive and have that edge when they come on that floor. Bill is the right guy for it.”

Johnson said she is grateful for the opportunity to learn under Laimbeer, one of the WNBA’s most successful coaches.

She still works with the guards, and guard Kayla McBride said her relationship with Johnson has been positive since she came into the league in 2014.

“Everything she taught me, I still carry with me now,” said McBride, who was drafted by the Stars. “She would always bring out these cones. Literally like 25 cones. Exactly where you could get your shots against good defense, bad defense … So she’s always been that for me regardless if she’s my head coach or my assistant coach.”

Sure enough, Johnson brandished a dozen or so cones after practice Saturday and placed them at spots all over the floor. She summoned guard Moriah Jefferson, and the two ran drills as McBride watched from the sideline.

“See, there are the cones,” McBride said.

Johnson’s title has changed, but her attitude and approach haven’t.

Neither have her drills.

More Aces: Follow our Aces coverage at reviewjournal.com/aces and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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