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The informal lessons were cut short when Johnson left town for a few months. When she returned after the summer, the little boy was indignant. "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded.
"Tell you what?" Johnson wondered. It had never occurred to her to mention that basketball is her profession.
Johnson's modesty and low-key temperamentalong with the WNBA's marketing strategy of pushing perky personality over steady proficiencyhas kept her one of the league's most underappreciated players. Snapped up by the Liberty from Louisiana Tech in the second round (12th overall) of the WNBA's inaugural draft in 1997, VJ is the sort of player, says Liberty coach Richie Adubato, who is most prized by people who really know the game. Guided by a philosophy of playing to make everybody on the team deliver peak performances rather than to make herself stand out, Johnson suffers media attention politely, but with little relish. "If Sports Illustrated put her on the cover, she probably wouldn't even buy a copy," says her agent, Bruce Levy. "Well, maybe one copy," he adds, "for her mother," whom Johnson calls every day.
Dubbing the 31-year-old Johnson the team's "most complete player," Adubato rhapsodizes about her skills, intelligence, and tenacity on defense. "We put VJ on people three, four inches taller than her," he says, "and she doesn't give them a lot of room."
Some of the league's hottest peri-meter players wouldn't argue. Connecticut's Nykesha Sales (6-0 and 184 pounds) just shook her head after being frustrated on the floor by the 5-9, 150-pound Johnson in a July 1 game in New York, where the Liberty doused the Sun, 90-64. "She's just tough" was all Sales wanted to say.
Johnson is a stalwart scorer, too, averaging 11.8 points per game so far this season, while shooting .448. "You don't always see it coming, but you look up at the scoreboard and all of a sudden see she's got 18 points," says teammate Becky Hammon, who had season-ending surgery last week for an ACL tear she suffered on July 1. "VJ is a silent assassin out there."
Slowly, though, Johnson's been getting noisier. "She's like Patrick Ewing was with the Knicks," says Adubato, a Knick assistant when Ewing broke into the NBA and later a head coach of three NBA teams. "The first three years he hardly said a thing. Then he really emerged."
Now, with Hammon out and the Liberty's only other vet from the original roster, point guard Teresa Weatherspoon, seeing her minutes diminish, Johnson is expected to score more, even as she's being thrust into a more intensely verbal role. "If Spoon's not on the floor" directing traffic, says Adubato, "VJ and Crystal [Robinson] have got to pick that up." Robinson is ready to do her part, but she insists that "VJ is the leader of this team."
Johnson, 31, comes from the last generation of players who entered college with no idea that a professional women's league in the U.S. might be an option for them upon graduation. Her work ethic"She plays just as hard in every practice as she would in a championship game," says Robinsonreflects her refusal to take an opportunity for granted. It points, too, to her disciplined upbringing. Raised along with three brothers by a single mom who worked in the iron mills of Coushatta, Louisiana (pop. 2,299), Johnson recalls not being allowed to go out until all her schoolwork was done. Her oldest brother, Edgar, was a taskmaster under the hooponce he let her be there in the first place.
At nine, Johnson yearned to join her brothers in the game, but Edgar, four years her senior, told her that girls belonged in the kitchen. From then on, she says, "I was out to prove I could playand that I could beat him." She practiced on her own, and one day, short a player for a neighborhood game, Edgar reluctantly gave his little sister a shot. He's been a demanding coachand competitorever since. ("Last time we were home for Easter, we played one-on-one for more than three hours," says Johnson. "I could hardly walk afterward, but I wasn't going to be the one to say it was time to stop.") By junior high, Johnson was already a sensation, playing on a team of girls several years older.
When she was in ninth or 10th grade, Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore saw her, and he recalls, "She made a play that blew me away. She took a rebound and threw a bullet to a girl down at the other end who laid it in. Not many girls can throw like that. That girl had some strength."
Johnson got a chance to develop it under Barmore's exacting tutelage when she fulfilled an early dream of playing for the Lady Techsters. A two-time All-American in college, Johnson spent her first post-graduate year playing in France. (Though the ABL was operating then, the league didn't glance her way in the first couple of draft rounds, and, she says quietly, "That didn't feel very respectful.") The WNBA started up the following year, and in the winters in between, Johnson has continued to go overseas, spending several seasons in Israel. Last year, she went to Italy, wherethough she didn't know it at the timea legalistic snafu helped give her some of the skills and confidence she needed to fulfill her changing role on the Liberty.
"Our coach didn't have a license, so he couldn't sit on the bench," she explains. "So he'd prep me the night before and he'd call things out to me from the stands. I'd communicate it to the team." Johnson was relieved when the squad got a new coach halfway through the season and she could, she says, "focus on my game," but the surrogate coaching job taught her "a lot of patience."
It gave her the bug to do more, too. Johnson figures she'll play another four years and then she'd like to coachmen. "I think I'd be a little too soft on women," she says. "Not that they'd expect it, but I would worry about their feelings." Besides, she adds, "Guys don't learn the basics anymorefacing up, stepping right, jabbing. I can teach those things."
And, as the Liberty know, she can do them.