Vickie Johnson and the hope of second chances for Black coaches
The Dallas Wings’ new hire is progress for Black women coaching in hoops
Vickie Johnson always knew she was head-coaching material.
After spending the past three seasons as an assistant coach with the Las Vegas Aces, Johnson was named the new head coach of the Dallas Wings on Dec. 9. She is one of three Black head coaches in the 12-team WNBA, and the only Black woman head coach.
While diversity in the coaching ranks is still lacking in a league where 80% of its players are Black, Johnson’s hiring signifies an important aspect of progress for Black coaches: a second chance.
In 2017, Johnson was named the head coach of the San Antonio Stars. In her first season, the team finished 8-26. The losing record wasn’t surprising given San Antonio’s struggles prior to Johnson taking over, but that offseason the franchise was bought by MGM Resorts and moved to Las Vegas. Johnson’s time as a head coach would be halted after a single season.
Looking for a fresh start, the new ownership group opted to hire Bill Laimbeer as the team’s head coach. Johnson, who said she enjoyed her one year coaching in San Antonio, became Laimbeer’s assistant coach on the Aces.
“I actually called Bill and asked him could I be his assistant,” said Johnson. “I don’t really get caught up into titles. I know my worth and I know who I am as a person.”
Johnson played in the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997 and was a two-time All-Star as a player. She has 10 years of coaching experience in the WNBA. She knew if another opportunity to lead a team presented itself, she’d be ready.
“I’m not one to be a victim,” said Johnson, who had also interviewed for Dallas’ head-coaching position vacancy in 2018 that ultimately went to Brian Agler. “When the time comes, it’ll come and it’ll come in God’s timing.
“As a Black woman, I know, and I’m ready, to lead a team.”
In the WNBA, Johnson is the fifth Black woman to have a second tenure as a coach in the league. She has an opportunity that few Black women coaches in basketball, both in the WNBA and NCAA, have received over the years, with others still waiting for their next shot.
Amber Stocks is waiting for her second chance.
Stocks was the head coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky from 2017 to 2018. In the time since Stocks was fired by Chicago, there have been four head coaches hired (not including Johnson) by WNBA teams. Stocks said she has not been contacted by any teams to discuss a head-coaching position – she was 26-43 during her two seasons in Chicago – but added that she has been contacted in regards to assistant coaching positions. Stocks also said that, besides conversations initiated by her, one franchise contacted her about a general manager position.
Stocks, who was responsible for assembling a large part of Chicago’s current core roster, believes biases are real.
“I don’t think anyone has bad intentions,” said Stocks, who added that biases go beyond race to include age and gender. “I don’t think there’s an agenda. I don’t think there’s malintent. I just think that there are just subtle biases that influence us all.”
Stocks said the challenges that Black coaches and Black women coaches face when lobbying for coaching vacancies in sports is a microcosm of a larger societal issue in the United States.
“The challenges are inherent. The keyword of course is ‘challenge.’ It’s not a preclusion, it is a challenge. … There’s a lot of layered nuances that really reflect the imprint of our culture in the United States, and this even is just a micro reflection of a greater kind of imprint in our culture in the United States that we have kind of seen over the years.”
Stocks has completed a master’s program in sports administration since departing Chicago and is working on completing a Juris doctorate. She has also expanded her scope for new opportunities, including conversations about positions with NBA franchises.
“Can a coach like myself, who has over 20 years of experience, who has known since she was a child that she wanted to coach basketball, get another opportunity regardless of the degree of melanin in their skin?” Stocks said. “I’d like to believe yes. I choose to believe yes.”
It’s a similar story in the college ranks.
When University of Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy was unable to coach due to illness on Dec. 6, she turned to assistant coach Niya Butts to lead her team against then-No. 13 Indiana. For Butts, it was the first time in four years she had walked the sideline as a head coach.
Butts was previously the head coach at the University of Arizona for eight seasons and joined Kentucky’s staff as an assistant in 2016. Given the opportunity to coach against Indiana, she led the Wildcats to a gutsy 14-point comeback win. It was Kentucky’s first win over Indiana in 30 years.
“For me, obviously, it felt good,” Butts said. “I felt comfortable. I honestly didn’t expect not to feel comfortable.”
Currently in her second stint with Kentucky after serving as an assistant from 2003 to 2008, Butts said she hasn’t actively sought out her next chapter as a head coach. But she is aware of the lack of second opportunities for Black coaches.
“When you look at, over the history of basketball, those African American coaches who had gotten opportunities before and are actively trying to get new opportunities, you don’t see them pop up as much as you do everyone else,” Butts said.
Felisha Legette-Jack is one example of someone who has found success at the collegiate level after a second opportunity. Legette-Jack was fired in 2012 after six seasons at Indiana. Seeking a second chance at another program, she was hired the following season by the University of Buffalo, where she now owns the record for most career wins in school history.
South Carolina assistant Jolette Law, on the other hand, is an example of a head coach in waiting. After coaching Illinois for five seasons from 2007 to 2012, Law went on to be an assistant at Tennessee from 2012 to 2017 and has since been an integral part of the Gamecocks’ success in recent years.
Butts stressed that there are many good African American coaches who have simply started their head-coaching careers in tough situations and have not been given the necessary time to succeed.
She adds that most of the successful coaches have also struggled with wins and losses at some point during their careers.
“When you look at some of the pitfalls coaches have regardless of who they are, a lot of them look the same,” Butts said. “But you won’t get the same type of stories of [Black] coaches who were able to revitalize their careers or move on to different places and get other opportunities. I don’t know if that’s because those coaches don’t try to or if they’re just not given the opportunity that other folks are.”
Take for example, the WNBA’s Dan Hughes, who was the head coach of the Stars prior to Johnson. Hughes ended his tenure in San Antonio with four straight losing seasons and retired after the 2016 season. He opted to come out of retirement in 2018 and, in his first season as the head coach of the Seattle Storm, won a championship.
In Dallas, Johnson inherits a young, talented team – no current Wings player has more than four years of WNBA experience – that has the potential to grow into a formidable playoff contender.
The Wings are anchored by budding star Arike Ogunbowale, who led the league in scoring last season. With other core pieces such as former rookie of the year Allisha Gray and last year’s No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally, Johnson will be charged with maximizing the talent on the roster.
She is ready to make the most of her second opportunity.
“At the end of the day I’m a coach, and I’m well prepared,” Johnson said. “I know I can coach this team. It’s my responsibility to prove to them that they made the right decision.”