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A Chance Encounter, Respect Earned: The Long History Of Dawn Staley And Trooper Johnson

By Steve Goldberg | Aug. 30, 2021, 4:44 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Head coach Trooper Johnson, Rose Hollermann, Lindsey Zurbrugg and Courtney Ryan celebrate during the women's wheelchair basketball preliminary round at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 25, 2021 in Chofu, Japan.

 

In the spring of 1996 as the Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic Games drew closer, the U.S. women’s basketball team came to the Georgia capital to play an exhibition game at Morehouse College, which would be a basketball venue when the world arrived later that summer.

The game against a college all-star team was scheduled early in the day because the women would be attending the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s Naismith Awards banquet that night.

As her teammates got their gear together after the game, 25-year-old Dawn Staley, an Olympic rookie who would eventually win three gold medals, was asked to come back out to the court for a short video shoot with a member of the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team to promote the Paralympics, which had little awareness in the United States at the time.

Little did Staley know she was about to embark upon a relationship with a peer whose journey also included playing in multiple Paralympic Games and then coaching at U.S. team this summer in Tokyo. In Staley’s case it was the U.S. women, while Trooper Johnson is in Tokyo now leading the U.S. women’s wheelchair team, which faces Canada in a quarterfinal on Tuesday.

Walking from the locker rooms beyond the far end of the court that day, Staley sized up the lean, dark-haired guy rolling around, putting up shot after shot from distance. Atlanta would be the second of four Paralympic teams for Johnson, then 32, a certified gym rat who had dedicated himself to the game after an accident during his freshman year in college left him paralyzed.

Staley was about to find out how much.

After a brief introduction, the cameraman asked them to just shoot around for a bit. Johnson tossed the ball to Staley, who casually dribbled toward him. He immediately hand-checked the former two-time college player of the year from the University of Virginia.

“When I hand-checked her, it was like, let’s get going; let’s play this,” said Johnson, who won the first of two Paralympic bronze medals that year. “I remember that look. It was like ‘What the heck?’ It went from there.”

That look was part puzzlement, part annoyance. This was supposed to be something informal. But ever the competitor, Staley gathered herself, coiled at the knees and waist, and started to dribble with purpose. Challenge accepted. Game on.

“I'm super competitive,” Johnson recalled with a laugh. “As soon as she got on the court, I thought this is a chance to play against her.”

Dawn Staley signals to her team during the first half of the women's basketball gold-medal game against Japan at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 8, 2021 in Saitama, Japan.

 

Those same words could describe Staley, both in her playing days and as a coach.

“Dawn’s not afraid to mix it up. She wasn’t as a player, and she's not as a coach,” U.S. point guard Sue Bird told NBC. “There’s an intensity about her, a focus about her. She doesn’t take crap from anybody.”

Although the U.S. women’s basketball and the men’s wheelchair teams occasionally crossed paths when both were training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, Johnson said he had never spoken with Staley, remembering her as “one of the quiet ones.”

What was supposed to be a friendly shooting session for the camera evolved into an anything-but-passive game of one on one.

“My competitive juices were flowing,” Staley recalled. “I think I hurt my ankle in that too.”

After Johnson hit a 3-pointer, Staley closed her defense and Johnson pushed to drive past her, accidentally rolling over her foot in the process. It was a good thing that U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer didn’t witness her point guard becoming a speed bump.

“That’s what I was thinking too,” Johnson said. “I hope I didn’t take her out.”

They kept on playing, the cameraman continued filming and the handful of others in the gym kept watching — not paying attention to the time until a U.S. assistant came in and asked how much longer it would be. The cameraman replied, “I’ve been good. I’ve just kept filming as long as they keep playing.”

The assistant coach called out to Staley to get moving. Staley looked up, then back at Johnson defending her, and replied in no uncertain terms, “I’m not leaving until I beat this guy.”

“It’s basketball,” Staley said. “If there’s an opportunity to win, with the competitive person I am, I like my chances in any type of game.”

That’s who she was as a player and who she is as a coach. Johnson is no different. He would’ve hand-checked a 7-year-old or Mother Teresa if either came at him with a ball.

Already bonded by their competitiveness, the parallels between Staley and Johnson have continued to this day. Both were stalwart players on multiple Olympic or Paralympic teams. The two have helmed national junior teams, and each was on the bench as an assistant coach in Rio, helping steer their teams to gold medals.

Both are hall of famers. Johnson was inducted into the NWBA Hall of Fame in 2016, while Staley went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

Courtney Ryan (L) and Isabel Chavez (Spain) reach for the ball during the women's wheelchair basketball preliminary round at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 26, 2021.

 

And after Rio, both were named as the head coaches for their respective national teams.

Johnson was and is a big fan of his Olympic counterpart.

“She’s an amazing athlete and with what she’s done with her career,” he said. “Since our little game, and seeing firsthand her competitive element, I have watched her lead a path from athlete to coach, and the success she has had along the way.” 

Johnson might be talking about himself when he gives this assessment of Staley as a coach.

“She is a great example of tempering a highly competitive nature enough to teach, without losing the drive to compete,” he said.

Johnson understands that his team, with only three players back from the Rio roster, is not on the same path as Staley’s squad, which was favored to win and eventually won its seventh straight Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.

“We are an incredibly young team, both in age and competitive experience at this level,” Johnson said. “We definitely have the talent to compete with any team in the tournament. We just need to be able to compete for a full 40 minutes.”

So far, with the exception of blowing out lesser Spanish and Algerian sides, the Americans have been a 30-minute team when tested. They led the Netherlands, which is current world and European champion, and the hottest team at the Paralympics, China, for three quarters before losing at the end. 

“Another day, another lesson,” said Johnson after the China loss. “Our team is young. Every day presents something new we and we will learn from these and move forward. The loss is not the end, simply a different path.”

Nonetheless, the team did enough to get out of the preliminary round, and now it's all or nothing, starting against Canada.

Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.

Steve Goldberg

The chief press officer for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, Steve Goldberg covered every summer Paralympic Games from Sydney 2000 through Rio 2016 for various newspapers, magazines and online media. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.