A Chance Encounter, Respect Earned: The Long History Of Dawn Staley And Trooper Johnson
by Steve Goldberg
(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.”
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.