Kentucky is a state that’s basketball crazed. It’s up there with Indiana as a spot where even football is known to take a backseat. On Wednesday, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team makes the three-hour trip to the basketball country of the south to take on No. 18 Louisville Cardinals.
On the bench for the ACC side, entering the season fresh off a 2022 Final Four run, is a familiar name to the Buckeyes program. They aren’t a transfer player or Central Ohio high school phenom who moved out of state. It’s Assistant Athletic Director and coach Adrienne Johnson.
Ohio State’s women’s basketball program is known for a handful of future WNBA players, but making an impact before any of them was Johnson. The first Buckeye to score a point in the WNBA took a different road, one that led outside of Kentucky, before going back home and making an impact on future generations.
Choosing Ohio State
Johnson is from Louisville, Kentucky and is Louisville, Kentucky. Born in the city on the Ohio River, Adrienne attended high school in Louisville, four miles down the road from the University of Louisville, and has worked for the University for 17 years. When it came time for the standout basketball player to choose a school, there was one decision absolutely clear.
“I was a Louisville fan, I’d be damned if I go to Kentucky, right,” said Johnson, laughing. “I just could not see myself in blue. There, I said it!”
With one easy choice out of the way, there was Western Kentucky, the home for most of the talented in-state players, the University of Louisville or a box full of letters from other schools wanting Johnson on their team.
At the time, in the early 1990s, the University of Louisville Cardinals women's basketball team weren’t the side they are today. The Cardinals were part of the Metro Conference, before joining Conference USA in 1996, still 18 years away from their standard today as a perennial NCAA Tournament team from the ACC.
Instead of staying in-state, Johnson joined another campus that despised the color blue when she joined coach Nancy Darsch and the 1992-93 Ohio State Buckeyes. For the 5-foot-10 guard, choosing Ohio State was clear, and it wasn’t strictly based on competitive reasons.
“I didn’t know much about Ohio State,” said Johnson. “It just felt good. I loved the way the players treated me, I felt like I was part of something.”
It was also a safety. In a short period of time, in a blue chip college combine, Johnson made a bond with future Buckeye teammates and paid dividends immediately.
Johnson joined the same season as legendary Scarlet & Gray guard Smith, playing part in the Buckeyes run to the NCAA Championship. Even though Ohio State started the year unranked, they became a top-five, ending the year ranked No. 3.
Coach Darsch and the Buckeyes made a run all the way to the NCAA Championship game. Unfortunately for the Scarlet & Gray, the only thing that could stop Ohio State was future 1996 gold medal Olympian Sheryl Swoopes. Then a member of Texas Tech, Swoopess scored 47 points in the title game, defeating the Buckeyes 84-82.
Following that season, Ohio State lost key senior leadership and Johnson and the Buckeyes struggled for a season before working their way back up to an NCAA Tournament team. The Scarlet & Gray were semifinalists and runners up in the first two Big Ten tournaments in 95 and 96, along with a second round NCAA run in Johnson’s final collegiate season.
A four-year letter-winner, scholar athlete, and All-B1G Third Team in 96, Johnson had a decision to make after her senior season. Following the success of the 96 Gold Medal team, the American Basketball League (ABL) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) were founded, giving women the chance to continue playing.
Weighing Professional Options
Johnson came out of college at the onset of the ABL, with the WNBA still a year away from tipping off. Her first impressions of the ABL was not great.
“The ABL rolled around, and they had tryouts and they were just ridiculous,” said Johnson. “It was just like a free-for-all. Women were coming out of the woodwork.”
That meant players who were past their prime, and anyone else wanting to get a chance to play the game professionally, showed up hoping to join the league beginning in the fall following the 96 Summer Olympics. Johnson tried out, making it to a final cut before an eventually not making the league.
For some folks, losing a direct chance at their dream would deter them, but not Johnson. The exercise physiology major stayed on campus for her graduate season and worked out using a performance plan she personally built.
A silver lining of the ABL league was that it took some of the biggest names in the sport, like Johnson’s Ohio State teammate Smith. That meant when the WNBA came around, with Olympians like Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo leading the charge, there were spots open for others to fill.
Unlike the ABL’s mass tryout, the WNBA featured individual tryouts specific to the teams and their coaches. To earn a spot, Johnson had to be strategic with where she tried out.
“Nancy Darsch and Melissa McFarren, who were my college coaches, were the New York coaches,” said Johnson. “People said ‘well why wouldn’t you go to New York?’ Well sometimes coaches can know too much about you, right?”
Utah was out of the question, for geographic reasons, but the Cleveland Rockers fit the bill as a spot where there was familiarity and a stronger chance at making the cut. Leading the Rockers was head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald, who coached against Johnson and the Buckeyes with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and chose Johnson for a Big Ten All-Star team.
Johnson joined a group of 200 players trying out for four positions. Those four positions would become development spots, where players would practice with the first team but not expect to get many minutes on the court or travel.
After tryouts, Johnson received the call that she was one of the four selected. Better yet, as the first training camp came to a close, two spots were cut and Johnson went from a development player trying out to a rostered member of the Rockers.
It took into her second game, but Johnson made Buckeyes history as the first Ohio State player to score a WNBA point. A move which set the stage for future league stars like Smith (once the ABL folded) and current players like Jantel Lavender and Kelsey Mitchell.
Continuing the Fight
Through the first three years of her professional career, Johnson played in 73 games, but never started. In the second of those three years, Johnson was drafted by the Orlando Miracle in the expansion draft, a move that pushed herself further down the roster after being a seventh or eighth player for the Rockers.
Between 1999 and 2000, Johnson rekindled the motivation that found her in the league in the first place, and it started with a visit to a team trainer at their career outside of supporting the WNBA side.
Sports Performance Systems was a spot where professional tennis pros and other high end athletes came to get to competition level. Johnson was impressed on her first visit, but the $1,000 per month to train at the facility was too much for her to handle.
“I saw the facility and said ‘Wow, it would be really neat if I could work out at a place like this,’” said Johnson.
Under guidance from her team trainer, Johnson spoke with the president of the training company. When asked what Johnson could pay, with WNBA players not making close to what NBA players were/are making, she offered $300-$400 and they picked Johnson up as a client.
“He said ‘show up tomorrow at nine o’clock,’” said Johnson. “And it changed my life.”
Johnson went from averaging 7.7 minutes per game, scoring two points per game, in 1999 to a career season in 2000. Her minutes shot up to 34.4 per game, starting 31 of her 32 appearances on the season. Johnson’s 13.6 points per game put her name on the All-Star ballot too.
Also that season, Johnson won the inaugural WNBA Hometown Hero award, for work she continued to do in her hometown of Louisville in the offseason. An achilles injury kept Johnson out of the 2001 season, and recurring injury problems surfaced throughout her final two seasons in the league before ending her professional career.
After her eight years in the WNBA were said and done, Johnson returned home.
Forming Bonds and Returning to the Court in Louisville
Johnson’s been with Louisville since the end of the Cardinal’s Conference USA days, and through their years in the Big East and AAC before joining the ACC in 2014. That’s years of seeing the landscape of NCAA women’s basketball change.
When it comes to how Johnson got on the Cardinal’s bench as an assistant coach in 2022, the former Buckeyes guard gives credit to the Louisville program itself.
“I think I’ve been really blessed just to have administrators, ADs, our senior women’s administrator and our head coach kind of tailor a position for me and for a skillset,” said Johnson.
That skillset includes being a former student athlete herself. With that unique experience, she knows what players are going through. It’s an experience that today is heightened even more by the transfer portal, a growing professional league of the WNBA and pressure from social media.
“For a student-athlete, it’s just really complex,” said Johnson. “A lot of us look just at the on the court stuff, but student-athletes are human beings, they have dreams and goals and they’re trying to get a college degree. There’s expectations and people in their ear, you know?”
Johnson sees that reality everyday and over the years has become a trusted advisor to players in a program that has high expectations. That means when a player needs a friend after a tough practice or game, Johnson is there to be that friend. When a student-athlete needs to hear a hard truth, Johnson’s also there to give those talks too.
In the past 17 years, Johnson’s done the work at Louisville to earn that trust from coaches and players. She’s done everything from radio commentary to leading fundraising efforts and being the bridge that gaps education and athletics for players.
That track record is another example of the strong foundation of hard work that’s gotten Johnson into college, into the WNBA and hitting competitive milestones in her life. Even so, Johnson’s makes it clear that hard work isn’t the only one part of the formula for a successful athlete.
“Basketball’s what we do, it’s not who we are,” said Johnson. “Our identity is so tied to what we do and when things don’t work out the depression sets in and when someone’s not cheering for you and when you get hurt and you’re trying to crack back into the lineup. And you wonder “‘Will I ever play again? What if I don’t play again? What am I going to do? Who am I?’”
It’s those conversations that stretch far beyond the basketball court that’s inherently connected when a player joins a program. It’s the words between the lines of a contract of good basketball programs to set players up for not only what’s on the court but for the decades of life after the basketball bounces for the last time.
Johnson’s message to her team is that even with hard work, nothing is guaranteed. That’s why relationships are vital to her work at the University of Louisville. Relationships that track back all the way to choosing Ohio State and picking a team based on trust and not necessarily what’s on the court.
Still a Buckeye
Although Johnson lives and breathes Louisville Cardinals basketball, there’s still a Buckeye inside the former Scarlet & Gray guard. Johnson watches the women’s team, and also laments the recent result from the football team.
She also has high praise for head coach Kevin McGuff. Johnson calls the beginning of this season and last season the best years of McGuff’s coaching career. How Ohio State’s grown an identity of high intensity and shooting from deep. Both things she and the Louisville coaching staff needs to plan around.
Even though Johnson is supporting head coach Jeff Walz and the Cardinals basketball team, it’s hard to disconnect the college years from Johnson’s love of home and local university.
“It’s Louisville and Ohio State in my heart,” said Johnson. “When we’re playing each other, obviously we’ll be trying to beat the Buckeyes but it does do me proud to see them and go ‘Oh, when was the last time that we were ranked four in the country? That’s a big deal.’”