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Brittanny Johnson is still in the early stages of her coaching career.
What did the Evanston Township High School girls head basketball coach learn this summer? How to go for the gold.
Johnson served as an assistant coach for the USA Under 17 national team that captured the gold medal Sunday at the FIBA World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary. The United States rolled to seven straight victories over the nine-day international tournament competition, including an 84-62 conquest of Spain in the title game July 17.
Ask Johnson and she’d tell you it’s the ideal way for a basketball coach to spend her summer “vacation.”
“It’s been quite a summer. I’ve never been to Europe, never seen an international basketball game… and I’ve never won a gold medal until now,” Johnson said.
“I came back home with an attitude of gratitude, to have been part of an experience like this. I’ve played and coached in a lot of championship games so far, but I’ve never won one. It’s really cool to win the first one like this. Now, I’m inspired and motivated to come back here and win a state championship.”
Johnson, along with head coach Sue Bishop of Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., and assistant coach Tom McConnell of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, capitalized on the opportunity to guide the top 12 players in the country in that under-17 age group. Almost all of the USA standouts, including tournament MVP Judea “Juju” Watkins of Sierra Canyon High School in Los Angeles, will play Division I basketball once they reach the next level, most at schools in Power 5 conferences.
To this day Johnson isn’t sure how she showed up on the national team’s radar. She does know, however, that the path to a gold medal started for her back in February 2020 when her cell phone rang and it was Carol Callan, who represents the U.S. on the FIBA executive committee.
“At first, I thought it was someone playing a trick on me,” Johnson recalled. “But it was real. They wanted me to be an on-court coach [during trials to select the team to represent the United States], but then COVID-19 shut things down and I never thought I’d get another opportunity. I knew if you were selected as an on-court [practice] coach and did a good job, they might bring you back.
“USA Basketball put together the same staff last summer, though. Then one of the coaches couldn’t do it for personal reasons and it felt like divine intervention for me. Obviously, I was very lucky, and I wasn’t going to say no when they called again.”
Johnson’s summer schedule included nine days of trials in Colorado Springs to whittle the number of hopefuls from 40 down to 12. She came home for three weeks of team camps at ETHS, then returned to Colorado Springs for another five-day national camp.
After Team USA competed in a “friendly” tournament in Spain as a tuneup, where they won all three games, the Americans breezed to victories in Hungary over all-star squads from Mali (78-49), New Zealand (102-34), Germany (86-40), South Korea (114-29), Japan (112-38), Canada (87-57) and Spain.
“We had a world class head coach [Phillips] who is a legend and it’s amazing to me that she was able to put in her system in just one month,” said Johnson. “Every day was like being at a coach’s clinic for me. It was just phenomenal. The aura around this whole experience is a story I’ll be telling for the rest of my life – and I’ll have the gold medal to show people to back it up!
“The other coaches have been doing this for 20 or 30 years and there’s a wealth of knowledge there. I just kept asking them questions and shame on me if I don’t use all that knowledge that I gained. I was blessed to be a part of it.”
FIBA rules included the use of a 24-second shot clock and the faster tempo is just the way Johnson would like to see the game played at the high school level in Illinois, too.
“I wish the [Illinois High School Association] would adopt the FIBA rules,” she said. “It’s just beautiful basketball to watch. Some of the teams I saw that we played against were some of the best passing teams I’ve ever seen. But as a team we were one of the best defensive teams I’ve ever coached or even seen. We had long and very athletic guards and what we did together was really special.
“In their minds, defense was clearly No. 1 and you could tell that representing the U.S. meant so much to all of the girls. They all wanted to put their best foot forward because some day a couple of them might be Olympians. We had 12 of the best players in the country but they were the most normal, humble, funny girls and it was great to be around them. No one cared about individual accolades even though we had All-Americans who were on the bench. It was a ‘we’ mentality, not a ‘me’ mentality.
“One thing the coaches never had to say to any of them was ‘Work Harder’ – it just happened. Everyone would show up 30 or 45 minutes early to work on things and their knowledge of the game was so high that you could tell they’ve been coached well. They were all just so focused on winning that gold medal.”
FIBA started the World Cup competition for the Under 17 age group in 2010 and holds the tournament every two years. The United States claimed gold medals in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2018 to go with a bronze medal in 2016.
Along with her first international trip, Johnson also experienced an “it’s a small world” moment when it turned out the long-time team doctor for the Team USA squad is the son of former ETHS gymnastics coach Ron Walden. Walden was named to the school’s Hall of Fame in 2017 – and Johnson herself was a member of the selection committee that year.
It’s the second summer in a row that Johnson has missed part of the high school summer program she leads, with assistant coaches Travis Ransom and Lance Newman taking charge for the week she missed.
But with three of her top returning players – Zuri Ransom, Sofia Rocca and Taija Banks – still recovering from their respective knee surgeries, the Wildkit head coach had already decided not to enter the team in any summer leagues and to focus on individual skill work and instruction instead.
“I was excited about the fact that this [national team experience] didn’t take me away from our girls all summer,” she added. “And some of them had the opportunity to work on their skills against our college players when they came back.
“All I know is that I can’t wait to use what I’ve learned, because I think that can take us to the next level. And I don’t think anyone had a better summer than I did!”