Damon Johnson was looking for a new kind of basketball challenge close to home, and he’s found one at East Tennessee State.
The former Science Hill and University of Tennessee standout has been named an assistant to women’s basketball coach Karen Kemp. Johnson, 38, began his duties with the Lady Bucs on Monday.
“There were a couple of things that intrigued me about the job,” he said. “Working with women, for one. I’ve not done that before. Another thing is this is just a step up from where I’ve been and another challenge. I want to come in and try to help improve the program as best I can.
“Hopefully I can bring a little intensity, defense and another winning attitude.”
Johnson joins the ETSU staff after two years as an assistant at King College under George Pitts, his old high school coach. He was a sophomore at Science Hill when Pitts guided the team to the 1990 state championship, and the Hilltoppers finished runner-up the next season.
Johnson’s brother Jovann, four years younger, went on to win two more state titles with Pitts. (Jovann, who is now in the Navy and stationed in Hampton, Va., still stands second on the school’s career scoring list, with over 2,000 points.)
“We fuss about it all the time – which championship team was the best,” said Damon. “I think we were more fundamentally sound but not as athletic as Jovann’s teams. We were probably smarter.”
Pitts has continued to win at the college level, leading King to back-to-back conference championships and a berth in the NCAA Division II tournament in its first year of eligibility last spring. Johnson was right beside him.
“It was very difficult to leave coach Pitts,” he said. “Getting back with him at King, I realized just how great a coach he is. He’s a legend.
“One of the most important things I took away from working with him is attention to details. The smallest things matter. Even if it may seem repetitive, you keep working on it. He never overlooks anything, and that’s why he’s been such a great coach.”
While Johnson has no experience with the women’s game, he says he’s developed a feel for it by following his daughter’s exploits at Science Hill. Shy Copney is a leader on one of the best teams in the state, and she also plays with Kemp’s daughter, Keisha Gregory.
In fact, it was at a team banquet after the Lady Hilltoppers finished runner-up in the state last March that Johnson first approached Kemp about joining her staff.
“We happened to sit at the same table and just started talking,” said Kemp. “He said, ‘If you ever have anything available, an assistant position open up, I’d be interested in it.’ I told him I didn’t have anything right now, but it’s possible something will open up. In April we knew Kelvin (Long) was looking around at other places, so I happened to give Damon him a call. I spoke with coach Pitts, and he talked very highly of Damon.”
Kemp said Johnson would have a hand in a variety of roles on her staff – recruiting, day-to-day operations and working with the guards. His lack of experience in the women’s game was the only possible sticking point when he interviewed.
“We talked about that extensively; that was my only concern,” said Kemp, who interviewed three finalists for the job. “When Damon came in for an interview, I felt like he could bring some good things to the program. He played under one of the best high school coaches in the state, he played for Kevin O’Neill at Tennessee, and then he played internationally.
“He has a super personality, and our players like him. We were on the court for the first time yesterday, and it already seemed like he had been with us for a long time.”
Johnson says “basketball is basketball,” but he readily admits the men’s game doesn’t always bear much resemblance to the women’s.
“I know it’s going to be different coaching the women,” he said. “The men’s game is a lot more athleticism and less thinking. On the women’s side, it’s more thinking than athleticism. They’re still very athletic, but they depend more on the mental part of the game.”
Some of that approach figured into Johnson’s basketball experience overseas. He spent a decade playing pro ball in Iceland and Spain, and learned that you don’t always have to be in a hurry – on the court or off.
“I learned about the I.Q. of the game, just slowing down,” he said. “Over here we try to go a thousand miles an hour, play as hard as you can play all the time. Over there they take their time, work more on getting back to the fundamentals of the game. That’s the way it was culturally, too. They just tend to enjoy life a little more.”