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Physics, hoops and Erik Johnson

"They needed to be pushed, they needed to be disciplined; they were hungry for it," Pioneers women's basketball head coach Erik Johnson says of his team. Photo by: Marc Piscotty

"They needed to be pushed, they needed to be disciplined; they were hungry for it," Pioneers women's basketball head coach Erik Johnson says of his team. Photo: Marc Piscotty

In head coach Erik Johnson’s world, two important people are at every DU women’s basketball game: Tom Wilson and Isaac Newton.

And the game always boils down to one thing: Does Johnson’s scrappy group of DU players know enough about Isaac Newton’s physics to get a Wilson-brand basketball through the rim more often than the other team?

Physics and basketball. For Johnson, who took over the DU women’s team last spring, they’re as much a fit as sneakers and socks.

When he watches forward Nnenna Akotaobi pump a jump shot or point guard Andi Mason stroke a free throw, shooting tips he learned from his physicist father more than two decades ago come rattling to mind. Will the parabolic arc enlarge the target? Are there Z vectors or just X and Y variables? What about gravity? Buoyant force? Drag? Will the backspin soften the shot?

And if the ball misses, can the rebounder properly judge the angle of incidence and get into position?

And you thought basketball was just something to eat popcorn by!

“His first word was ‘ball,'” Johnson’s mother, Kathryn, recalls.

His first basket was a hoop that his father, Jim, hung on a tree in the family’s backyard in Northern California. Roots and dirt around the trunk kept the fourth-grader from dribbling. So, he learned to shoot — the physicist’s way.

“I told him about moving his arm in a nice plane and trying to get a good arc to get a bigger target,” says Jim Johnson, who admits to a preference for bird watching. “It’s not rocket science.”

But it is physics, which the elder Johnson knew from a long career at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center, a two-mile-long laboratory for crash-testing atomic particles.

“I learned to shoot over wires and branches and all that kind of stuff,” the younger Johnson says. “That’s why I became a great shooter.”

Call it trial by bramble. Toss in the 6-foot-4 frame Johnson grew into and you get the makings of a distinguished playing career at UC-San Diego, where he set career and single-season records for three-pointers and appeared in three NCAA Division III tournaments.

Johnson’s entry into women’s basketball began in 1994 in graduate school at the University of Rhode Island. The women’s coach recruited him as a male practice player she hoped could toughen up her 6-2 center. So, Johnson knocked heads, studied, coached a little and inched his way toward a career that since 1995 has brought coaching assistantships at the University of Rhode Island, San Diego, Boston College and last spring, the top spot at DU.

“Right now, the perception is [that DU is] a nice little school you go to if you’re a smart kid and want to play some basketball,” Johnson says. “I want to change the culture: If you’re a serious basketball player in Colorado, DU is on your list.”

Johnson’s effort to do that began April 30, 2008, the day he was introduced at DU and first met his team, a quirky assortment of disenchanted veterans and returning redshirts.

“We heard there would be a team meeting at 6:30 in the morning,” recalls Akotaobi, a senior. “In walks coach Johnson and he’s just full of energy, and we’re like, ‘Who is this guy?'”

The team didn’t wait to find out.

“They came to me and said, ‘Coach, we want to win the Sun Belt. What does it take? What do we have to do?'” Johnson recalls. “They needed to be pushed, they needed to be disciplined; they were hungry for it.”

Most of them anyway. Three of the four recruits Johnson telephoned on his first day at DU said they were with him. The fourth wasn’t sure. Jenny Vaughan, a blue-chip point guard being groomed for Canada’s Olympic team, had scholarship offers from Utah, San Diego and Michigan. She had committed to DU, but the coach who recruited her was gone. Who was this guy Johnson, she wondered?

Answering that took two and a half hours on the phone and a flight to Vaughan’s hometown in Dundas, Ontario.

“We met, talked; he came to school,” Vaughan recalls. “He came to my house for dinner, met my family.”

Oddly, she recognized Johnson’s name from e-mails he had sent her while recruiting for Boston College. The familiarity made her feel better, she says, but she still needed to size up the guy.

“We were hoping he’d say the things we wanted to hear, and he definitely did,” she says.

What turned the tide?

“When we mutually realized I wanted to win as bad as she did,” Johnson says.

With Vaughan in the fold, Johnson returned to the “push” his players had asked for. The new discipline began with, well, discipline, which led to tough conditioning drills and weight room work “like we mean business.”

Watch a practice and you see a rigorous splash of skills-drills, instruction, flying bodies, aggressive rebounding, running to exhaustion and more talk than a pep rally. Everybody’s attentive; everybody’s involved. No showboating, no hissy fits, no doggin’ it. The energy alone could run the lights in Hamilton Gym.

All from a team picked in preseason to finish sixth.

“I get so pumped up in practice cause of how hard we work,” Akotaobi says. “We’re jumping in passing lanes, we’re stealing balls, we’re diving on the floor. We play an up-tempo, exciting style of basketball.”

Which may be like calling the Indy 500 a Sunday drive.

“I’m a nice person off the court,” says freshman Kaetlyn Murdoch of Temple, Texas, a 5-11 forward who uncoils for rebounds like a boa constrictor after a small goat. “On the court, I’m not too nice.”

Her blue eyes shock with intensity.

“I don’t want to knock anyone’s teeth out,” she continues. “Just push them down and get the ball.”

The end of practice doesn’t end Johnson’s day. There are 6-, 4- and 2-years-olds waiting for him at home with wife Laura Davis, a two-time All-American in volleyball at Ohio State and an Olympic team alternate.

“I can think I’m the greatest coach in the world, but when I get home there are still diapers to be changed and dishes to be washed,” he chuckles.

To Johnson, the need to be a good husband and father is as important as being a good coach. He’s driven to balance both and excel at each. “It needs to be magical,” he says of his obligations.

It is for Vaughan. “He genuinely cares about us. It’s awesome.”

Adds Akotaobi: “We’re all basically freshmen again … and I’m lovin’ it.”

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