(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA -- Assuming her team isn’t playing in the Final Four in early April -- and the way the Lady Griz are surging, let’s not dismiss the notion entirely -- Montana senior McKenzie Johnston will be in New Orleans that weekend trying to answer an existential question: Is she ready to accept life without basketball?
The orange ball has been the sun around which her life has orbited for years, dating back to high school and even earlier, and now an unsettling reality approaches, the same faced by so many senior student-athletes: Once March and the postseason arrive, she will be one loss from it all coming to an end.
The end of her season. The end of her Lady Griz career. The end of her identity as a basketball player. But what if she could continue on with her love affair with the sport? What if it could become -- should she dare to dream so boldly -- something upon which to build a career?
That’s why she’ll be in New Orleans that weekend, her entire focus today on the here and now and what has to happen to keep the Lady Griz winning, but with the understanding that life as she knows it is on the clock.
So she keeps her head up, like a good point guard, and surveys all in front of her while keeping her dribble alive, her options open, as that clock ticks down toward zero.
That’s why she applied to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s “So You Want To Be A Coach” program earlier this winter, a three-day workshop held in conjunction with the Final Four and the WBCA Convention.
This year’s class was announced this week, and Johnston made the cut.
“I always thought about coaching, even in high school,” says Johnston, who was coached at Helena Capital by Bill Pilgeram. “Basketball has been such a big part of my life, it’s not something I’m ready to get rid of just yet.”
She’ll be the second Lady Griz in as many springs to be invited to the program. Current Lady Griz graduate assistant coach Jace Henderson attended last year’s event in Tampa.
“She told me how it was such a great opportunity to learn from a bunch of different coaches and hear their perspectives on the philosophies and values they have, and how they go about implementing them into their coaching,” said Johnston. “There are a lot of great opportunities that can come out of it.”
It’s why the program was started 18 years ago, to “introduce female basketball players to coaches and administrators, and raise awareness of the existing talent pool of female basketball players who have a passion and interest in coaching the game of women’s basketball.”
If Henderson was a logical selection -- her dad was a longtime college coach -- Johnston is a natural fit. “She’s always been a coach on the floor, ever since her freshman year, and it’s unusual for a freshman to have that role,” said Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen.
“She has an extremely high IQ of the game. She understands matchups, advantages and what’s going on, things kids don’t always catch on to.”
But there is more to Johnston than just her ability to be analytical on the court, during a game, in the heat of the moment, her mind calm and all-seeing when the heads of so many others are spinning.
She hides it well, but she is intensely competitive. Break her nose and she’ll reset it, on the fly if necessary, and stick it right back in your on-court business.
And after the game? Good luck reaching her through the rings and rings of kids who encircle her as they try to steal a few fleeting moments in their hero’s presence.
Understands the game? Check. Driven to win? Check. Could get kids or young women to follow her in whatever direction she pointed and led them? Check.
“She is extremely competitive, and you have to be competitive if you want to be a good coach,” said Schweyen, who recognized a kindred spirit in Johnston way back when. Schweyen had the same drive as a player and has carried it into coaching.
“And she’s great with kids. At our camps it’s like a Justin Bieber concert when she’s around. Kids just flock to her. Depending on what level of coaching she gets into, she’ll be good.”
So she’ll finish off her senior season, then begin the transition to post-player life. The trip to New Orleans may lead to clarity, it may not. It might bring about a lead on an open position, it might not.
She might want to coach Division I basketball, she might not. She might want to pursue a different career path all together but still try to balance that with high school coaching, because she knows what kind of impact Pilgeram had on her development and life.
It’s no lesser form of coaching just because it isn’t full-time.
And that’s the beautiful thing about being in your early 20s. Avenues are open to a person that could take her about anywhere she might want to go.
But that orange ball and everything it represents? That’s going to be tough to just set aside and move on to something new entirely. The love just runs too deep. And that’s good for us, because the sport -- and our daughters -- would be better off if Johnston stuck with it in some capacity.
“I’m not sure yet what kind of coaching I want to do. It’s open for me. I think (the WBCA program in April) will help me see if this is something I really want to do,” she says, sounding like she’s already convinced. And that’s a good thing.