Legends Spotlight: Steffond Johnson and Morlon Wiley

May 9, 2017

Last Saturday the National Basketball Retired Players Association hosted the latest edition of its youth basketball and mentoring program called “Full Court Press: Prep for Success”. Several former NBA/WNBA standouts were in attendance at the Lakewest YMCA in Dallas including Sam Perkins, Steffond Johnson, Morlon Wiley, Micheal Williams, Bridget Pettis, and Ashley Robinson. The program travels all over the country to introduce kids to positive role models in both basketball and life. NBRPA writer Jon Teitel has spent time talking with many of the greatest players in NBA/WNBA history and will share his interviews at LegendsofBasketball.com. Jon visited with Steffond/Morlon about their roles with the Full Court Press program and their past basketball successes.

Steffond Johnson
What is your coaching philosophy on the court? Coaching is just like anything else: you need buy-in from your players so you have to know your audience and tailor your message to the goals you want to accomplish. The more time you have to coach, then the more details you can cover.

What do you hope that the kids get out of this great experience? I just want all of the kids to have fun.

You played your 1st 3 years of college basketball at LSU: how did you like playing for Coach Dale Brown? Coach Brown is a close personal friend of both myself and my mother. He was 1 of the references I used to get my current job as a coach. It worked out well, as I won a title in my very 1st year at Dallas Christian College! Coach Brown was a big fan of mine and never stopped believing in me as a unique talent. He was life-changing to be around: I wish there were more like him.

In the 1983 NIT you had a 5-PT OT loss to New Orleans: what was the crowd like in Baton Rouge, and how big of an in-state rivalry did the 2 schools have back in the day? There was a huge rivalry among all of the schools in Louisiana (including Tulane) because you wanted to recruit from a position of strength by beating the other schools who were your competition. The crowds were always into the games so it was 1 of the most fun times of my life: I enjoyed every aspect of being an LSU Tiger.

In the 1984 SEC tourney you scored 2 PTS in a 2-PT OT loss to Alabama: was everyone worried that they might not make the NCAA tourney? It is always disappointing after a loss: we knew that we missed some opportunities but we remained as close as ever as teammates. We just wanted to make the best impression we could and get an NCAA bid.

In the 1984 NCAA tourney you had an 8-PT loss to Dayton: was Roosevelt Chapman simply unstoppable that night (29 PTS/8 REB/10-15 FG/9-9 FT)? He was amazing: 1 of the best college players that I have ever seen. We were not overmatched but we were not as focused as we should have been.

In the summer of 1986 you were drafted 100th overall by the Clippers: did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA, or other? I broke my back during my senior year and almost every doctor said that my career was over so it was probably the biggest accomplishment of my life. It made me feel that I had finally arrived: guys drafted in the late rounds like myself/Tim Kempton beat all the odds to make the team but I was too enamored of the moment both on and off the court. I was gifted enough with my abilities but was not prepared mentally. I take my hat off to guys who entered the league right out of high school and were able to make it. I work as a mentor in the D-League and try to teach guys to not make the mistakes I have made and not take anything for granted. The NBA is a business: if you think it is just a game then you will not make it.

You played 1 season in the NBA: what is your favorite memory from your time in the league? I have no regrets and got to be around the elite players in the world for a brief moment in time. I live in the same neighborhood as Mark Cuban/George Bush and have a great life. I met John Lucas and learned how to overcome the obstacles ahead of me: I only wish he could have reached guys like Roy Tarpley/Chris Washburn sooner. You can see yourself as a failure or learn from your mistakes. I have a lot of great memories from my time in the NBA. It was rare that I got onto the court but I remember playing against the Lakers and getting a dunk or 2 on them at the Forum: unfortunately any video from back then is grainy! I remember working out against my idols like Magic Johnson during summer games at UCLA. I got to play against my fellow SEC friend Dale Ellis and my former LSU teammate Jerry Reynolds. When you come from a small town in East Texas and go on a great journey, it just makes it that much sweeter to see friends along the way. I later became an agent for guys like Kurt Thomas who ended up playing 18 years.
You also played in the CBA for 6 seasons and in many foreign countries: what is the biggest difference between basketball in the US vs. basketball overseas? Now there is no difference. If you look at a guy like Draymond Green, he is a throwback who could have played in any era, as well as a gritty player like Patrick Beverley. The guys now are more prepared but the guys from our era were much more physical. I played in the SEC with guys like Charles Barkley/Dominique Wilkins: it was no joke! The game is evolving and the brand is growing due to some very smart people, just like companies such as Apple. Everyone has an opinion about the league but it is an interesting dynamic: back in my day there were only a few guys who made a million dollars/year and now there are plenty of guys signing $40 million contracts. If there was social media when I played there would not be an NBA now due to so many scandals! It is very complicated because the players have to conduct themselves a certain way to thrive: I think teams need to put more money into player development both on and off the court. The game will be fine but I am concerned about the players’ financial literacy.

Morlon Wiley
In the 1988 NIT as a player at Long Beach State you scored 15 PTS but missed a 3-PT shot with 2 hands in your face in the final seconds of a 3-PT loss to Stanford: did you think that your shot was going in, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterward? I did think that it was going in so it was heartbreaking as part of a 7-8 member senior class. There was a lot of uncertainty about who would draft me and what position I would play. I tell kids now that I would trade places with them in a heartbeat due to all of the opportunities they have to play against the best in the world. I went to the Olympic trials along with 75(!) other players for Coach John Thompson and made the all-tourney team at the Portsmouth Invitational. I went to the draft combine and met a young coach in Chicago named Phil Jackson, so it was pretty cool/exciting but also anxious.
You still remain high on the school’s all-time lists with 425 AST/187 STL/78 FT%: what is the key to being a good PG? Understanding and having a feel for the game. You need a high basketball IQ and have to get along with all of your teammates while acting as a coach on the floor. You have to adjust/adapt and be able to handle any crisis that comes along. You need a balanced temperament: there are certain guys you can yell at and certain ones you have to kick to get them started. I won a state title as a high school PG and played with a McDonald’s All-American named Chris Sandle who told me what the other great PGs he played against were like. The main thing is to anticipate what is coming.

In the summer of 1988 you were drafted 46th overall by Dallas (4 spots ahead of Steve Kerr): did you see that as a validation of your college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA, or other? It meant that I could get out of the neighborhood and do some good things for my family. A lot of my neighbors saw that I was trying to do something and the gang members gave me a pass when I did not know which road to take. They basically scared me away from getting into any illegal activities, and I thank them for that. When you come from a rough neighborhood people will rally around you. My mother was very firm and goal-oriented: she always went to church and had people looking out for me and my other siblings. Dallas called me on draft day in 1988 and I talked to Coach John MacLeod. They welcomed me to the team but said they were not sure if I could make their roster, which put a bit of a damper on the day because some people told me that I would be a late-1st round pick (and get a guaranteed contract!). Dallas was loaded with guards like Steve Alford/Jim Farmer but I went to training camp and they ended up keeping me and waiving Farmer. I could play the 1 and 2 so they could get a 2-for-1 with me.

Your older brother Michael also played in the NBA: who is the best athlete in the family? Michael was 9 years older than me so I give him a great deal of credit for molding me into the player I became. I got to go to all of his college games and meet some of his teammates like Craig Hodges. I would say Michael was the best athlete and could jump higher than me…but I was faster! My son Jeremiah is really good and is an intelligent young man thanks to all the computers kids have nowadays.

In the 1989 NBA expansion draft you became 1 of 12 players chosen by Orlando Magic for their inaugural roster: did you think you were going to be selected, and what was it like to join a brand new team? I was the 1st person to sign with Orlando so I felt like I started the entire franchise! It was a unique situation with guys like Reggie Theus/Scott Skiles/Dennis Scott. I think 8 guys from our roster eventually got into coaching.

What was your transition like from active player to retired player? It was a little confusing because you think that you can play 10-15 years but I only played 6 years. When your career gets cut short and teams no longer want you, the next step is to figure out “what now?” After that experience I decided to go into everything with an exit plan: I figure out what I am willing to sacrifice and what I will not put up with. I wanted to continue to play: when you retire at age 28 you are relatively young. What was good for me was that Mark Cuban bought the Mavericks a few years later and brought me in to be a player development coach for 4 years. After that I became an assistant coach in Orlando for 3 years before joining their front office. What gets you to the professional ranks is your confidence/skill set, so when you have to retire it is a blow that you have to get over quickly. My mom always told me that when I had a setback I only had 48 hours to get over it!

Why did you decide to join the National Basketball Retired Players Association? It was a logical thing. I saw some of the programs they had but the main thing was the fellowship you enjoyed with everyone else. To get to rub elbows with legends like Julius Erving/Magic Johnson and then develop a personal relationship with them was great: they became like my big brothers. You can pick the brains of the greats as well as the role players: 95% of the guys are like me and did not have shoe contracts/endorsements while 5% are the flagbearers. When I 1st entered the fish I caught was 1’ long, but now it is a whale: the lies get longer and the stories get fabricated, but when the current guys retire we can Google everything about them!

After retiring you worked in player development for Dallas and then became an assistant coach for Orlando: how did you like coaching, and what do you hope to do in the future? I enjoyed coaching despite the long hours. I got to steer young guys in the right direction and help develop their talent. You die when you lose and just try to do it better the next time. I never won a title as a player but got to watch my team make a run to the Finals as a member of the front office in 2009 when the Magic got swept by the Lakers. Hopefully after my son graduates I can get back to the NBA in some capacity, be it as a coach or in the front office or other. I am still around the game and get to participate in a lot of functions, but there is nothing like sitting on the bench.

In 2005 you were inducted into the 49ers' Hall of Fame: where does that rank among the highlights of your career? That was huge. My career there had some ups and downs: we were awful for a few years but got a new coaching staff toward the end of my 4 years who challenged me every day. I was not able to attend the induction but I had a buddy make a speech for me thanking everyone for supporting me. I still have the trophy in my trophy case: it is a beautiful thing.