When the COVID-19 pandemic caused sports to take an indefinite hiatus last year, Que Johnson, like most American basketball players attempting to extend their careers overseas, returned to the United States to reevaluate his future.
Playing overseas can be a popular short-term option for former college players looking to get the most out of their bodies and earn good money while still trying to find a backdoor route into the NBA, but seldom is it a permanent solution.
Johnson, a former Washington State guard who spent four years with the Cougars from 2012-16 before finishing his college career at Western Kentucky, had played two years in the Brazilian CBC League playing for Basquete Blumanau/APAB when the pandemic arrived.
While some of his peers may have spent the time considering a Plan B, Johnson started thinking about what the former four-star recruit may have considered Plan 1B. He’d always envisioned a post-collegiate playing career – that would’ve been Johnson’s Plan 1A – but starting from a young age, he knew he’d stay involved in the game even after hanging his shoes up.
Johnson returned to the Pacific Northwest from the southern tip of Brazil to be closer to his longtime girlfriend, Jennaka, a North Idaho native, and his 4-year-old son Braylen. He accepted a position to work as a volunteer assistant for Lakeland High’s varsity team and ran an operation where he trained high school-aged players on skills development.
Then Johnson received a fortuitous phone call from Chris Kemp, the interim head coach at NAIA Eastern Oregon. Johnson, who played at Westwind Prepatory Academy in Phoenix before signing at WSU, had a prior relationship with Kemp, a former assistant at North Idaho College who’d spent six years coaching high school basketball in the region.
“I knew when I was little I wanted to always coach when I was done playing,” Johnson said Sunday after EOU’s 115-62 exhibition loss at Gonzaga. “So during COVID, I had thoughts in my head about not playing, starting coaching and Kemp gave me a perfect opportunity to coach at here at EOU.”
Johnson’s career has taken him to a myriad of destinations. He’s a Pontiac, Michigan, native who ventured to Arizona to play at Westwind in an effort to boost his recruiting exposure before spending four years on the Palouse, moving across the country to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for a graduate season at WKU and then traveling to South America where he launched his pro career in Blumenau, Brazil.
But despite his various journeys, Johnson isn’t surprised to find himself back in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s close to Washington, close to Washington State,” he said of EOU. “I love being around the Pacific Northwest.”
EOU’s basketball team didn’t necessarily come to Spokane on Sunday hoping to spring an upset of the nation’s top-ranked team, but the Mountaineers certainly gained knowledge and experience that should help them as they move into the thick of their Cascade Collegiate Conference schedule.
Johnson’s taking a similar approach to his first year as a college basketball assistant.
“Everything’s new for me, just being my first year, especially in college,” he said. “I just love working with the guys, them picking my brain of everything I know and how I did it as a player, I enjoy working with them on that. Workouts and drills and stuff, I just love working with the guys and just watching their game grow over time.”
Johnson’s sought out advice and tips from his former coaches in Pullman, namely Ken Bone and Curtis Allen, members of the WSU staff that managed to beat out Gonzaga, Washington and four other Pac-12 schools for the four-star guard’s commitment in 2011.
Johnson, who averaged a career-high 13.2 points per game in his lone season at WKU, says being less than two years removed from his playing career has made him more relatable to EOU’s players.
“We’re all in our 20s, so I can connect about pretty much everything, especially basketball wise,” he said. “I see their passion for the game and they see my passion for it. So I think that’s where it starts, the passion for basketball and them playing. They know I used to play at a high level, so they just love to pick my brain about basketball stuff. I just love working with them.”
A 42-game starter for the Cougars from 2013-16, Johnson is still friendly with most of his former WSU teammates, keeping in contact with Ike Iroegbu, Josh Hawkinson, Davonte Lacy and others.
“We’re all just a tight group,” he said.
Johnson continues to follow the progress of WSU’s basketball program and many have cited his name while noting the Cougars’ recruiting prowess under third-year coach Kyle Smith. When Johnson signed with the program in 2012, he was the fifth highest-rated recruit in school history and between 2012-20, the only four-star recruit to sign with the program. According to 247Sports.com, he’s now No. 8 on the all-time list after Smith’s staff brought in four-star prospects Mouhamed Gueye, Andrej Jakimovski and Carlos Rosario.
“I love it, I love it,” he said. “Kyle Smith is doing a great job over there. He has high recruits, good high-character guys over there. He had CJ Elleby over there. Kyle Smith is doing a good job of getting good guys in there, moving onto the next level, so I love it. I love it.”