Dominique Johnson '10: Pouring Into the Next Generation

Dominique Johnson ’10 is driven to pour into the next generation. After 13 years playing professional basketball in the NBA D-League, for many international teams, and in the Big3, Johnson returned to Azusa Pacific University to serve as assistant coach on the men’s basketball team. “I wanted to share my knowledge and experience,” Johnson said. “I talked with (head coach) Pete Bond and he said I should start here. I’m grateful for the opportunity and it’s been great to be back at APU.” Johnson’s journey back to his alma mater was a long one, filled with lots of life lessons that he hopes to pass on.

A Detroit native, Johnson discovered his love for basketball as a child and began playing for his middle and high school teams. After graduating from high school, he moved to Memphis, and began playing college basketball at Southwest Tennessee Community College. After a standout sophomore season, he was recruited by several schools and decided to transfer to APU.

“When I visited APU, I saw the big God First sign on the wall in the gym and everything just felt right,” he said. “I didn’t even fly back to Tennessee. My friends just shipped my stuff out here.”

The natural fit translated to enormous success for Johnson and the men’s basketball team. In 2008-09, Johnson paced the squad in points at 17.2 per game and three-point field goals with 70 on the season. “Coach (Justin) Leslie broke down my whole game and taught me how to play high percentage shots, spacing, and positioning. I was like a raw piece of clay and he molded me,” Johnson said. “He showed me how to play the right way.” Johnson’s achievements earned the recognition of NAIA All-American third team. He led the Cougars to a 24-10 record and a Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) championship. “It took a while, but when we all started trusting each other, we hit our stride and were almost unstoppable.”

The following year, as a senior, Johnson played even better, earning NAIA All-American first team honors. APU won the GSAC championship again and made it all the way to the NAIA Championship. Unfortunately, the Cougars lost in the final seconds to Oklahoma Baptist. “It was a brutal loss. We sunk a game winning shot at the buzzer, but it turned out the clock had expired literally .1 seconds before the ball left my teammate’s hands,” Johnson said. “That team was special. I’ll never forget that season.”

Although his time at APU came to a close, Johnson’s basketball career was just taking off. He was selected by the Idaho Stampede in the 2010 NBA D-League Draft, but never played a game for them after getting cut right before the season. “That was the first time I had ever been cut from a team. It taught me a lot about the politics of the D-League,” he said. Johnson rebounded, signing with the Texas Legends, where he played for two years. He went on to play with the Canton Charge for a season before deciding to move on from the D-League.

“I received advice from friends and teammates to play basketball overseas, so I found a new agent who helped secure me my first international contract in Poland.”

Johnson’s experience in Poland was a game changer. In his first season, his team won the Polish Cup, even though they weren’t considered contenders. “I didn’t realize the significance of winning the Cup. I thought it was just another game, but everyone was absolutely ecstatic. My agent told me that I had accomplished something most guys don’t experience in their whole career,” he said. That season kickstarted Johnson’s international playing experience. He went on to play for another team in Poland, where he led the league in scoring, then played in Israel, Turkey, Germany, Italy, China, Italy again, Lebanon, France, Mexico, and Egypt. “If I had the chance to stay in one place for 10 years, I probably would have, but having the opportunities to experience all those different countries and their cultures was life changing,” he said. Johnson went on to win the FIBA Europe Cup in 2018 and the Lebanese Cup in 2019.

Although most rules of the game are the same in other countries, Johnson said the way the game was played and the environment were completely different than American basketball. “In the NBA, it’s all about offense. Overseas, it’s much more defense-centric; they’re strategic and more physical to stop you from scoring,” he said. “And the fans are on another level. They’re jumping from start to finish, setting off flares in the gym, and lighting coins on fire. Every game is like Game 7 of the NBA Finals for them.”

Although Johnson had amazing experiences on the court, life off the court could be challenging at times. He married his college sweetheart from APU, Marissa Johnson ’12, but she was still living in the U.S. as her career as an education administrator blossomed. “Marissa would visit me during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring breaks. She was able to stay longer for two stints when I was playing in Venice and Florence,” Johnson said. “I was grateful for those times and I’m so proud of her career.” Johnson bonded with his teammates and made good friends at each stop along his journey. He particularly loved his time in Israel. “My best friend is Israeli. Her family took me in and invited me over every Saturday for Shabbat dinner,” he said. “There were tons of Americans in Israel too. We would have barbecues every week where we would hang out and play cards. It felt like you were at home.” Through all the ups and downs of playing overseas, Johnson’s one constant was his faith. He wears a WWJD bracelet everyday and has Scripture from 1 Corinthians tattooed on him serving as a reminder of God’s provision.

“God has never left me. He’s always protected me. When I have doubts about how I’m going to get through tough times, God’s there for me.”

After playing for 13 teams in 10 countries, Johnson decided to retire from playing international basketball. He decided to pass on his knowledge in a book, Adjusting, Adapting, and Managing Expectations of Overseas Basketball, which gives athletes insight on how to pick an agent, how to read contracts, and how to avoid hiccups in international basketball. Johnson returned to the U.S. and was promptly drafted by the Killer 3’s in the Big3 league. “The Big3 has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to play alongside a lot of former NBA players,” he said. “It’s fun talking to Ice Cube and seeing him at every game. I even got to meet Dr. J. That had me starstruck.”

Johnson may continue playing in the Big3 next summer if the opportunity arises again, but for now, he’s focused on being a husband and a father to his three-year-old daughter and three-month-old son and coaching at APU. “It’s all about mentoring for me. I feel like I can motivate the students and get the best out of them,” he said. “We’ve got a talented team and they work very hard.” Johnson is excited to learn from Coach Bond. “I’m constantly picking Pete’s brain. He’s a fantastic coach and has already taught me a lot.” Johnson said the team’s goal is to win a national championship, but he’ll measure success in different ways. “I want the guys to develop their skills and learn about life outside of basketball. The ball isn’t going to bounce forever. I tell them to take their education seriously.” Johnson is furthering his education as well, pursuing a Master’s in Leadership through APU. “If the players can grow in their knowledge and their faith, that’s far greater than any championship.”