Above photo of Ke’Aunna Johnson provided by Ke’Aunna Johnson
KOSOVO-When one door closes, seek another.
That is the underlying storyline in Ke’Aunna Johnson’s recounting of how she ended up halfway across the world, in a tiny republic on the border of Serbia.
Because to end up in Kosovo, averaging 20.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game at the professional level, the UMHB graduate endured a rocky path that shaped her competitive drive.
Kosovo accounts for just 4,212 square miles in the southeast region of Europe, bordered by Macedonia to the southeast, Serbia to the north, Albania to the southwest, and Montenegro to the west.
It has been the border with Serbia that has caused the most issue in recent years, due to a dispute of boundary lines and independence. There is a bridge just a mile away from where Johnson lives. connecting the two countries. Its presence is made clear within the city of Mitrovica, holding significance because of its position.
“When I got here in October, they were having small protests because Kosovo separated from Serbia,” Johnson said, noting that there is no real danger or active conflict in the area, though the nations are not on friendly terms. “Where I’m at, there is a bridge. Police sit at the middle of that bridge..all day long. Above that bridge to the north, the Serbians came and took over that part of the city.”
Down the road from the bridge is the gym–and it is quite literally a gym–where Johnson has almost single-handedly led Trepeca to six victories this season, eclipsing the 20-point mark on 12 ocassions.
The opportunity for Johnson, who played for the Cru in the 2019-20 season, to play in Kosovo was not the first professional offer that came her way; Albania was. So close was Johnson to playing in the south european country that she purchased her plane ticket and packed up her apartment with three days until departure.
Then came word from the team.
“They said they would not be able to sign me this season,” Johnson recalls. “I thought this was really going to happen and then it got snatched away from me.”
That was followed by another phone call, this one from her agent, alerting her about the team in Kosovo.
“I said, ‘Ok I need to see a contract,’” Johnson said. “I wanted to make sure they actually wanted me.”
She ended up on the next flight out, making her debut on Oct. 22, 2022 in a 17-point outburst. From a basketball standpoint, things clicked almost immediately for the Killeen native, after she overcame bouts with the flu and strep throat in her first three weeks.
But she was not in Texas anymore.
“I’ve noticed we’re pretty spoiled in America,” Johnson said. “They use drying racks instead of dryers, It’s obviously a different langugage. They play basketball slightly differently. The architecture is different. But it has been very good.”
The langugage barrier is something that Johnson has adjusted to, not an uncommon necesity that comes about when living in a foreign nation. The fact that english is taught in schools in Kosovo helps, especially considering most of her teammates are no older than 15 or 16.
“A lot of the younger kids speak a lot of english. Because they teach english in their schools. So a few of my teammates do speak english like the team captain. We have the youngest team in the league. Outside of us, the average age is around 16.”
With the youth on the roster, Johnson’s role is unique. She is a player-coach to an extent, with much more basketball knowledge and experience than her younger counterparts. There have been many afternoons spent working with the squad’s 18-year old team captain, as Johnson seeks to have an impact on those around her, in addition to furthering her own journey in professional basketball.
“I’m always about helping people, and want to help them get better,” Johnson noted. “I still want to win at the end of the day, and will do whatever I can to win with those around me. With the 18-year old, I make time to play one-on-one, and encourage her to work on some moves to use in the games.”
At the same time, Johnson has aspirations past Kosovo. Much like the way the minor leagues work in professional baseball, basketball overseas involves a similar sort of pecking order, with players slowly moving up, year-by-year, from small, somewhat unnoticed teams to nationally-known powers in places like Spain, France and Germany.
“I’m with an agency that has really good results, as far as getting players elsewhere,” she said. “I’ve had talks with her as far as what places I’m interested in going to. I have more of a say now. I’d like to travel to places I’ve never been, and always wanted to go.’
For a time following her final collegiate season at UMHB, Johnson was unsure if any professional opportunities would be in the cards. The Covid pandemic played no small role in that, considering the fact that many professional teams, especially in Europe, were shut down and financially limited in the months that followed nationwide lockdowns. Not to mention the challenges that international travel posed.
“I was starting to [have some doubt], especially when it came to the opportunity falling through in Albania,” Johnson remembered. “I had friends who were playing overseas, and thought, ‘I know I can play with her, and she’s gone somewhere, so why haven’t I?’ I realized I couldn’t allow myself to stress out about it. What was for me would be for me.”
Johnson’s path, as previously mentioned, did not follow a straight line. And that winds back to her days as a middle schooler, when it seemed her athletic future on the track had greater potential than it did on the court.
She trained under the leadership of Bill Collins while growing up. But basketball always took the top spot when it came to the two.
“I ran track for quite some time,” Johnson said, noting that the team she ran for dissolved just before she entered middle school. “I trained with Bill Collins every day and was running 22 or 23 seconds in the 200m. He was a great trainer.
“But I told my mom, I love basketball. My parents did everything they could to make sure I was staying active and doing what I loved. They always tried to travel to our tournaments and those things. My mom has always been so encouraging and motivating.”
Following that passion, and taking the work ethic she built on the track, Johnson starred at Killeen High School. She led the Kangaroos to a 33-5 record and the District 12-6A crown as a senior in 2015-16, averaging 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Accolades came in bunches for the forward, who earned All-Area MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors following the successful campaign that included three playoff victories.
The strong senior year springboarded Johnson onto the roster at Tarleton State, then a D-II program in the Lone Star Conference. After one season there, she moved onto Rogers State, another D-II program, for two more seasons, enduring a coaching change while playing in 54 contests.
With one year left of eligibility, Johnson took her talents back to Central Texas, closing out her time at the collegiate level as a Crusader. And it was one of, if not the, best season and team she experienced when looking back on her three stops.
“I had already met over half of the team prior to even considering coming there,” she recalled. “Both Tarleton and UMHB were really nice schools, and the teachers and classes were high-quality. I had a good time there.
“It was close to home. My parents live maybe 10 or 15 minutes from campus so I was able to go home and see my parents and friends pretty often. I really liked that I had the chance to get involved with other activities and organizations on campus as well.”
Johnson played in 26 games, making one start, during the 2019-20 season, also known as the fateful year in which UMHB’s season ended abruptly in the Sweet 16 with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament due to Covid.
“Covid really messed things up,” Johnson added. We were going somewhere.”
The team Johnson contributed to may have been the best to ever don the purple and gold. Led by a senior group that included the trio of Hannah Holt, Kendall Rollins, and Alicia Blackwell, UMHB appeared to be on a fast track to a deeper tournament run.
Though the opportunity to complete the national championship chase was taken away from Johnson in her last collegiate season, playing at UMHB proved to be a quality experience both on and off the court.
“It was a really good mix [on that team],” she recalled. “That starting five had some good experience.”
Johnson’s amateur career had its difficulties too. In fact, the biggest challenge she faced at various points involved staying healthy, not scoring more points or seeing game action.
“In 8th grade, I was playing and game, and went to go to the restroom in the middle of the game, but I never made it there,” Johnson said, noting that she collapsed somewhere along the way. “That’s how I found out I was anemic and had a sickle-cell trait.
“The worst experience was at Rogers State. I came back from Christmas break, and we had three two-a-days straight. As we were running, I thought, ‘My chest is really hurting.’ I thought I was just tired from all the running. Then we had the second practice, and the pain was still there.
“The next day, I talked to my coach, and she told me to go to urgent care. They told me I needed to go to the emergency room. Next thing you know, I’m in the hospital.”
Dr. Saran Oliver soon discovered that Johnson had developed pericarditis, a rare heart condition, and the cause was unknown. Fluid developed in the pericardium of her heart, resulting in serious chest pains. She stayed out of basketball for a couple weeks, before being able to return, with the condition having cleared up. A year later, it came back.
“I’ve never had a real knee problem or tore anything, but I’ve gotten these other health problems that have set me back,” Johnson added, mentioning that the second time around, the pericarditis kept her out for over a month.
Through all the ups and downs of her basketball career, her parents, John and Jill, have been consistent motivators. Even now, with livestreamed games unavailable from Kosovo, they sit and follow the live stats as intensely as if they were at the game itself.
“My parents helped me travel to combines in California and Atlanta when I was looking for a professional opportunity,” Johnson said. “They do a lot for me. My mom and I try to talk every day.”
What her parents have mostly seen is Johnson dominating on the court, playing a full 40 minutes, averaging 20.9 points per game, which ranks second in the league.
And 6,000 miles from Belton, Johnson will continue working towards her goals and dreams representing UMHB abroad along the way.
Said Johnson: “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”