Director of administration proves indispensible for Nuggets

Lisa Sloan had never sold as much as a Girl Scout cookie when she heard that the local pro basketball team had an opening in its ticket office.

Fresh out of the University of Denver, she was a longtime Denver Nuggets fan who submitted her resume with the idea that she had nothing to lose.

“What are they going do, say ‘No’ like everybody else has?” she figured.

What Sloan lacked in experience, she made up for in smarts, spark and personality because Nuggets president and general manager Carl Scheer hired her on the spot. It might rank as one of the most underrated additions in franchise history.

Organized, affable and efficient, Lisa Johnson is preparing for her 30th season with the Nuggets. The temporary sales position she landed in 1981 ultimately led to her current job as director of basketball administration.

From booking flights and hotels to scheduling community appearances for players to communicating regularly with the NBA, Johnson has proven invaluable while handling numerous responsibilities in the Nuggets executive office.

The small sign on the front corner of her desk says it all: “Tell me what you need.”

“I just don’t think people in the organization really stop to realize just how much she does and how many problems she heads off because of how she handles things,” said Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen, who coordinates with Johnson on team travel.

“There are things we’re required to do with the league office – reports or timelines for certain things to be turned in – that would sometimes get overlooked if there wasn’t someone like her watchdogging every little thing that goes on. She’s amazing.”

For all her responsibility, Johnson handles her job with a quiet humility.

“I think about how there’s only 29 other people in the world that have my job,” she said. “That’s pretty humbling. I appreciate it. I don’t take much of anything for granted. I’ve lost too many people close to me and had too many things go on.”

Utah-born, Denver-raised

The only child of Bill and Alpha Sloan was born in an Indian hospital near a Ute reservation outside Vernal, Utah. Bill Sloan, who worked as a geologist for Exxon, liked the Nat King Cole song “Mona Lisa” so he decided Lisa would be a good name for his daughter.

An athletic man who played football at the University of Colorado, Bill Sloan moved his family to Denver in the late 1960s and introduced Lisa to competitive activities such as golf and tennis.

“He’s the one who really gave me my love of sports,” Johnson said.

Johnson was just 14 years old when her father died of a heart attack at 54. After her husband's death, Alpha Sloan took Lisa to Denver Rockets/Nuggets games at the Denver Auditorium Arena and McNichols Sports Arena. She fell in love with basketball’s blend of speed, power and grace.

“Opening night still means a lot to me when I walk out there and there’s 19,000 people out there screaming for my team,” Johnson said “The day that rush goes away then maybe I should leave. So far it hasn’t.”

In her time with the Nuggets, Johnson has worked as a sales representative, a receptionist, a media/community relations assistant and an administrator. She has earned a five-star award for 25 years of dedication, experienced nine ownership changes and worked for 12 head coaches and 10 general managers/front-office executives.

“She’s a cornerstone of this whole Nuggets organization,” said basketball operations coordinator Amy Yuratovac, who has worked closely with Johnson for the past two years. “Anybody who needs anything, they always go to Lisa.”

Moving up the ladder

It took Johnson less than three years to move from ticket sales to the basketball office, where she started working as a receptionist for coach Doug Moe. Johnson answered phones, sorted fan mail and handled comp tickets for players and coaches.

“Right from the start she was terrific,” Moe said. “Anything that came up, she’d take care of. For people like myself who do nothing, it’s tough to explain about the people who get things done. She’s the best.”

Moe was the coach when Johnson organized an NBA outreach project called Fastbreak for Life. Along with general manager Pete Babcock, Nuggets players Wayne Cooper, Walter Davis, Alex English and Fat Lever held basketball clinics at Native American reservations in Colorado, New Mexico and South Dakota. The White House later honored the Nuggets for the program.

“It was really rewarding,” Johnson said. “I remember riding in a bus to the middle of this Navajo reservation three hours from where we were staying. We were well-received. It was an amazing experience.”

Another of Johnson’s favorite memories is standing with David Thompson in the minutes before he presented the game ball for Game 3 of the 2009 Western Conference finals. With the music blaring and nearly 20,000 people standing and cheering, the magnitude of the moment hit her.

“I take my job as my job and I don’t really think about what’s happening, but for a millisecond, I was like, ‘OK, I’m standing next to David Thompson and I’m holding the game ball for the Western Conference finals,' " she said. "That was amazing. I still get chills over stuff like that.”

A friend for life

While spine-tingling moments are gone in the blink of an eye, the friendships and relationships that Johnson has forged over the past 29 years are long-lasting. When opposing teams come to Denver, she typically knows at least one coach or staff member who once worked for the Nuggets.

“Every single person in the NBA that she’s worked with, she has their birthday written down and they get a phone call or a card from her,” Yuratovac said. “She keeps in touch with all of those people. It’s one of her gifts.”

Hundreds of Nuggets players, coaches and employees have come and gone during Johnson’s 29 seasons, but in 1995, she found someone who couldn’t be fired, traded or put on waivers.

Lisa and Jim Johnson started dating after hitting it off at a Fourth of July party. They got engaged during a trip to Taos, N.M., a month later and married in April 1996.

“My biggest supporter and truly the love of my life is my husband,” she said. “Jim makes every day worthwhile.”

The two still live in the house that Lisa’s dad built, and they attend nearly every Nuggets home game together. Some people can’t wait to leave work, but for Johnson, that’s rarely the case.

“I’m getting to the point where I don’t care to do anything different,” she said. “I tell people that this isn’t just a job, it’s a family.”

Contact Aaron J. Lopez at alopez@pepsicenter.com