Vinnie Johnson builds success — from Baylor to the NBA to business
The stories of “boom to bust” for college and pro athletes after their playing careers end are legion.
Vinnie Johnson, Baylor Class of 1980, is not one of those.
Johnson — a two-time all-American at Baylor, one of the greatest sixth men in NBA history, and our pick as the greatest Baylor alum in NBA history — has found even more success in the business world after his retirement from professional basketball.
The Brooklyn native first came to Waco to play for nearby McLennan Community College in 1975, transferring to Baylor two years later and posting two of the all-time great scoring efforts in Baylor men’s basketball history. Johnson left Baylor as both the single-season (25.2) and career (24.1) record-holder for points-per-game — both records that stand to this day.
Drafted No. 7 overall by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1979 NBA draft, Johnson played two seasons in Seattle before being traded to the Detroit Pistons in 1981, where he would play for the next 10 seasons before retiring in 1992 with the San Antonio Spurs. Nicknamed “The Microwave” during his NBA tenure, Johnson was a fan favorite for the Pistons and a key piece of the team’s back-to-back title runs in 1989-90. The Pistons would retire Johnson’s No. 15 jersey in 1994.
Retirement from basketball as a two-time NBA champion would mark the pinnacle of achievement for most. For Johnson, it was just the beginning.
Looking to lay down roots and create jobs in his adopted city of Detroit, Johnson launched Piston Automotive — now Piston Group — in 1995 as a supplier for major international automotive companies, particularly Ford Motor Company and GM. The company grew rapidly, from $1 million in revenue in 1995 to over $3 billion a year today, earning recognition as one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the world.
“I really wanted to get into business and create some jobs and opportunities,” Johnson told Baylor Magazine in 2013. “I wanted to do something different outside of basketball, but the main thing was giving back to the city of Detroit for all the support they have given me.”
As founder, chairman and CEO, Johnson has seen his business expand from a single shop in Detroit to locations across the Midwest, employing over 11,000 people and holding a portfolio of four brands (Piston Automotive, Irvin Products, Detroit Thermal Systems, and AIREA). A generous contributor to philanthropic and charitable pursuits, Johnson is a member of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce.
Sic ’em, Vinnie Johnson!