Anthony Johnson and Shaunte Nance-Johnson
In 2006, Yakima Valley College wasn’t on the radar of Anthony Johnson or Shaunte Nance-Johnson. But the couple, looking for a chance to continue their college basketball careers at the same school, found that opportunity playing for the Yaks.
Each shined on the court at YVC, and Johnson would go on to capture the national spotlight, earning an ESPY Award nomination for his performance in the University of Montana’s stunning come-from-behind victory over Weber State during the 2010 Big Sky Conference Championship.
That triumph, however, was interrupted when Johnson tried to launch a professional basketball career with the NBA D-League Los Angeles D-Fenders.
“I remember being out there in LA playing with Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, and having this out of body experience seeing all of the Lakers’ championships and jerseys of players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hanging from the rafters,” Johnson said. “I was thinking ‘I’m going to play for the Lakers,’ but then the next day I couldn’t see out of my eye.”
The impairment that ended his hope of playing professionally was one that Johnson had struggled with since suffering an injury at age 10, yet it was a secret few knew about. In 2013 Johnson underwent cataract removal surgery on both eyes.
Despite those struggles, being in basketball for 15 years gave the couple the relationships and experience they needed to launch the next chapter in their lives. In 2018, they founded the events company Inner Enso.
“Basketball, when you break it down, is a live event,” Johnson said. “The event space is a multibillion dollar industry and we looked up one day and realized we’ve been in the sporting and event space for so long. We knew that we could leverage our relationships and experience into creating compelling content.”
Nance-Johnson said Inner Enso focuses on creating events that foster racial inclusion and healing in order to change things at the ground level. That includes school-wide conferences, professional development for school staff, community discussion circles and other speaking engagements.
“There’s this huge racial divide and we felt we needed to bring people together, raise awareness of systemic injustices and empower people,” Nance-Johnson said.
Inner Enso is working with school districts across the country, from Seattle and Tacoma to Boston. The couple also is looking to start working with schools in the Yakima Valley, which the couple returned to in fall 2019 with their three children.
“Something my grandma used to say is ‘You might always forget small memories, but you always remember the way people treat you’,” Nance-Johnson said. “I remembered all the beautiful people here and the positive energy. We were thinking about where there’s positive energy, where’s a good place to get an education for your kids, someplace safe where you know your neighbor is going to look after your kids — and Yakima came to mind first.”
While more than a decade has gone by since their playing days for the Yaks, the relationships they formed at YVC remain strong.
“I don’t think about the championship we won now,” Johnson said. “I think about the practices, the camaraderie, the conversations with coaches away from the game. The championship was cool, but the freshmen I met, all these years later we’re still friends and that’s what I treasure the most.”