By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. – Johnny Neumann stood in the tunnel leading to the Tad Smith Coliseum basketball court last Saturday, feeling a tinge of nervousness.
Waiting to be introduced to the crowd during a time out at the Rebels-LSU game, Johnny, now 61, was on the spot where he hadn’t stood in 42 years.
For during the 1970-71 season, Johnny was a comet streaking across the college basketball galaxy, a 6-6 Ole Miss swingman that averaged a NCAA-leading 40.1 points per game, raining in jumpers with laser-beam accuracy.
And then after 23 games, even before the end of his only varsity season with the Rebels, he was gone, lured by the multi-million dollar riches of a fledgling pro league that would pay his ailing father’s medical bills.
The Memphis native, after a pro career that lasted seven years in two leagues playing for seven different teams and a revolving door of head coaches such as Hubie Brown (“I still have his playbook, he got the best out of me,” Johnny says), Jerry West and Babe McCarthy, had been a globetrotting-coaching vagabond for more than three decades. From Louisville to Lebanon, from Maine to Romania, Johnny followed his dream and honed his craft.
But all those years, Johnny rarely ever came home to Memphis and never showed his face at Ole Miss, a place he always held dear.
“I should have come to Ole Miss long before now,” Johnny says. “But the way I suddenly left school, I just didn’t know how I would be received by people.”
Yet when the horn sounded for a timeout Saturday and Johnny was led on the floor for his big moment, waves of sustained heartfelt applause, especially from the silver and white-haired fans, washed warmly over him. His decades of apprehension cleansed, he couldn’t stop smiling and waving as he walked off the court.
“When I played at Ole Miss, the people were fantastic,” Johnny says. “I owe them and the Oxford community a awful lot. They did a lot for me, just like the people of Memphis have done a lot for me.”
Memphis is where it all started for Johnny. He first caught everyone’s attention by averaging 35 points plus per game as a high school freshman.
Old-timers in Memphis remember what is still considered the biggest city championship game in the history of the basketball-rich city – Johnny and his 26-0 Overton High Rebels team vs. future University of Memphis all-American guard Larry Finch and his 24-1 Melrose High squad.
The teams met on Feb. 21, 1969, before a sold-out 10,000-seat Mid-South Coliseum.
Despite foul trouble, the late Finch, who later led then-Memphis State to the 1973 Final Four championship game where it lost to Bill Walton-led UCLA, scored 21 points in a 76-65 victory. Johnny was nothing short of magnificent, scoring 34 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. He did so even after breaking his left hand in the first half on Melrose center Ronnie Robinson’s knee brace.
“I’ve coached all over the world and played in some great arenas like the Forum in Los Angeles when I was with the Lakers, and the atmosphere in the Mid-South Coliseum that night was as good as it gets,” Johnny recalls.
Johnny finished that season, his senior year, averaging 35.1 points. Memphis State basketball fans dreamed of a recruiting class that would include Johnny, Finch and Robinson, a trio of unmatched outside-inside firepower that would surely bring the Tigers their first national championship.
But as much as Johnny liked then-Memphis coach Moe Iba personally – “I deeply respected him,” Johnny says – he didn’t like Iba’s deliberate style of offense.
Shockingly, Johnny signed with Ole Miss, which had never seriously challenged for a Southeastern Conference title. After a season in 1969-70 of playing on the freshman team – the same year LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich closed out the most spectacular individual college career in history averaging 44.2 points for his career – Johnny was turned loose the next season on the varsity as a sophomore.
Though the Rebels had a record of just 11-15 overall and 6-12 in the SEC, Johnny lived up to the hype. He scored 40 or more points 12 times, including five games with 50 or more.
And on the same floor in Baton Rouge the year before where LSU’s Maravich became college basketball’s all-time leading scorer in a win over Ole Miss, Johnny re-paid the debt by scoring a school-record 63 points in a 113-90 victiory. It was one shy of The Pistol’s home court record of 64 he had in his last home game as a senior against Kentucky.
Johnny hit 26-of-40 field goals in a game against the Tigers that Johnny recalls (former retired LSU star) Bob Pettit describing as “the greatest shooting exhibition I’ve ever seen.”
“I knew I hadn’t missed many shots,” Johnny recalls of the day when he was on than hotter than. . .well, hotter than the ghost of The Pistol who was already in his rookie year with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Funny thing is I shot this turnaround jump shot in the second half on the baseline and I knew that son-of-a-gun was in. It turned out to be an airball that almost knocked out my center standing on the other side of the basket. Everyone said it was a great pass. It was a brick.
“Plus, I never missed free throws and that day I missed probably five free throws. I could have broken Pete’s (homecourt scoring) record.
Because of Johnny’s 40-point per game average, the comparisons between he and Maravich came fast and furious.
“I don’t think you could compare us as players,” Johnny says. “Pete was a friend of mine, and we had some good conversations about this later after college. I was a good passer, because I understood angles, but Pete was the greatest ballhandler I’ve ever seen. I was a pure shooter and he was a streak shooter, but we were both scorers. We could both break a defender down.
“I think Pete was great, but maybe not as great as he would have preferred if he didn’t always have the pressure to do all the things people expected of him every game. My game changed in the pros, because I didn’t have to be the go-to-guy scorer.”
If Johnny had stayed at Ole Miss his last two seasons, he might have made a serious run at the late Maravich’s scoring record. Yet two games before the end of his lone sensational college varsity season, Johnny quit the Rebels. The Memphis Pros of the American Basketball Association, seeking a gate attraction, offered him a five-year, $2 million contract (with much of the money deferred).
He was 19 years old, his father had just had a heart attack, he needed fast cash to play for hospital bills and he would instantly have more money that he ever imagined. As one of the original college-to-pro hardship cases, it was a no-brainer for Johnny.
Back then, it was “Where do I sign?” All these years later, it’s “What was I doing?”
“If my father hadn’t suffered his heart attack, I would have stayed all four years at Ole Miss,” Johnny says. “I loved Ole Miss. It was a small campus, and the people were great. We played a run-and-gun style. We had another fantastic recruiting year.”
Two months after his last Ole Miss game, there was a picture of Johnny in the April 23 issue of Life Magazine to illustrate an article entitled “Instant millionaires from the basketball war,” the battle for college talent between the old-guard NBA and the brash new ABA with its crazy red, white and blue basketball and a gimmicky three-point shot.
Suddenly dazzled by his newfound wealth, the brash Johnny somewhat emulated the free-wheeling, hip pro lifestyle of Maravich and of New York Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath. Johnny bought a fleet of cars, including a stock car with his name on it. He was generous, buying things and giving money to his friends and relatives while nonchalantly insisting, “Paper (cash) means nothing to me.”
Once in Indianapolis while Memphis was playing the Indiana Pacers, Johnny bought a sports car and found someone to drive it back to Memphis.
Johnny doesn’t mind saying now he was a royal pain in the rear for many of the coaches who tried to break him like a wild mustang. It started with Johnny’s three coaches in Memphis – Babe McCarthy (“He helped me tremendously,” Johnny says) Bob Bass and Butch van Breda Kolff (“He was more into himself,” Johnny recalls).
“A lot of people said I was a flake, and I wasn’t the easiest guy to coach, because I was arrogant,” Johnny says. “But you have to have a certain amount of that to be good.”
Johnny averaged 17.5 points per game in his first two seasons in Memphis before being traded to Utah, which he recalls “really hurt, it was like my security blanket of playing in my hometown was taken away.” He was traded seven more times, ended up bankrupt, divorced for a second time and eventually moved to California, where he cared for his father and sold used cars for a living.
Johnny began coaching in the late 1970s. In 1982-83, he finished second in the Continental Basketball Association's Coach of the Year voting when he guided the Maine Lumberjacks. In the early '80s, he was player-coach of a German professional team that qualified for European Cup play. From 1987-91, Johnny coached P.A.O.K. club of Thessalonica, Greece, to two European Cup playoff spots, then coached the Pagrati team of Athens, Greece.
His coaching career almost hit a dead end at the end of the 1989 season when he was suspended two years from coaching in the Greek First Division because he pushed a referee in a playoff game.
“Over in Europe, there is a feeling a lot of games are bought and sold,'' Johnny recalls. ''In this particular game, I lost a 23-point lead and had four of my top five players foul out in an eight-minute span. I was angry, I pushed a referee, and he fell down. He took his whistle off, I pushed him again.''
Johnny was allowed to return to coach a Greek Second Division team. In the early 90s, he coached Louisville in the Global Basketball Association before he returned overseas.
Through all the jobs, failed marriages, the death of his father in 1986, the death of a child that was stillborn, Johnny’s steady Christian faith has always kept him fighting through adversity.
This past fall while still coaching in Romania, he realized he had a reason, a very critical reason, to return to his Memphis and Ole Miss roots.
Johnny’s 4-year-old daughter Esmeralda needed specialized medical treatment for a kidney disorder called nephrotic syndrome. It's when proteins leak into the urine, resulting in fluid accumulating in the body and leading to kidney damage or failure.
Johnny, struggling somewhat financially because he said the Romanian national team owes him thousands in unpaid salary for being its head coach, got to Memphis in late November and then sent for his daughter, all thanks to former Ole Miss teammate Steve Farese. Esmeralda is now being treated at LeBonheur’s Children’s Medical Center in Memphis.
Farese, an Ashland, Miss.-based attorney whose father was Johnny’s original agent/attorney, learned of the situation with Johnny’s daughter, after sportswriter Kyle Veazey of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis wrote a story about it late last October. Farese footed the bill for first Johnny and then his daughter to travel to Memphis so she could be treated. Johnny is in the process of getting a visa for his wife to also come to Memphis.
“I hadn’t talked to Steve in 30 years,” Johnny says. “He e-mails me and says, `I don’t care what kind of money it costs. Get on a plane. I want you home.’ I can’t tell you how much he and his family have meant to me over the years.”
Johnny’s next step is to hopefully get a coaching job (“Ironically, I’ve become a helluva defensive coach,” he says). He’d love to become a college assistant at his alma mater or at the University of Memphis or at just about any school seeking someone with his extensive experience and perspective.
“I could help as an assistant coach in many ways,” Johnny says. “I understand how to evaluate talent, how to maximize strengths of players.
“But most of all, I can really relate to many of their situations. I know what goes through the heads of these kids – the pressure, the expectations, disagreements with coaches. These are things I’ve experienced, mistakes I’ve already made. If you get caught up in all of that, you never reach your ability as a player.
“My dream is helping kids become better players and people. It’s what has made me want to live all these years, even times that I was rock bottom.”
So with all that in mind, here’s one last question for you, Johnny.
How would Johnny Neumann, now a veteran basketball mind seasoned by a lifetime of hard lessons learned, have coached Johnny Neumann, the brash, hotshot hair-on-fire scoring machine from back in the day?
“I would sit him down,” says Johnny, “and say, `Listen, I know you’re young, Johnny. At times, you’re a little out-of-control. You want to do this and do that. I will let you do this, but if you keep making mistakes, we’re going to have a meeting Johnny, and it’s not going to be coach-player. It’s going to be two basketball people and I’m going to hop your rear end. But also I will let you talk to me, because maybe it will help me see something about you I’m not seeing.
`And then our relationship is going to be two-fold, Johnny. I’m the coach. I don’t want any talking back, you do what I tell you to do. If you need to talk to me as a friend, my door is always open. But remember, I’m the coach the first.’ ”
Somebody hire this man.