Red-hot new pistol in Rebel land

Shades of Pete Maravich. The South has the nation's top gunner again. He's Johnny Neumann of Ole Miss
February 08, 1971

Carl John Neumann of Apartment 17, Patio Gardens, Oxford, Miss.—commonly referred to by Southern basketball fans as "Johnny Neumann, the new Pistol Pete Maravich" and by his public-relations agents as "Johnny Neumann, the sensational soph"—and his wife are at home this night, watching another television conversation between Johnny Carson and "Professor" Irwin Corey or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Red Buttons or a juggling seal. It doesn't matter. The Neumanns—she is the former Carolyn DeViney of Treadwell High in Memphis—are being entertained.

"We watch one of these talk things prob'ly every night," says Carolyn.

"Cavett has better guests, but Carson, he's funnier," says Johnny. "Griffin is dumb. Carson doesn't say much about his own ideas. He stays out of controversy. That's good. Damn, Carolyn, they wear face stuff here. Look at the makeup they use on these shows. I got to get me some of that—for my zits."

"Shoot, Johnny," says Carolyn. "You don't want me in makeup."

"Girls don't need that stuff if they're good lookin'," says Johnny. "Shoot, they should be just fresh and clear in the face. That's nice."

"Johnny thinks I have an awful nose," Carolyn says to their guest, who doesn't think Carolyn's nose is bad at all; who, in fact, is mumbling incoherently in the face of her liquid beauty. "But look, his nose is terrible. Look at it. He says I'm skinny. But I kid him back. We really get into it."

Johnny Neumann's skin condition—his zits, otherwise known as acne—is hardly noticeable anymore. It came as an adverse reaction to antibiotics taken to combat a case of flu Neumann suffered in early December. This development occurred six months after the Neumanns had surely become Oxford's top choice to make The Newlywed Game on TV. It also came shortly after 20-year-old Johnny himself had become America's newest rootin', tootin' sweetheart of a gunner—and the leading scorer on campus.

In Neumann's first two varsity games for the University of Mississippi he scored 41 and 51 points against a couple of defenseless victims, Northeast Louisiana and Arkansas A&M, and was two points ahead of Pete Maravich's record pace as a sophomore. Then the flu struck Neumann; in the Rebels' game against Texas he was weak and ineffective, scoring 29 points. Afterward Carolyn drove him to the hospital for observation.

"Yes," Larry Liddell, a Mississippi PR man, said to Neumann at lunch recently. "I remember you were sick. That was our third game and they held you to 28."

"Twenty-nine," said Carolyn.

"Slick knows," said Johnny, referring to Carolyn, who in turn sometimes calls her husband Johnny Cool.

Because of the Texas game, Neumann dropped behind in his race against the ghost of Maravich. He pulled even after 11 games but then dropped off again. He says, "I don't think I'll win the scoring championship. Austin Carr will beat me out. But he's a senior, and I've got two more years." However, Neumann is six points a game ahead of Carr and all other nonghosts this season. Following his first 16 games, he had scored 687 total points (36 behind Maravich at a similar stage), was averaging 42.9 a game and was shooting .469%, some .038 percentage points better than The Pistol. Last Saturday night, playing in Pete's old front yard at LSU, Neumann set a school scoring record with 63 points as Mississippi upset the Tigers 113-90.

Though Ole Miss won its first six games and Neumann had probably his best early performance (39 points) against Auburn, it was a two-game series in the Palmetto Invitational at Charleston, S.C. that was most indicative of the kind of zany yet invigorating season that is happening to Mississippi basketball and its new star. In the first game of the tournament against Baylor, Neumann scored 60 points, his team scored 113—and Mississippi lost by 19. In a consolation match against The Citadel, Neumann made 28, the team 90—and the Rebels again lost by 19. "I believe he run down in that one," says Neumann's coach, Robert (Cob) Jarvis, whose speech is sometimes indistinguishable from that of a man losing a pie-eating contest. "The ole boy was tired. Gosh. Sometimes I just set and wonder."

The Neumanns' efficiency apartment in Patio Gardens is part of a recently converted motel that comes not only with patio and gardens but with color TV and gravel driveway. Just off Highway 6 leading into Oxford, hard by a trailer court and a few footsteps away from the Rebel Drive-In movie, their place is highlighted by a back area that is combination kitchen, bedroom, study and, when the occasion arises, theater seat. Recently, for instance, if the Neumanns felt the urge to look out their back window or their front door, they could have watched The Exotic Ones for free.

Decorating the living-room wall, framed and mounted on the same piece of burlap, are a few of the Neumanns' favorite things: a figure of the Ole Miss Rebel, the words "University of Mississippi" and a magazine cutout color replica of a Firebird Trans-Am 70 automobile. Johnny went, as he says, "hot on cars" during the last year, and when Slick's father bought them a Firebird (he is still paying off the notes on it), they both were so overjoyed they hung a picture of it up there fast. Their own model is white with metallic-blue interior and blue racing stripes up the hood and down the trunk. It is also in the shop after being all but destroyed when Johnny's younger brother Bill "put it through a telephone pole." That was an occasion to match the somberness of the time last summer when the Neumanns' dog Oscar lunched on a bottle of Slick's pills and wobbled away from home, never to return.

"It would have died anyway, after we pumped the stomach," says Slick, who now has a new toy collie, Swish, to keep her company while Johnny is on the road. "I wanted to call it Net," he says, "but she decided on Swish. Get it? Swish—the ball goes swish when I shoot."

"How about that for an ego trip?" says Slick.

"Shut up," says Johnny. "Damn, Carolyn, Swish is gonna do something right in front of an interviewer. Dog, git out!"

It has come as no surprise, really, that young Johnny Neumann has picked up the pistols of the departed Maravich. A close follower of the former LSU star while in high school, Neumann came to Oxford with rings on his ankles and bells on his toes, or, more appropriately, with white hands on his wrists and a fine appreciation of the showboating opportunities available in the game. The son of a traveling salesman who relentlessly pushed him and his older brother, Bob, to a pursuit of excellence in the sport, Neumann remembers growing up in Ohio a block away from the Cincinnati Gardens and getting tickets to all the Royals' games "down front—so we could yell at them." Bob Neumann, eight years older, taught Johnny most of what he does now on the court; after he went away to school at Memphis State, Bob gave Johnny his scrapbooks with pictures of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Neumann's idols, and instructions on what to watch for in the book.

Under a picture of Robertson hooking, for example, Bob wrote, "Watch his left hand, how it wards off defenders, protects his body and the ball."

Under West on the jumper, "Watch the arms, the form. This is perfect."

After a while R. H. Neumann packed up and moved his family to Memphis so they could see Bob play, but after a fine sophomore season in which he led his team to the NCAA regionals, Bob's future career in the sport was dashed by injuries and personal problems, and attention was turned to John. As the younger Neumann grew (to his present 6'6½"), his scoring average soared at Overton High School. He became the dominant player in the state, averaging 35.4 points a game during his last season before a broken hand felled him and wrecked his team's chances in the state tournament.

Despite the injury, college coaches came flocking. John Wooden visited his home and Adolph Rupp did the same, but Neumann's parents wanted him to stay near Memphis, and the boy wanted to be a star and to build up a program all by himself. At the time Memphis State played a slow game, so Johnny chose Mississippi, 90 miles down the highway at Oxford but, with only one winning basketball season in the past 10, seemingly light years away from the big time.

"I knew it was all football here," Neumann says today, "but I talked with Coach Jarvis and Archie Manning, and they said the people in Oxford wanted a good basketball team, finally. The Ole Miss cheerleaders even drove up to one of my high school games and said hello. Everyone seemed interested. They love their athletes at Ole Miss. That's all anybody has to do in this town is go to sporting events and make heroes out of their athletes. I took all the football interest as a challenge."

Former Ole Miss football coach Johnny Vaught, a legendary figure in the state, gave up "a hunting expedition" to drive up to Memphis for Neumann's signing in a show of solidarity among members of the athletic department.

It was not an easy first year, Neumann's reputation as something of an eccentric having preceded him to Oxford. Along the way to averaging 38.4 points a game for the freshmen, Neumann had several run-ins, including one with an Auburn coach who suggested Mississippi was a one-man team. Johnny proceeded to make seven straight shots around the perimeter and called out to the coach, "Is that good enough?" After the game he told the coach, "We may be a one-man team, but I can beat all five of yours by myself."

Off the court Neumann's behavior fit inconsistent patterns. In one stretch, he missed classes. He refused to study. He dated every night, staying out until all hours of the morning and frequently driving home to Memphis at the slightest whim. Finally, he skipped basketball practice and was suspended for a game. He went home again and said this time it was "for good." No one was surprised.

The trouble stemmed, it seems, from a high school girl friend of long standing who came to college with Neumann from Memphis. When both started dating others, Johnny couldn't handle it. Eventually, the emotional problem was alleviated, and Vaught and Jarvis brought their expatriate back to Oxford to live happily ever after at the top of the national scoring standings.

Johnny's marriage to Slick was an event of some spontaneity. Returning to Memphis last summer, he asked his younger brother, Bill, who "the sharpest chick in town" was. There followed considerable confusion over who was dating the "chick," Bill or Johnny Neumann, who, the young lady confessed, she didn't know from Johnny Appleseed. After that point was straightened out, Johnny dated her for two weeks and found love. They eloped. "We told my parents we were goin' to Oxford for an interview," says Slick.

"Yeah, George and Geri [Slick's parents] didn't know what was comin' off," says Neumann. "We left at 8:30 in the morning and drove through Alabama all day."

Finally, they were married in Russellville, Ala. at 9 p.m., and since Slick was only 17 and they wanted to keep the big event a secret, the couple hurried—or as Johnny puts it, "scratched off"—home. Slick's father wouldn't let Neumann in the door, so they waited three days and then approached her mother. "We have something to tell you," they said.

"You're on dope," her mother said.

"We're married," they said.

"Sure," her mother said, and continued winding her alarm clock.

It was only later that Mrs. DeViney went into her crying jag and that Mr. DeViney realized what had happened. "What a damn fool thing to do," Mrs. DeViney says today. "I like to stomp them both, still."

"I'd as like to whip up on them myself," says Mr. DeViney. "I was so sick of hearin' the name Neumann when the kid was in high school.... Aw, but I could have done worse. He doesn't smoke or drink or take dope. She could have married a truck driver."

The DeVineys, who drive down to all of Mississippi's home games and appear to have established a unique relationship with the young Neumanns, often regale the youngsters with tales of their classmate at Humes High School, Elvis Presley. "The King wore cranberry shirts to school every day and didn't have any friends," says Geri DeViney. "He'd sit out in the hall at lunch and pick that guitar in a corner. Everybody would laugh at him and, sure enough, he used to say, 'Go 'head. Go 'head and laugh, y'all.' We're sorry now. Dang. The one and only."

"I used to be a boxer," said Mr. DeViney.

"Sure, George," said Neumann, turning to their guest. "Look at his face. Can't you tell? That's a quote. Quote me."

"Least I have an excuse," said Mr. DeViney. "What happened to you, punk?"

The parallels that keep cropping up between the careers of Maravich and Neumann—the basketball family; the big Southern football school that found itself with a basketball phenomenon—defy all logic. However, their personalities, which are characterized by a gregarious, showy, outspoken way of doing things and a happy-go-lucky, barely tolerable attitude of cockiness, are more alike than their styles of play. Maravich, of course, was—and is now for the Atlanta Hawks—a guard who brought the ball up the floor, directed the flow of play and did most of his shooting from outside. Above all, he was the quintessential showman, a passer of unmatched splendor who would rather thread the ball through an opponent's uniform and get a laugh than get loose for a breakaway and score a basket. Neumann, on the other hand, is a forward who sets up on the wing in the Mississippi offense and uses his considerable feinting skills away from the ball for much of his success. Being an inch and a half taller than Maravich and somewhat stronger, he is able to muscle underneath for shots that Maravich was not able to get off. Conversely, Neumann is not as quick as Maravich, does not seem to jump as well nor to have as good a nose for rebounds. And Neumann is nowhere near The Pistol as a child of show business or as a crowd-arouser. Still, SEC coaches consider him a better shooter, better without the ball and, therefore, more dangerous to defend against.

"I give Neumann the edge over Maravich because of his superiority inside," says Tennessee's Ray Mears. "Give him the ball eight feet from the basket, and it's two points. He seems to think better for a sophomore than Pete did. In our game [in which Neumann got 26 points, his low for the season] Neumann didn't force shots against our overloaded defense the way Pete did in his first two seasons at LSU. Neumann passed off when he didn't have the shot."

Adolph Rupp says that "Neumann is as good now as Pete was as a senior," and Vanderbilt's Roy Skinner says he is the "best all-round player" he has seen in a long time. Nonetheless, these judgments are necessarily suspect; it is hardly a secret that at the conclusion of Maravich's college career little love was lost between The Pistol and opposing coaches and players, due to some of the things he had done to embarrass them. The resentment seems implicit in a statement from Vanderbilt Forward Thorpe Weber: "Neumann is a far better player than Pete Maravich ever was. He's unselfish and a gentleman on the court."

Neumann himself, though weary of the comparisons, credits them with making him well known. Naturally, too, gun-slingers stick together. "I'm complimented when they talk about me with Pete," Neumann says. "It's brought me my fame. People got down on him for shooting so much, but he worked his butt off to get those shots. When I met him last year he told me one thing I was neglecting. When I put the ball between my legs, I wasn't exploding on the move. He said to explode.

"Pete had the quickest first step I've ever seen. A tremendous move—one step and then up for the shot. My step is longer, which makes us even since I can hook a man with my arm off it. People say I get open better than he did, but Pete never had to get open. He always had the ball. Shoot, he was good enough to do all of it, anything, when he wanted to. Any good athlete can even play defense if he wants to."

Indeed, Neumann is probably more relaxed on defense than Maravich was as a sophomore, a feat previously believed humanly impossible. He plays what is known as the matador defense—waving as the man goes by—and is always quick to hang around at the top of the circle for the fast break.

"I figured I'd average about 35 points this year, but it's worked out better," says Neumann. "My teammates deserve the credit. They're feeding me. They go along with whatever I want. Shoot. I think they'd be content if I won the scoring title and we finished at .500. But I told them I'd rather win games."

To win this season, Neumann has with him sophomore Guards Danny Gunn and Dave Rhodes, who have helped Ole Miss scare a few big people, notably Kentucky (when the Rebels came from a 24-point second half deficit into the lead). Next season when 7' Fred Cox and Mississippi's first black player, Coolidge (Kool Aid) Ball, join the varsity the Rebels may find themselves in contention for the SEC championship.

"Pete's got his socks. I've got my tooth," Johnny Cool is saying, pointing to the left side of his mouth where one of his upper teeth sticks out, shining like silver. It is silver. In the sixth grade Neumann took an elbow shot to the mouth, and a cap, the full length of his tooth, resulted.

"My wife thinks it's cute, but it's coming out," says Neumann. "I can't chase skirts with this silver thing in here."

"What?" says Slick. "Oh, no. You're leavin' it in. It's cool. What did you do before we were married anyway?"

"I stuck it under my lip," says Neumann. "You're just like all women—kind and lovable before they get married. Now look. She's gained 20 pounds and in the wrong places."

"Before, he says to put on weight," says Slick. "Now he says I look like I'm 40 years old. What is this?"

"Well, you do," says Cool. "It's pitiful. You were a pitiful cook, too, before you learned how. She likes Raquel Welch because her father told her she looked like Raquel. She really looks like Nancy Sinatra in her white boots. When I sign pro, I'm using my bonus money to get her a pink Corvette, because mostly she looks like a Playboy bunny."

Apart from Slick and his Firebird Trans-Am 70, Neumann prizes his wardrobe. It once featured over 50 pairs of slacks and it now has many and various forms of shoes, including red-white-and-blue Corfams, brown knee boots ("Just like Joe Namath's"), solid white suedes, brown and black Italian squaretoe wing tips, black-and-gray button-up spatslike jobs, and—his favorites—imitation alligator-skin boots, their sides upholstered in wide black-and-blue diamond designs.

"Groovy," says Slick.

"Unbelievable," says Johnny Cool. "I used to go out and buy two pairs of slacks and a shirt any day I felt like it. Now that I'm married I can't do that. I have to get an education. We joke about me not studying, but in my Marriage and the Family course we worked three weeks for a term paper on venereal disease."

Besides Marriage and the Family, other courses in his physical-education program cram Neumann's study schedule—School and Community, Algebra, Tennis and a combined course in Golf and Archery. Archery? "I dig Archery," Neumann says. "I got an A in there. That's because we had a good teacher. A good-lookin' hunk of blonde. Was she tough. She said to call her Joan. Man, she could really shoot the bow."

"Hey, Slick, could she shoot it?" says Johnny Cool.

"Shut up," says Slick.

PHOTOJOHNNY AND SLICK STROLL ON CAMPUS PHOTONEUMANN, WHO SOMETIMES FINDS HIS STUDIES AMUSING, GETS A LAUGH IN CLASS PHOTOA BETTER INSIDE SHOT THAN MARAVICH, NEUMANN SOARS OVER MISSISSIPPI STATE
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)