High flyer with a low profile

First-rate talent cannot overcome Eddie Johnson's identity problem
January 05, 1976

Know why you haven't found stardom, Eddie Johnson? Why, after two years of whipping passes between your legs, playing airtight defense and scoring more than 20 points a game, your skills are a well-kept secret outside the Southeastern Conference? Man, it's your name that's holding you back. There are just too many Johnsons listed in the phone book and on other teams' rosters, ranging from UCLA star Marques Johnson to Wichita State's 61%-shooter Lynbert Johnson. You're caught in a crowd, Eddie.

And your name is not your only problem. You play basketball at Auburn, a football school with an identity crisis of its own. For more than 60 years the place was known as The Alabama Polytechnic Institute. To get rid of that awkward handle, they changed it to Auburn in 1960. Now nobody seems to know what state it's in. "I meet people who know we play against Alabama," says Johnson's coach, Bob Davis, "but very few realize that we live there, too."

To make matters worse, Auburn cannot decide which of three nicknames it likes best—Tigers (the original, but easily confused with LSU, Clemson, etc.), War Eagles (currently tops in popularity) or Plainsmen (the traditional favorite)—so it uses all three interchangeably. This puzzles fans and some reporters and has made Johnson's quest for national recognition even more difficult.

A 6'2", 175-pound junior guard from Weirsdale, Fla., Johnson long-jumped 23 feet, scored 32 points per game in basketball and received the outstanding student award as a high school senior. Returning home as an Auburn freshman to play against the University of Florida, Johnson remembered his high school lessons well enough to score 32 points in the first half. He beat Virginia Tech later that year with a basket at the buzzer, collected eight rebounds on half a dozen occasions and finished with a 21.8 scoring average.

That was an extraordinary freshman year, but Johnson went unnoticed. Could it have been because, in the only category in which he was nationally ranked (scoring), he finished several places behind John Johnson of the University of Denver?

With Auburn bigger and stronger in the frontcourt last year, Johnson turned his attention to leading the War Eagles' fast break. His assist total nearly doubled to 140, and his scoring held steady at 20.9 as Auburn (18-8) knocked off every team in the SEC at least once and went undefeated at home. Johnson also tied for first in balloting for the best defensive player in the conference and placed fourth in the nation in free-throw shooting with an .879 percentage. Any idea who was eighth? Right. Another guy named Johnson, from Morehead State.

So who noticed Eddie Johnson? Not the NIT selection committee. It ignored Auburn even after Johnson popped in 27 points in a late-season 76-70 upset of SEC co-champion Alabama. And the NCAA, on whose weekly lists of national leaders Johnson is a fixture, was befuddled when asked about him recently.

Caller: I would like some information on Eddie Johnson.

NCAA: Eddie Johnson? What school does he play for?

Caller: He is a junior at Auburn.

NCAA: Hmmm. Looks to me like he ought to be a senior this year.

Caller: No, he isn't. You might be thinking of some other Johnson. See if your records show that he was the highest scoring freshman in the country two years ago.

NCAA: In 1973-74? I'd say that Fly Williams was.

Caller: Nope. Fly was a sophomore then. He led the previous year.

NCAA: How about Adrian Dantley?

Caller: Dantley was a freshman, but averaged only 18.3. Johnson scored 21.8.

NCAA: (long pause) Hey, you're absolutely right about Johnson. Could have fooled me....

Johnson's biggest publicity break occurred last year when Louisiana State Coach Dale Brown called him "a hot dog" on regional TV after his 35-point performance had helped defeat LSU. Responding to taunts from a hostile crowd, Johnson had waved two fingers in the air after every basket—and there were plenty of them.

Ironically, the fiercely competitive player complete with cheetah speed and towering Afro whom opponents run up against on the playing floor scarcely resembles the gentle off-court Johnson. "I do get very excited during games," he says. "Ordinarily I keep my emotions inside. I don't like to trade insults with teammates—even good-naturedly—and I try to respect everybody around me. Am I a delicate person? Well, the guys on the team say I write like a girl." Indeed, Johnson's autographs look like wedding announcements.

Despite losses last week to Duke 85-74 and North Carolina State 79-74 that dropped Auburn's record to a disappointing 4-3, Johnson continues to perform with unnoticed excellence. He is again averaging more than 20 points and recently played perhaps the finest game of his career in the War Eagles' 79-78 victory at South Florida. Saddled with four fouls during most of the second half, Johnson nevertheless hit 13 of 19 shots, had five rebounds and seven assists, made two steals, blocked a shot and held South Florida's leading scorer to just two field goals.

Davis thinks he has detected similar talent in Eddie's younger brother Frank, a high-scoring six-foot high school senior. If Auburn recruits him, Johnson & Johnson could really powder some people next year.

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