Blinded By The Light

On the court, Eddie Johnson of the Atlanta Hawks is brilliant. Off it, his erratic behavior has raised dark questions that even he can't answer
December 07, 1981

Even when Eddie Johnson was confined to hospitals—his pro basketball career and private life on hold—his mind was racing at full speed. Fast Eddie. Thoughts came to him as if shot from a cannon. So fast. One of the quickest players and best guards in the NBA, Johnson had, in effect, run and run until he could run no more. "Quite often you can see by the way a guy plays that that's also the way he lives," says Michael Gearon, president of the Atlanta Hawks, for whom the 26-year-old Johnson has twice been an All-Star. "That was Eddie." Speed was the one constant in Fast Eddie's life. "I was young and I wanted to do everything fast," Johnson says. "Too fast." In the end, he learned that no matter how fast he ran, he couldn't outrun bad times.

"There were very few days during the four years that I coached him that he couldn't turn on the burners," former Hawk Coach Hubie Brown says. "In the games, no matter what his mental situation was, he could always produce to his potential." But gradually Johnson's "mental situation" overtook him, and two months ago, in the presence of his teammates, Johnson was taken against his will from the Hawks' practice floor by two policemen and was committed to the psychiatric ward of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital.

The exact cause of Johnson's mental distress is still a mystery, though he has been diagnosed as a clinical manic depressive, a person who suffers pathologic and recurring mood changes that usually develop for no clear external reason. Johnson isn't so sure that that's his problem, but he does admit that something he can't explain has been disrupting his life for some time. "When you've been idolized and built up all your life," he says, "it's hard for you to believe that you need to do the things that other human beings need to do—to cry and sometimes to have people put their arms around you and hold on. I do know this: The problems that affect me personally are a lot more excruciating than taking a last-second shot in a basketball game."

Weirsdale (pop. 250) is one of those small central Florida communities that was built to serve orange grove workers. In the spring and summer the town is like a blast furnace and occasionally in winter the smudge pots are lit to protect the crop from the chill. Their inky effluence stung Johnson's eyes and burned his nostrils during the endless hours he played basketball with a homemade goal behind his family's cinder-block house. "My father was a common laborer," Johnson says. "He picked oranges and worked in the watermelon fields. I thought I had the basics that you need to be happy. I didn't know we were considered poor until I started playing basketball."

The oldest of five children, Johnson often baby-sat for his sisters and brothers, one of whom—youngest brother Frank—was a star at Wake Forest and the first-round draft choice of the Washington Bullets last June. "Ever since I've been small, people have had great expectations for me," Eddie says. He was one of the first blacks to attend a previously all-white grade school in Weirsdale and graduated 17th in his class of roughly 300 students at Lake Weir High. "I didn't think the black grade school I started out in was giving me the education I needed to survive in our society," he says. "I wanted to become socially involved in the middle class because you have to start in the middle to make any advance."

Johnson may have shown intelligence and ambition, but like his father, he believed in a good time. "I wouldn't call it a drinking problem," Eddie says of his father. "He worked hard in the field for six days, then one day a week he would celebrate. Under the circumstances, I can't blame him for the way he was."

Johnson enrolled at Auburn in 1973 and led the nation's freshmen in scoring with an average of 21.8 points per game, which also was tops in the Southeastern Conference—a first for a freshman. He was the most exciting player the SEC had seen since Pete Maravich was throwing 'em up at LSU. After having an 18-8 record in Johnson's sophomore season, Auburn—though loaded with such talented players as Mike Mitchell, now of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Stan Pietkiewicz, formerly of the San Diego Clippers and Dallas Mavericks—finished only 16-10 and 13-13 the next two years. Coach Bob Davis criticized Johnson publicly when things began to go sour. "He said I didn't want to play, that I had a bad attitude," Johnson recalls. "When things weren't going right, I was the one who would speak out. I felt the things I was saying were to the point and justified my speaking out, but I got ripped up pretty bad for it."

The Hawks selected Johnson in the third round in 1977, and although he didn't start right away, it was immediately evident that he'd be a star. "He was one of the few guys I've ever coached who could really turn you on," says Brown, who was fired last season. "He could do everything. From the first day, you could see he possessed incredible athletic talent. He was killing people in practice. He could not only make the big play, he could create it."

A regular by the end of his rookie season, Johnson averaged 16 points a game during his second year with Atlanta and started in the 1980 All-Star Game, scoring 22 points with six steals and seven assists. Last season he again started in the All-Star Game (16 points) and was the Hawks' most valuable player after averaging 19.1 points. But just as Johnson was nearing the pinnacle of his professional life, his personal life started to come apart. "I began to feel that I could dictate the game from my position," Johnson says. "I liked that feeling, but I only got it when I was playing basketball. I can control a lot out on that court that I can't control in the real world."

Johnson had always tended to attract an assortment of oddball friends and hangers-on, and in Atlanta he gradually encircled himself with what he would later describe as "leeches and snakes." Out on his own for the first time in his life, Fast Eddie seemed to make all the wrong decisions. "I'm a country boy, used to all the simple things in life," he says. "And all of a sudden I was in the city making it in the big time. You come into contact with a lot of people, and pretty soon you don't know who your friends are or why they want to get next to you. A lot of things are thrown at you, and when you're young it's hard to say no, especially when everybody's catering to your ego. You become a superficial person, caught up in a rat race that's hard to get out of."

It would be easy to write off Johnson's behavior as that of a rube, but he won't buy it. "The things that happened to me happened not because I was influenced by anybody," he says, "but because I wanted to do them. I was just curious. I went around with the wrong people, and it caught up with me."

Bobby Pritchett, an assistant coach at Auburn when Johnson was there, believes that Johnson's choice of friends indicates a fundamental insecurity. "It's hard to make a hundred thousand dollars a year and run around with people who are unemployed," Pritchett says, referring to the guys Johnson was inclined to hang out with. "You have to go your way and let them go theirs. Eddie wants to be a regular guy and be accepted."

One of the easiest ways to gain acceptance in Johnson's new crowd was to use drugs—particularly cocaine—as a social equalizer. He had first used cocaine in college. "After I did it once, I really didn't think about it anymore," Johnson says. "But then I tried it again at another social function. It wasn't something that just came to me [in Atlanta]. I'd been doing it for some time."

The first indication that Johnson had serious difficulties in "the real world" came in the spring of 1979, when his alma mater set aside a day to honor him and invited him, Brown and Hawk teammate Armond Hill for a day of ceremonies in Auburn. At the banquet that evening, Johnson sat on the dais slumped forward in his seat. During a speech that was largely a tribute. Brown articulated what many of Johnson's friends had been thinking for a long time: "Eddie is going to have to decide between his social life and his occupation. [He] has the tools to be one of the greatest players in the league. The only person standing in his way is Eddie Johnson."

Following the 1979-80 season, his first as an All-Star, Johnson made news in June by jumping off a second-story apartment house balcony in College Park, Ga. and fleeing across a parking lot while two men fired shots at him. Johnson, who used his speed to escape unharmed and hail a police car, has always insisted he was merely "in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was at these chicks' house, and these guys busted in the door. I didn't know what was going on. I was just there. Then they started shooting at me."

According to Detective Sergeant E.S. Meares, who handled the case for the College Park Police Department, the two women had convictions on prostitution charges, and a man who had been in the apartment at the time of the shooting was a pimp. "He [the pimp] told us that Eddie had ripped off some drug dealers and apparently had beaten up the woman who had delivered the drugs," Meares says. "Then these two guys came looking for Eddie. That's pretty standard in a drug rip-off." Two men were arrested on allegations of aggravated assault, but Johnson wouldn't press charges. Meares says that during his investigation Johnson offered no help and, in fact, "lied to us repeatedly." Johnson denies all of Meares's statements and shrugs his shoulders when asked why he didn't press charges. "I just went back to the basic rule of survival," he says. "Keep your nose out of it. You don't go swimming in deep water if you're already having trouble walking in the shallow water."

About three weeks later, Johnson was arrested for possession of cocaine while driving a rental car in Atlanta. He had become embroiled in a dispute earlier that day with a woman realtor over a $1,000 cash down payment that he had made on a house in Atlanta; he apparently felt that the payment gave him the right to occupy the premises even though he hadn't closed on the property, or that he should get his $1,000 back. Meanwhile, someone at the Omni—presumably a member of the building's security staff, though no one will say exactly who—had called the police and told them that Johnson might have a gun, which he admits he had at one time—a 9mm Luger. "I thought I was one of the Untouchables," he says. The police stopped the car, made Johnson get out and drew their guns as they arrested him. Then they took him to jail, where he remained for three days. Johnson insisted that if there were drugs in the car, they weren't his. The charges were dropped because a search of the car had been illegal. Either the police didn't notice the gun or it wasn't in his possession.

Jack Manton, who has been Johnson's lawyer and agent the past three years, chose to leave Johnson in jail to protect him from himself. "When he's like that, putting him out where he couldn't receive protection would have been the most inhumane thing I could have done to Eddie," Manton says. It was while Johnson was in jail that he was first observed by Dr. Lloyd Baccus, an Atlanta psychiatrist who has worked with Johnson the last 16 months. It was Baccus who would recommend that Johnson be moved from his cell to a private psychiatric facility in nearby Cobb County, Ga., where he underwent therapy for nearly a week.

The day after Johnson had checked himself out of that facility—against the wishes of his friends—he was arrested for stealing a Porsche from a car dealer. "The guy thought I was going to buy a car," Johnson says. "He let me test-drive it, and I stayed a little longer than usual." The criminal charges were dropped, but it was clear that Johnson's behavior was becoming increasingly erratic. At the urging of Baccus, Johnson checked into Grady for observation and treatment.

In August of that year, 1980, the Los Angeles Times published a story indicating that the use of cocaine—even in its most potent form, called free-base—had become widespread among NBA players. The article dealt in few specifics, but one notable exception was the publication of estimates of the percentage of players who used cocaine. The article said Gearon figured that as many as half the players in the league may use coke and that perhaps 10% of them may use free-base, which entails smoking a concentrated and crystallized form of the drug whose preparation is especially dangerous—as it was for comedian Richard Pryor, who almost died in what police in California maintain was a free-base-induced fire last year. Atlanta General Manager Stan Kasten was cited as putting the user number at 75%, thereby setting the high range for the article. Kasten's figure was quoted often in the months that followed and threw a scare into the league's hierarchy and fans. "I believe we are on the verge of an epidemic of free-base," Gearon said in the article. Kasten, who wasn't quoted, later claimed the article misrepresented what he had said and considered suing. He never followed up.

Though that story perhaps unfairly painted all NBA players with the same brush, there's little question that cocaine had become a problem on the Hawks. Although Johnson insists the estimate of 75% is a gross distortion, he concedes that he had become a frequent user of cocaine himself. "When I started making money," he says, "I felt I could afford some. I partied a little extensively, but I wasn't abusing it. The whole idea of me abusing drugs is outlandish. The problems I've had have nothing to do with drugs. I wasn't free-basing. Nobody ever saw me free-base. I was scared to free-base because I understood the seriousness of it."

If Johnson understood, it was because he'd seen what it had done to former teammate Terry Furlow, who had been traded to the Utah Jazz. Furlow, then 25, died in a car accident in the spring of 1980, and later traces of several different drugs were found in Furlow's body. "My best friend free-based," Johnson says. "He did a lot of things I didn't want him to do. I tried to get him to change, but Terry felt like he could conquer anything. When he died it was a blow to me. He was like the big brother I had never had."

That September Johnson was discharged from Grady and almost immediately got married to Diana Raciz of Pittsburgh, once again going against the advice of practically everyone close to him. "My personal reaction was that he was rushing into something on the rebound," says Gearon. But Johnson insists that the marriage was the one thing he could always count on, and this week Diana is expected to give birth to the Johnsons' first child.

During his stay in jail, Johnson had been diagnosed by Dr. Baccus as suffering from manic depression. The cause of this disorder is unknown, and it is generally treated by oral doses of lithium carbonate, the amount of which depends on the natural level of lithium in the patient's bloodstream and the severity of the mood swings. "I was up all the time," Johnson says. "I was always thinking about things, but I never got anything accomplished. The lithium slowed me down so I could concentrate on one thing at a time." But Johnson isn't completely convinced that manic depression is his problem. (In fact, psychiatrists say that the "high" of a manic depressive is strikingly similar to the feelings of exaggerated confidence a regular cocaine user will develop.) "I still don't know what manic depression is," Johnson says. "That's their diagnosis. I just take the medicine the doctors prescribe." Johnson takes three tablets of lithium carbonate daily, but he does it grudgingly. "It's become a pride thing with him," Manton says. "He doesn't want to think that he's not as normal as other men."

Had Johnson been a lesser player, he probably wouldn't be with the Hawks or any other NBA team today. "When we first saw this kind of behavior," says Kasten, "I said to Mike, 'Let's start thinking in another direction because I don't know if he can ever come back.' " But Gearon stuck by his troubled star, and Johnson responded with his second successive All-Star season. "We had a player with a problem," says Kasten. "Some teams trade those players. I think last year vindicated us, and Mike in particular, because we got an All-Star back."

"I think they've dealt with him with as much compassion as possible," says Tom McMillen, a backup forward for the Hawks. "More so than most teams in the league. But if you look at it in business terms, Eddie is as valuable to [owner] Ted Turner as a transponder on one of his satellites." Among Turner's many holdings are a television superstation and the Cable News Network.

Sometime last season, when things appeared to be going smoothly for him both on and off the court, Johnson of his own accord stopped taking the lithium tablets and soon began to experience the wild mood swings characteristic of manic depression. It seemed a reckless decision, but Johnson believed he no longer needed the medication. "I didn't know why I was taking it," he says. "Besides, I was feeling kind of tired during games, so I was ready to try anything."

Going off lithium cold turkey proved to be a disaster. By mid-July the Hawks were aware that Johnson's erratic behavior had resumed, and though they tried to keep the situation quiet, it became apparent to the media that something was wrong when Johnson called The Atlanta Constitution one night to announce that he was going to be traded to Los Angeles. He was persuaded to submit to treatment at a local hospital. When the Hawks' training camp opened in October, Johnson went directly from the hospital to the Hawks' first team meeting. There he became disruptive and was hustled away by Kasten. "Everybody thought it was just the drugs," says Atlanta Center Tree Rollins, a distant cousin of Johnson's. "Nobody looked beyond that."

Johnson's condition came as a shock to Kevin Loughery, the Hawks' new coach. "He always played so well it was hard for me to believe he had as many problems as he had," says Loughery, who coached the New Jersey Nets until last season. "I had anticipated he would be ready to go from Day One. At that meeting that first day, he was really up to start practicing."

Three days later Johnson took part in his first practice at the Cobb County Civic Center, and he was indeed up. As the Hawks walked through their offense, Johnson fought his way through picks as if in a game and rebuked his teammates for mistakes. Once he unaccountably left the floor to sit in the stands and play with a child. Another time he stood on the sidelines jumping rope, oblivious to what was going on out on the court. Before leaving the gym that night, he explained his behavior by saying that his mother had been sick and that he had been looking after her. Even now Johnson refuses to accept that he did anything wrong. "I don't know what I did," he says. "I'm just a demanding person. A couple of guys weren't doing their jobs, so I said something, which is the job of the coaches." Loughery calls it "the toughest situation I've had with a player" in the 10 seasons he has been coaching.

Gearon and Kasten both became so alarmed by Johnson's behavior that they called Baccus and suggested he see Johnson. The next day Baccus signed a commitment order to have Johnson placed in Grady. Practice was called off that day only after the team had shown up at the Civic Center, so when Johnson was picked up—in Georgia commitment papers are served by police in the form of an arrest warrant—it was done in front of his teammates. When one of the policemen began baiting Johnson, he resisted. "I thought they were crazy or something," Johnson says. "One of them said he was going to make me go somewhere, and I said, 'You ain't making me go nowhere.' " When Johnson began to scuffle with the policemen. Center Steve Hawes came to his teammate's aid, and he was almost arrested, too.

Johnson was taken away for another week's confinement and he's still bitter about the way the incident was handled. "They were behind it," he says, referring to Gearon and Kasten. "Who are they to make those kinds of decisions? I felt I had a legitimate gripe, but they felt that because I was upset I was manic. That's the way it's been all my life—people trying to make things easy for me. But it only makes things worse. It's easy for them to say what's right for me because they've never been in my situation."

Though Gearon is legally powerless to have anyone committed to a mental institution, he admits that he called Baccus. "It's easy to ignore something and not get help," Gearon says. "Somebody's got to get doctors there and make sure help is available. Sometimes you may have to do things that appear oppressive." Gearon says that whenever possible he consulted Johnson's wife and family before taking action. "He's a very complex guy," Gearon says. "I think I know a lot about him, and yet I'm not sure I know him well. I don't know how much is manic depression and how much is other emotional problems in his background."

To what extent those problems stem from a troubled family life is difficult to say. Frank Johnson steadfastly refuses to talk about his brother's problems.

The Hawks took Johnson off the suspended list on Nov. 21 after only three full practices with the team. After Atlanta's 94-92 overtime victory over Cleveland last week, a game in which Johnson scored 17 points and had six assists, Ted Turner burst into the locker room and said to Johnson, "Now we've just got to find something for you to do to keep busy in the summertime."

"Yeah," joked Fast Eddie later, "he suggested maybe I could work on his plantation."

The Hawks, meanwhile, had won five in a row before their 98-90 loss last Saturday to Boston, in which Johnson scored 15 points and played a good floor game. "I think in all honesty that Eddie is on trial," says Loughery. "His position with the club is slightly different than the other players'. But I don't foresee any more problems."

"What other business is there in which a guy can be exposed to the kind of personal scrutiny you have in professional basketball?" asks Gearon. "You're out there in your underwear with no place to hide. The fans feel that these guys are heroes and, because they're making a lot of money, that they shouldn't have problems like other people. But all the money and attention just make it more difficult for them to function. If they have a problem, it's harder for them to seek help."

The Hawks receive periodic reports on the lithium level in Johnson's blood, and though no one with the team will say whether his blood tests are also screened for other drugs, Gearon does say, rather astonishingly, "As a general matter, I think it would be a good idea for all athletes to be screened regularly."

Johnson is confident that his skills and his speed will bring him through whatever lies ahead. "People are fickle," he says. "When you're going through it, people don't care what happens to you. When you make it back, everybody's got a pat on the back for you. They say, 'Well, he can still play.' That's their cop-out. Well, I can still play. They can't take away my God-given talent to play basketball. I've been successful at that all my life. It's these other little obstacles that have derailed me from time to time."

PHOTO PHOTOJohnson's troubles with the law included an arrest in 1980 for possession of cocaine. PHOTOEddie and Diana are making room for the arrival of another member of the Johnson family. TWO PHOTOSBrown (above) told Eddie to get a grip on himself; Johnson provided Loughery his toughest moment as coach. PHOTOHawks' Kasten: "We had a player with a problem." PHOTOMcMillan feels Gearon (left) has shown compassion. PHOTOJohnson's return last week sparked the Hawks' overtime victory over the Cavaliers.

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Eagle (-2)
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