This column appears on The Japan Times website.
Nomadic Neumann lived an incredible basketball life
By Ed Odeven
Johnny Neumann forged an unconventional path in life.
As a prep basketball phenom at Overton High School in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1960s, Neumann was recruited by UCLA’s John Wooden and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, coaching titans of powerhouse programs in that era. He had more than 400 college scholarship offers, but decided to attend the University of Mississippi, which wasn’t a powerhouse hoop program.
“I knew it was all football here,” Neumann told Sports Illustrated in 1971, “but I talked with Coach (Robert ‘Cob’) 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.”
It was a challenge he was up for. Neumann led the Ole Miss freshman squad to a 25-1 record in 1969-70, scoring 38.4 points a game at a time when the NCAA didn’t permit freshman to play varsity sports.
As a sophomore, “Johnny Reb,” as he was dubbed during his college days, sought to emulate former Louisiana State star Pistol Pete Maravich’s scoring prowess from the three previous seasons (43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 points per game, which were NCAA-leading totals each time; Maravich passed away in 1988 at age 40). Neumann came close, averaging an astounding 40.1 ppg, including a 63-point outburst against LSU, and receiving First Team All-American honors.
Blessed with soft hands, great court vision, incredible shooting touch and an omnipresent gunner’s mentality, Neumann, who was equally adept at shooting guard and small forward, piled up points at an astonishing rate before the advent of the 3-point arc in the college game.
Nobody has surpassed Neumann’s scoring average in the NCAA ranks since then.
In 1971, Neumann bolted for the American Basketball Association at age 19, citing his father’s health concerns after a heart attack as the reason. Granted a hardship clause, he was allowed to leave school early to play in the ABA. He received a five-year, $2 million contact to play for his hometown Memphis Tams. That was just the start. Neumann remained active in basketball for 40-plus years, playing in the ABA (for the Memphis Pros/Tams, Utah Stars, Virginia Squires, Indiana Pacers and Kentucky Colonels) until 1976, then on to the NBA: Buffalo Braves, Los Angeles Lakers and Pacers until ’78. His top ABA season: 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 1972-73 for Memphis. All told, he averaged 13.2 points in his ABA and NBA years.
“Things came so easily to me,” Neumann told Newsweek in 2014, “that I didn’t feel the need to work any harder. God blessed me, but I squandered all of that talent.”
Then he played in Italy for Gabetti Cantu and in Germany.
In recent days, remembrances of his noteworthy career and life have made the rounds in hoop circles spanning the globe. Neumann died of brain cancer on April 23 at age 68 in Oxford, Mississippi, the university town, where a public memorial service was held on Monday. (His wife, Liliana, and his children were among those in attendance.) He died just days before Overton High’s Class of 1969 50th anniversary festivities.
Neumann, who stood 198 cm, was one of the most high-profile figures to ever work in Japanese basketball. Heck, the same was true in most of the nearly nations he worked in.
Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport last week described him as a “whimsical guard.” While with Cantu, the paper chronicled that he was “one of the foreigners … with the greatest vision of the game.” He posted averages of 18.7 points and 3.4 assists in the 1978-79 season while also earning the delightful moniker “Cavallo Pazzo” (Crazy Horse). Cantu won the second-tier 1978-79 FIBA European Cup Winners’ Cup, with Neumann and American teammate Dave Batton both scoring a game-best 20 points in the final.
The 2015 M-Club Alumni Hall of Fame inductee got his start in coaching as a player/assistant coach for the Cologne-based BSC Saturn Köln in the German League in 1979. His last high-profile gig: guiding the Romania national team from 2010-12.
After that, he returned to the United States and worked as a car salesman before heading back to Oxford, Mississippi, in 2013 to complete his college studies.
“It was the only thing I hadn’t accomplished,” he said after finishing his degree.
Forty-five years after he had left Ole Miss for the pros, Neumann wore a cap and gown in May 2016 and received his diploma. He earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies with minors in journalism, recreation administration and legal studies.
“Getting my degree is the biggest achievement that I’ve ever had in my life,” Neumann said at the time in “The Rebel,” a documentary about his life.