This Hoop Scoop column appeared in The Japan Times in May 2019, days after Johnny Neumann passed away in late April.
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 freshmen 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.
It was a fitting bookend to a life in the fast lane, one filled with multiple marriages, multiple divorces and seemingly no roots.
“I blew a lot of my money because I was getting it so easy and I thought it would last forever,” he told Newsweek.
Bob Yancey, who coached Neumann from seventh grade until 11th grade in Memphis, regretted that Neumann never fulfilled his true potential as a player.
“Johnny was a legend,” Yancey told the Columbia (Tennessee) Daily Herald in 2017. “If he’d taken care of himself and not just been a wild man, he could have been a legend.”
Last week, former Ole Miss teammate Steve Farese said on “The Geoff Calkins Show” on ESPN radio in Memphis that Neumann “could handle the ball with anyone and he was a lights-out shooter.”
Writer Christopher Ludwig of SB Nation’s Red Cup Rebellion website, penned a story about Neumann after his death. He described what it was like to be Neumann’s classmate during Johnny Reb’s second go-round at the school — at an age when he was old enough to be the grandfather of most of his fellow students.
“I had the pleasure of sharing a few recreation administration classes with him,” Ludwig wrote. “He always sat up front, eager and ready to learn, and loved to regale us with stories of his time coaching in various countries.
“He implored us all not to make the mistakes that he did in his youth, as he recounted how his arrogance and selfishness alienated his teammates and affected his relationships. He laughed louder at our professor’s bad jokes than anyone else.”
Ludwig capped his piece with this great line: “You have to think that he and ‘Pistol Pete’ are finally going to go at each other one-on-one now.”
Near the beginning of his M-Club Hall of Fame speech, Neumann said, “I was able to do just about anything on a basketball court. I was tremendously gifted as player and as a coach. I was the No. 2 high school basketball player in the nation, and I chose to come to the little town of Ole Miss and it was the greatest experience I ever had. The problem was I had to leave too early…”
An unlikely path to Japan
In July 2007, U.S. junior college hoops coaching icon Howie Landa was hired as the first bench boss in Rizing Fukuoka history. But Landa, then 75, never wound up coaching a game for the bj-league expansion club. Before the season started he decided to remain in the United States to take care of his wife, who was ill at the time.
Then a funny thing happened in the run-up to the 2007-08 season: An email from Neumann, who called himself John at the time, arrived in The Japan Times sports department’s inbox. He introduced himself, summarized his coaching credentials and attached his resume to the letter. He said that he was looking for a new coaching opportunity.
I forwarded the email to the bj-league office.
Neumann was hired to coach the Rizing in August 2007.
“My goal is to make the other team’s coach think and react,” he said before the team’s first-ever game.
And the rest is history. Neumann did a masterful job in leading Fukuoka that season. The Rizing steadily improved as the season progressed, finishing 20-24 overall. He was named the 2007-08 bj-league Coach of the Year.
“It is a great honor to receive this award,” Neumann said at the time. “It has been a great thrill coaching this team when everyone thought we would give up. Through our faith in each other and playing team basketball, we have been able to overcome many things this year.”
Collecting top coaching honors was nothing new for Neumann. It was a defining trait of his coaching career.
While coaching the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association’s Maine Lumberjacks, Neumann was the runner-up to 1982-83 Coach of the Year George Karl. (In March 1983, the Lumberjacks moved to Massachusetts and became known as the Bay State Bombardiers, and Neumann led them for one more season. They played their home games at Brockton High School Gymnasium. His replacement? Hall of Fame center Dave Cowens.)
Guiding the Belgium League’s B.C. Binet-Courtage Verviers, he garnered the circuit’s top coach award in the 1986-87 campaign.
Leading PAOK in the Greek League, he collected the 1988-89 Coach of the Year honors.
Running the show in the now-defunct Global Basketball Association for the Louisville Shooters, Neumann’s club rang up 22 straight home victories in the 1991-92 campaign before the league folded due to financial problems.
In Cyprus, the Neumann-piloted Pezoporikos squad claimed the 1993-94 league title, and he won his first of back-to-back Coach of the Year awards there. His peripatetic career continued with the International Basketball Association’s Youngstown (Ohio) Hawks from 1998-2000, while winning the Coach of the Year award in his first year there.
After his IBA stint, he went to the Kuwaiti League in 2000, and also began overseeing the Lebanon national team the next year. In 2002, Neumann successfully steered Lebanon through qualifying en route to its first FIBA World Championship appearance.
The next year, his coaching odyssey took him to Saudi Arabia. As Al Hilal’s bench boss, he nabbed 2003-04 Coach of the Year accolades, then commanded another Saudi club, Al Ittihad, to the 2004-05 league title.
A year before his move to Fukuoka, Neumann guided the Zhejiang Guanghsa Lions to 13 wins in 14 games and the NBL title to earn promotion to the Chinese Basketball Association, the nation’s top-flight league.
Lasting impressions in Japan
During his three seasons coaching in the bj-league, Neumann’s Rizing and Five Arrows squads mirrored his bold personality: high-energy teams that employed a run-and-gun offense reminiscent of the high-flying ABA games of the early ’70s.
Former Fukuoka guard Akitomo Takeno began his pro career playing for Neumann in the 2007-08 season. Looking back on his rookie campaign, Takeno admitted that Neumann’s influence on his career was profound.
“I really appreciate him, because he let me play,” the Nishinomiya Storks assistant coach told Hoop Scoop, “even though I (had) just graduated college. … But at the same time, he taught me how to play basketball as a team in the pros.”
In particular, Takeno gained valuable skills by learning one of Neumann’s shooting drills, which he called “Lakers shooting.” The sequence involves one player shooting continuously for one minute from various spots on the floor without stopping.
“This is very good for shooting skills and also conditioning,” he explained. “Now I’m an assistant coach and I do it for my players. Thank you and rest in peace.”
Another ex-Rizing guard, Kazuyuki Nakagawa, recalled Neumann’s direct manner of speaking to players. And after previously playing in the relaunched American Basketball Association (Harlem Strong Dogs) and USBL (Brooklyn Kings), Nakagawa was already familiar with American-style coaching.
Then in January 2008, Nakagawa arrived in Fukuoka to join his new team. He was dealing with a knee injury at the time, and it produced an awkward introduction.
“What do you come here for with an injury?” Nakagawa recalled his coach saying.
Years later, Nakagawa described Neumann as a great coach, adding that his passing is “sudden, sad news, and I was very shocked.”
Even though he ran the Rizing with an iron-tight grip, Neumann commanded respect from the players.
“His autocratic side was strong, but trust from his players was very high,” said Nakagawa, who recalled teammates Michael Parker, Josh Peppers, Michael Gardener and Jeffrey Price, among others, laughing while doing their “Angry Neumann” impersonations on one road trip.
“That’s one of the pleasant memories of my career,” he revealed.
Rebounding maestro Gordon James, who played under Neumann at Takamatsu, called him “a fighter, very intense.”
Current Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka general manager Jun Nakanishi, a guard on the team that first season who suffered a season-ending knee injury early on and served as Neumann’s translator, tweeted, “Thank you coach. You have accomplished a lot for our club in our first year as an expansion team. Rest in peace.”
Like Neumann, Peppers had grown up in Memphis. The Whitehaven High School graduate started his pro career with the Rizing in 2007 and has played for several pro teams here since.
Reacting to the news of Neumann’s passing, the University of Central Florida alum said this: “I’m sure players all around the world that have played for him will tell you that he’s a coach that you will never forget.”
Neumann was always locked in as a game unfolded, always looking for an edge.
Opponents always noticed this.
Just as veteran power forward Reggie Warren, who joined the Five Arrows in 2006. He has spent most of the past 13 years playing for various pro teams in Japan (he suited up for the renamed Kagawa Five Arrows this season) and competed against Neumann’s Fukuoka squad during its epic playoff upset in Takamatsu in April 2008.
“I loved his style of play,” Warren admitted in an interview last week. “I actually wanted to play for him and we tried to make it happen a couple of times because he wanted me to play for him as well. His style was more pressure defensive traps and full-court press to speed you up because he wanted to get (back) on offense and get shots up.”
Warren, of course, can’t forget his team getting blown out at home in the playoffs, falling 112-94 to the Rizing. Two of Neumann’s signature trademarks were on display that game: Fukuoka canned 11 of 20 3-pointers and collected 20 steals.
“I remember I was shooting free throws because I had gotten fouled in the post going one-on-one, which they were supposed to be double teaming from George Leach’s man,” Warren said. “The crowd got quiet while I was at the free-throw line and Coach Neumann yells out loud, ‘I told you guys double team Reggie. Let Leach do whatever he wants. Don’t guard him.’
“I had never heard a coach speak like that during the game! Sure enough they let George go 0-for-however many shots he took at the high-post area. And they got a huge upset victory. At that moment I was like, ‘I want to play for him.’ He had passion and was direct and honest from my viewpoint.”
What else Neumann made so distinct during his run as a sideline supervisor in the 1980s, ’90s and well into 21st century, including a stint as a high school assistant coach at South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi, in the 2016-17 school year.
“Johnny Neumann was a man of endless stories and experiences,” said Peppers, who starred for the Koshigaya Alphas in the B. League’s third division this season.
“Daily he would come to practice telling stories about his past, dating back to when he was just a kid in Memphis making history till his years in the ABA/NBA,” Peppers pointed out. “Father Time it seemed, telling how he was the first millionaire basketball player, and how averaging crazy amounts of points without a 3-point line all seemed impossible until we learned that it was all true. He was definitely a very talented basketball player. His attitude and the way he carried himself showed just that.
“His coaching style was simple and gave players the freedom to be who they are, within a structure. He definitely wouldn’t hold back when he felt he needed to speak up about anything — no matter the place or time, coach spoke his mind.”
Retired forward Ryan Blackwell, who played for the Sendai 89ers and Osaka Evessa during Neumann’s years in Japan, considered the late coach a gifted communicator.
“John had a good sense of humor and always had great stories from his playing days, so it was always fun when I saw him,” said Blackwell, now a high school coach in upstate New York. “He was always honest and real.”
Pro ball memories
From the ABA to the NBA to the CBA and beyond, ex-teammates, former rivals and old coaching foes traveled to the backroads of their minds to dust off ol’ Neumann tales.
Former Utah Stars teammate Willie Wise said this: “He was a free spirit and a great player. Needed to be reined in a lot, but had a good heart and was used to being the ‘main man’ in college, but when he came to us with the Utah Stars, he was coming off the bench and it humbled him, however, he accepted it and became a great contributor.”
Ex-NBA coach Don Casey offered: “My remembrances, hard worker, great scorer from the elbow area, excellent approach to the game and what it took to be part of it. Superb college player.”
Former Pacers teammate Bob Netolicky recalled a humorous moment in team history that involved his pal Neumann.
“Of the many stories I could tell you, one really stands out,” he stated. “(Indiana coach) Slick (Leonard) had not been playing him very much. About the middle of the second quarter Slick yelled, ‘Johnny, go in for Kevin (Joyce).’ He jumped up, tore off his warm-ups, and ran down to the scorer’s table. One slight problem, he had forgotten to put on his shorts, so here he is standing at the scorer’s table in his jersey and jockstrap. All of us almost passed out laughing.”
Len Elmore, another former Indy teammate summed up Neumann this way: “Johnny was a gregarious guy. Unfortunately, he constantly rebelled at authority. He was a hard worker with a high basketball IQ and very confident in his skill set, which was shooting/scoring and playmaking. He was special … no doubt about it.”
Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson declared that “Johnny was a free thinker. He liked to think out of the box.”
The men matched wits in the CBA in the early years of their nascent coaching careers.
The future Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers mastermind remembered how Neumann’s innovative defenses caused fits for his team.
“His Bay State team played a 1-2-1-1 three-quarter court zone (defense) — diamond and one — that had one of the Jones brothers (Charles, who made his NBA debut in 1984 and retired in 1998) in back protecting the lane. It was effective,” Jackson told Hoop Scoop. “”He also liked a free-form offensive attack. Our team, the Albany Patroons, had to struggle to win versus that team.”
For the Zen Master, Neumann’s off-court antics were also unforgettable.
“Johnny was difficult for his owner,” Jackson noted. “His erratic behavior prompted a drug test in New Jersey. The test came back positive for marijuana. He was asked about it and he said he was so nervous about traveling from NYC to New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge that he smoked a joint to ease his nerves. The info came from the commissioner’s office and I thought it fit something Johnny would do.”
Neumann’s deep appreciation for the history of the game and its characters was apparent over the years. We conversed countless times, especially by email, about the game’s biggest icons and other basketball news of the day.
His emails enlivened my day many times and helped strengthen my appreciation for the game.
For instance, after coaching legend Pete Newell died in November 2008, Neumann reacted to his passing this way: “Pete was a great guy and knew so many things about basketball and life. He has been a very positive and great person that devoted his life to helping young players and coaches like myself. I will remember him with great memories and I pray and wish his family all the best. He was a great person that loved life and the game of basketball with all his heart.”
Yes, he also loved the game with all his heart.
And in the end Johnny Neumann made his biggest impact off the court at Ole Miss, setting a great example for everyone: You’re never too old to get an education or complete an important goal.