The upstart league and its barnstorming spirit suited Neumann much better than Ole Miss. The threads, the cars, the entourage—Neumann lived a life that would make Leon Spinks's seem derivative. Memphis was the first of seven pro teams in the U.S., and a raft more on the Continent, to gamble on Neumann's maddening potential and unpredictable ways.
Today Neumann doesn't want to talk about the past, which he considers distorted by the media's caricatures of him. "They said I was wild," he says. "I admit I was outspoken, and when I heard something wrong I would answer back. But I wasn't at all as the press described me. They couldn't criticize me as a player, because I was good. So they attacked me for driving a Ferrari. They thought I was arrogant because I was earning money." Of course, Neumann once knocked on the door of a Memphis sportswriter to show off a new car he had bought.
But Neumann doesn't want that stuff dredged up again, because the guy the Italian fans once called Crazy Horse is now a father and a coach. His first coaching job was as a player-coach in West Germany in '81. A year later he became coach of the CBA's Maine Lumberjacks, soon renamed the Bay State Bombardiers. "He has the ability of any coach in the NBA," says John Ligums, who owned the Maine/Bay State franchise. "Technically, fundamentally, he has a tremendous feel for the game. The problem with Johnny Neumann is, as a human being he's a slug. If you looked up the word 'irresponsible' in the dictionary, his picture would be next to it."
Ligums fired Neumann in the midst of the 1985 CBA playoffs. A few weeks after being let go, Neumann was on the phone to him, wondering if Ligums would recommend him for a coaching job elsewhere in the league. Only if you take and pass a drug test, Ligums said. Neumann, who denies the entire episode, said thanks, but no thanks—only to call back several weeks later and agree. When the test results came back, there wasn't a trace of heroin or a hint of cocaine. But the lab doctor found high concentrations of marijuana. Ligums phoned Neumann to get some sort of explanation.
"I was really nervous about taking the test," Neumann said then. "So I had a couple of joints to relax."
Neumann soon wended his way back to Europe, signing on as a coach in Belgium, where he met Christine, a devout Belgian girl who would become his third wife and bear their daughter, Leslie. But Neumann's father, never the same after that 1971 heart attack, was ailing, and before the season ended Johnny joined his parents near San Francisco, where his father died in 1987.
Johnny had been selling cars in the Bay Area for about a year when the call came. PAOK Salonika, one of Greece's two traditional powers, wanted him as their coach. And through nearly two seasons with PAOK, Neumann seemed a changed man. Voluble as ever from the bench, he nonetheless drew few technical fouls. PAOK's fans found him engaging, and management had no problem with his comportment. He faithfully gave God the credit after PAOK victories, of which there were plenty.
Then, last season, Neumann took his team to Yugoslavia for a game in the inter-European Korac Cup competition. By any account the work of the two officials, an Italian and a Soviet, was erratic. PAOK got hooked throughout the game. In overtime, Neumann, furious about a missed call, ran out and pushed the Italian referee to the floor. FIBA, basketball's international governing body, banned Neumann from coaching in international competition for two seasons.
"I was wrong," he said later. "I'll never do that again. But I think there'll never be a game called like that again. I make mistakes, but I go on from that."
Neumann is still in Greece, happily married and coaching the Pagrati team, although he is unable to lead them in international competition. He'll go on from that, but where?