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.