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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.