Though that story perhaps unfairly painted all NBA players with the same brush, there's little question that cocaine had become a problem on the Hawks. Although Johnson insists the estimate of 75% is a gross distortion, he concedes that he had become a frequent user of cocaine himself. "When I started making money," he says, "I felt I could afford some. I partied a little extensively, but I wasn't abusing it. The whole idea of me abusing drugs is outlandish. The problems I've had have nothing to do with drugs. I wasn't free-basing. Nobody ever saw me free-base. I was scared to free-base because I understood the seriousness of it."
If Johnson understood, it was because he'd seen what it had done to former teammate Terry Furlow, who had been traded to the Utah Jazz. Furlow, then 25, died in a car accident in the spring of 1980, and later traces of several different drugs were found in Furlow's body. "My best friend free-based," Johnson says. "He did a lot of things I didn't want him to do. I tried to get him to change, but Terry felt like he could conquer anything. When he died it was a blow to me. He was like the big brother I had never had."
That September Johnson was discharged from Grady and almost immediately got married to Diana Raciz of Pittsburgh, once again going against the advice of practically everyone close to him. "My personal reaction was that he was rushing into something on the rebound," says Gearon. But Johnson insists that the marriage was the one thing he could always count on, and this week Diana is expected to give birth to the Johnsons' first child.
During his stay in jail, Johnson had been diagnosed by Dr. Baccus as suffering from manic depression. The cause of this disorder is unknown, and it is generally treated by oral doses of lithium carbonate, the amount of which depends on the natural level of lithium in the patient's bloodstream and the severity of the mood swings. "I was up all the time," Johnson says. "I was always thinking about things, but I never got anything accomplished. The lithium slowed me down so I could concentrate on one thing at a time." But Johnson isn't completely convinced that manic depression is his problem. (In fact, psychiatrists say that the "high" of a manic depressive is strikingly similar to the feelings of exaggerated confidence a regular cocaine user will develop.) "I still don't know what manic depression is," Johnson says. "That's their diagnosis. I just take the medicine the doctors prescribe." Johnson takes three tablets of lithium carbonate daily, but he does it grudgingly. "It's become a pride thing with him," Manton says. "He doesn't want to think that he's not as normal as other men."
Had Johnson been a lesser player, he probably wouldn't be with the Hawks or any other NBA team today. "When we first saw this kind of behavior," says Kasten, "I said to Mike, 'Let's start thinking in another direction because I don't know if he can ever come back.' " But Gearon stuck by his troubled star, and Johnson responded with his second successive All-Star season. "We had a player with a problem," says Kasten. "Some teams trade those players. I think last year vindicated us, and Mike in particular, because we got an All-Star back."
"I think they've dealt with him with as much compassion as possible," says Tom McMillen, a backup forward for the Hawks. "More so than most teams in the league. But if you look at it in business terms, Eddie is as valuable to [owner] Ted Turner as a transponder on one of his satellites." Among Turner's many holdings are a television superstation and the Cable News Network.
Sometime last season, when things appeared to be going smoothly for him both on and off the court, Johnson of his own accord stopped taking the lithium tablets and soon began to experience the wild mood swings characteristic of manic depression. It seemed a reckless decision, but Johnson believed he no longer needed the medication. "I didn't know why I was taking it," he says. "Besides, I was feeling kind of tired during games, so I was ready to try anything."
Going off lithium cold turkey proved to be a disaster. By mid-July the Hawks were aware that Johnson's erratic behavior had resumed, and though they tried to keep the situation quiet, it became apparent to the media that something was wrong when Johnson called The Atlanta Constitution one night to announce that he was going to be traded to Los Angeles. He was persuaded to submit to treatment at a local hospital. When the Hawks' training camp opened in October, Johnson went directly from the hospital to the Hawks' first team meeting. There he became disruptive and was hustled away by Kasten. "Everybody thought it was just the drugs," says Atlanta Center Tree Rollins, a distant cousin of Johnson's. "Nobody looked beyond that."
Johnson's condition came as a shock to Kevin Loughery, the Hawks' new coach. "He always played so well it was hard for me to believe he had as many problems as he had," says Loughery, who coached the New Jersey Nets until last season. "I had anticipated he would be ready to go from Day One. At that meeting that first day, he was really up to start practicing."
Three days later Johnson took part in his first practice at the Cobb County Civic Center, and he was indeed up. As the Hawks walked through their offense, Johnson fought his way through picks as if in a game and rebuked his teammates for mistakes. Once he unaccountably left the floor to sit in the stands and play with a child. Another time he stood on the sidelines jumping rope, oblivious to what was going on out on the court. Before leaving the gym that night, he explained his behavior by saying that his mother had been sick and that he had been looking after her. Even now Johnson refuses to accept that he did anything wrong. "I don't know what I did," he says. "I'm just a demanding person. A couple of guys weren't doing their jobs, so I said something, which is the job of the coaches." Loughery calls it "the toughest situation I've had with a player" in the 10 seasons he has been coaching.