Even when Eddie Johnson was confined to hospitals—his pro basketball career and private life on hold—his mind was racing at full speed. Fast Eddie. Thoughts came to him as if shot from a cannon. So fast. One of the quickest players and best guards in the NBA, Johnson had, in effect, run and run until he could run no more. "Quite often you can see by the way a guy plays that that's also the way he lives," says Michael Gearon, president of the Atlanta Hawks, for whom the 26-year-old Johnson has twice been an All-Star. "That was Eddie." Speed was the one constant in Fast Eddie's life. "I was young and I wanted to do everything fast," Johnson says. "Too fast." In the end, he learned that no matter how fast he ran, he couldn't outrun bad times.
"There were very few days during the four years that I coached him that he couldn't turn on the burners," former Hawk Coach Hubie Brown says. "In the games, no matter what his mental situation was, he could always produce to his potential." But gradually Johnson's "mental situation" overtook him, and two months ago, in the presence of his teammates, Johnson was taken against his will from the Hawks' practice floor by two policemen and was committed to the psychiatric ward of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital.
The exact cause of Johnson's mental distress is still a mystery, though he has been diagnosed as a clinical manic depressive, a person who suffers pathologic and recurring mood changes that usually develop for no clear external reason. Johnson isn't so sure that that's his problem, but he does admit that something he can't explain has been disrupting his life for some time. "When you've been idolized and built up all your life," he says, "it's hard for you to believe that you need to do the things that other human beings need to do—to cry and sometimes to have people put their arms around you and hold on. I do know this: The problems that affect me personally are a lot more excruciating than taking a last-second shot in a basketball game."
Weirsdale (pop. 250) is one of those small central Florida communities that was built to serve orange grove workers. In the spring and summer the town is like a blast furnace and occasionally in winter the smudge pots are lit to protect the crop from the chill. Their inky effluence stung Johnson's eyes and burned his nostrils during the endless hours he played basketball with a homemade goal behind his family's cinder-block house. "My father was a common laborer," Johnson says. "He picked oranges and worked in the watermelon fields. I thought I had the basics that you need to be happy. I didn't know we were considered poor until I started playing basketball."
The oldest of five children, Johnson often baby-sat for his sisters and brothers, one of whom—youngest brother Frank—was a star at Wake Forest and the first-round draft choice of the Washington Bullets last June. "Ever since I've been small, people have had great expectations for me," Eddie says. He was one of the first blacks to attend a previously all-white grade school in Weirsdale and graduated 17th in his class of roughly 300 students at Lake Weir High. "I didn't think the black grade school I started out in was giving me the education I needed to survive in our society," he says. "I wanted to become socially involved in the middle class because you have to start in the middle to make any advance."
Johnson may have shown intelligence and ambition, but like his father, he believed in a good time. "I wouldn't call it a drinking problem," Eddie says of his father. "He worked hard in the field for six days, then one day a week he would celebrate. Under the circumstances, I can't blame him for the way he was."
Johnson enrolled at Auburn in 1973 and led the nation's freshmen in scoring with an average of 21.8 points per game, which also was tops in the Southeastern Conference—a first for a freshman. He was the most exciting player the SEC had seen since Pete Maravich was throwing 'em up at LSU. After having an 18-8 record in Johnson's sophomore season, Auburn—though loaded with such talented players as Mike Mitchell, now of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Stan Pietkiewicz, formerly of the San Diego Clippers and Dallas Mavericks—finished only 16-10 and 13-13 the next two years. Coach Bob Davis criticized Johnson publicly when things began to go sour. "He said I didn't want to play, that I had a bad attitude," Johnson recalls. "When things weren't going right, I was the one who would speak out. I felt the things I was saying were to the point and justified my speaking out, but I got ripped up pretty bad for it."
The Hawks selected Johnson in the third round in 1977, and although he didn't start right away, it was immediately evident that he'd be a star. "He was one of the few guys I've ever coached who could really turn you on," says Brown, who was fired last season. "He could do everything. From the first day, you could see he possessed incredible athletic talent. He was killing people in practice. He could not only make the big play, he could create it."
A regular by the end of his rookie season, Johnson averaged 16 points a game during his second year with Atlanta and started in the 1980 All-Star Game, scoring 22 points with six steals and seven assists. Last season he again started in the All-Star Game (16 points) and was the Hawks' most valuable player after averaging 19.1 points. But just as Johnson was nearing the pinnacle of his professional life, his personal life started to come apart. "I began to feel that I could dictate the game from my position," Johnson says. "I liked that feeling, but I only got it when I was playing basketball. I can control a lot out on that court that I can't control in the real world."
Johnson had always tended to attract an assortment of oddball friends and hangers-on, and in Atlanta he gradually encircled himself with what he would later describe as "leeches and snakes." Out on his own for the first time in his life, Fast Eddie seemed to make all the wrong decisions. "I'm a country boy, used to all the simple things in life," he says. "And all of a sudden I was in the city making it in the big time. You come into contact with a lot of people, and pretty soon you don't know who your friends are or why they want to get next to you. A lot of things are thrown at you, and when you're young it's hard to say no, especially when everybody's catering to your ego. You become a superficial person, caught up in a rat race that's hard to get out of."