"A lot of big-time coaches are pretending they don't know me now," he says. "They know me real well. You're talking about plane tickets, offers, all that stuff. They're all so worried. They think I'm going to rat them out. I told them that I'm not like that."
As far as anyone at the University of Connecticut could tell, none of the basketball players there knew anybody in Paris. Or Rome. Or in Daytona Beach, for that matter. Nevertheless, one day in 1988 the phone bills came in, and there were calls to those places and to several dozen more, all of them charged to a credit card that belonged to someone on the Husky basketball staff. The bill came to almost $5,000. An investigation was launched in the simplest way possible—school officials began dialing some of the numbers on the bill. One of them was in Queens, New York. According to sources at Connecticut, Johnson answered the phone.
At the same time, officials at Villanova were making their own phone checks. A school credit card belonging to a Wildcat staff member had been charged for some $2,800 in calls. When Villanova investigators dialed some of the numbers, telephones rang in athletic dormitories all over the country.
One common denominator: Someone on each staff had recently talked to Johnson. He had called the basketball offices—collect, of course—and instead of simply accepting the charges, staff members put those charges on their institutional credit cards.
The Texas A&M report states that Johnson made 21 calls to various places in 1990 using telephone credit cards belonging to members of its staff. "According to Johnson," says the report, "he obtained the credit card numbers by hearing the coaches tell the operator what number to charge on those instances when Johnson called collect." Back then, there were a lot of coaches more than willing to accept telephone calls from Johnson.
The projects where Johnson grew up and still lives lie in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge in Long Island City. He attended Bryant High School. By the early 1980s he was coaching a YMCA youth basketball team called the Suns. He saw some of the best young players in the area, virtually children. One of them was Vern Fleming, now a guard with the Indiana Pacers, who attended Georgia, and it was through Fleming that Johnson first got a taste of bigger things.
"Rob was very helpful," says Evelyn Fleming, Vern's mother.
Johnson fast became someone to see if you were trying to get players out of New York. But it wasn't until his friend Gene Waldron, also from Long Island City, went to Syracuse in 1980 that Johnson became truly wired. Johnson was soon a rabid Orange fan, attending a number of games and even becoming a regular at Boeheim's practice sessions. Before long, it seemed, most everybody in New York thought Johnson was Syracuse's man in the city. Syracuse assistants turned up at a banquet for his YMCA league. Today, Johnson denies that he is anything more than an unusually enthusiastic Syracuse fan, but very few people in New York believe that.
"I've never been one to go behind anyone's back," says Ken Gershon, the basketball coach at Hillcrest High in Queens. "I'll say to Rob, 'If you tell me that you had nothing to do with Syracuse coming into my building and looking at my kids, you're full of———.' " In fact, former Brooklyn Tech coach Mark Fest-berg admits that four years ago Johnson impersonated Morgan in order to talk to Conrad McRae, Tech's 6'10" center. One day after that conversation, McRae skipped practice and sat with Johnson as Syracuse played North Carolina in the Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass. According to Johnson, the tickets were left for him by Boeheim. Two years ago, McRae enrolled at Syrcause. But on Nov. 19 the school ruled him ineligible to play while the NCAA investigated several charges, some of which involved contact between McRae and Johnson, whom they termed a representative of the school. On Thursday, the NCAA's eligibility committee denied McRae's appeal and ruled him ineligible to play at Syracuse, stating that the school had gained a substantial advantage in recruiting McRae when Johnson contacted the player during his junior year in high school, a violation of NCAA rules. (The next day New York Supreme Court Justice Parker Stone issued a restraining order allowing McRae to play until Dec. 23.)
"I just like Syracuse," says Johnson. "I like their program. It's ridiculous. Now, anytime any good player's walking around New York in an orange sweater, it's like, 'Rob Johnson got him that,' and it's not true. It's just that I like Syracuse. I like their program."