Two famous basketball players, John Havlicek and Johnny Neumann, died this week. Both had Mississippi connections. The two also had starkly different approaches to the sport. Surely, lessons can be learned from their stories.
The great “Hondo” Havlicek, of Boston Celtics fame, died Thursday in Jupiter, Fla. He was 79. And Johnny Neumann, of Memphis and Ole Miss, a player of such potential greatness, died Tuesday night in Oxford of brain cancer. He was 68.
And I know what you are thinking. John Havlicek and Mississippi? What’s the connection?
Bailey Howell, of course. The two were teammates for four glorious Boston Celtics seasons (1966-1970) and remained good friends until Havlicek’s death. Both are members of the Naismith (international) Basketball Hall of Fame. They were part of NBA championship teams in 1968 and 1969.
“John was a real pro, a pro’s pro,” Howell said of Havlicek in a Friday telephone conversation. “He came to play every night. He could run, full-speed, all night. You always knew what you were getting with him, both offensively and defensively. There was never any half-stepping. He was as good a teammate as you could have, so focused and so driven.
“You know, John was not that great of a shooter when he came into the league, but he worked so hard at it he became a great shooter.”
In many ways Neumann was the basketball antithesis of Havlicek: so skilled, so gifted, such a great shooter and scorer. Truth is, he didn’t have to work at it all that hard. And, as it turned out, he didn’t.
“I was my own worst enemy,” Neumann once admitted in a film about his career.
A personal observation: I saw him play several times at Ole Miss and was thoroughly entertained, although honesty compels this observation: Neumann played no more defense than I did at the press table. He made only a few more passes.
Nevertheless, he was the show at Ole Miss during his two seasons there. He averaged 38.4 points a game leading the Ole Miss freshmen to a 25-1 record in 1968-69 when freshmen weren’t eligible to play for the varsity. As a sophomore, he averaged over 40 points a game, scoring 57 against Southern Miss, 60 against Baylor and 63 against LSU. Neumann never met a shot he didn’t like – or wouldn’t take.
He came into the SEC on the heels of Pistol Pete Maravich at LSU and comparisons between the two were inevitable and many. But Pete played three varsity seasons at LSU and Johnny Reb Neumann left after only one at Ole Miss.
Ashland lawyer Steve Farese was a teammate and friend of Neumann’s at Ole Miss.
“I may have been his only friend on the team, that’s for certain,” Farese told Geoff Caulkins of The Daily Memphian. “He didn’t stay in the dorm, he was late for practice, sometimes he didn’t come to practice. Johnny’s intention was to lead the nation in scoring, that’s what he was fixated on.”
And that’s what he did. And then he bolted for professional basketball and the Memphis Pros of the old ABA. At age 19, Neumann signed a five-year, $2 million contract. That’s $12.2 million in today’s money.
To say the least, Neumann was not wise with his money – though he made plenty of it. He bounced around the ABA and then the NBA for seven years and then played a couple years in Europe. No doubt, he could have used some of Havlicek’s sterling work ethic and some of his willingness to sacrifice most anything for his team.
His playing days over, Neumann became – of all things – a coach. His coaching career was a global odyssey – all over Europe, Japan, China, Kuwait, Israel, Romania and more. And here’s the thing: He was a successful coach.
He once told an interviewer from the Japan Times: “I was a bit of a jerk when I was a player, but I am a better coach because of the experience. I try to help these kids learn from what I did.”
After years as a basketball nomad, Neumann decided to come home. And he did, to Oxford and Ole Miss where he wanted to finish his college education.
“His goal was to be a basketball color commentator,” says Will Norton, Dean of the Ole Miss School of Journalism and New Media and often an adviser to Neumann. “John told me he had made both money mistakes and basketball mistakes, but that he wanted to make the most of the rest of his life.
“He was really repentant in the years I knew him. He was not arrogant at all.”
Neumann faced two and a half years of school work left to do at age 62. He had not entered a classroom in 43 years.
“He worked really hard at it,” Norton said. “He did his homework, participated in class. He got his degree and he had a B or better average. He had a goal and he achieved it.”
At 65, 47 years after he had first stepped on campus at Ole Miss, Neumann earned his bachelor’s degree in general studies with minors in journalism, recreation administration and legal studies.
“Getting my degree is the biggest achievement I’ve ever had in my life,” he said at the time.
Sadly, he never got the chance to really use it.
A public memorial service for Johnny Neumann will be held in The Pavilion Club at Ole Miss at 5:30 p.m. on Monday. The parking garage will open at 5 p.m.