Former Illini Eddie Johnson Remembers

Former Illini athletes still follow their college teams and share all the ups and downs the fans experience. They are permanently attached and proud of it. And present events can bring back lasting memories of days gone by. When Illinois had a chance to upend a #1 team, Illini and NBA star Eddie Johnson remembered a time when he helped slay Goliath.

Eddie Johnson played four years at Illinois before enjoying a long and highly successful NBA career. Among his college highlights was hitting the last second basket to defeat then #1 and eventual national champ Michigan State in the Assembly Hall.

Johnson's Illinois team could only enjoy the result for a couple days as Ohio State upset them to prevent their own ascension to #1. The Illini then went into a tailspin as starting guard Steve Lanter blew out his knee. MSU had the opposite destiny. Led by superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson, they used the loss to regroup.

"Magic always says we got them back in focus and helped them to do as well as they did," Johnson stated on WDWS radio recently.

Johnson still has great memories of his time at Illinois, and they get better with age. He forgets how the Assembly Hall used to be so quiet when small crowds were far away from the action and had little to cheer about.

"The guy who designed that building was 40 years ahead of his time. It is still one of the most impressive buildings. It's loud and it's impressive."

He always praises his coach Lou Henson in interviews.

"He is such an impressive guy. When people ask who was the best coach I've ever had, Coach Henson is always at the top. He's the guy that humbled me when I showed up there as an All-American, and he put me on the bench. Not many coaches would have done it.

"He actually questioned whether I was tough enough to play in the Big 10. He knew in the long run it wasn't gonna turn into a negative, it was gonna turn into a positive. I just worked on my game. I give him all the credit for what happened to me.

"He and his wife Mary are definitely good friends. He never took a summer vacation, but he took one to come to my wedding. That was a major accomplishment for Lou Henson."

Johnson has a busy schedule, but he makes time for his favorite college team.

"I'm obviously watching Illinois as much as I can. It was a huge victory for us the other night against Michigan State. I really like what I'm seeing. I think the cohesion is very good.

"I think (Demetri) McCamey is really elevating himself in the eyes of the next level. Not only with his ability to get in the paint, but then his ability to knock down big shots. And on top of that finding teammates.

"I think this year he's extremely unselfish for his teammates, and that's huge. Historically, if you go deep in the NCAA tourney, it's because of great point guards. Right now he's playing very well."

With all his years as a player and now an announcer for the Phoenix Suns, Johnson should have a good feel for McCamey's pro potential. Will he be a first round draft selection?

"With McCamey, as well as with a lot of guys on the college level, a lot will be based on his workouts. You can't hide. He's probably gonna have a tremendous number of workouts before the draft with NBA teams.

"He's gonna create his own path. Physically, and then his ability to see what he's seeing right now, he definitely has the tools to make it to the next level. There's no doubt about it."

Johnson keeps extremely busy with multiple activities.

"This is my 13th year with the Suns. When I initially started doing this, I was doing all 82 games. That got a little old, so now I'm doing about 41 games a year. And most of my games are at home. I have two road trips a year, 8 games, and that's it.

"I have a training academy back in Phoenix where I work out anyone from middle school kids to pro players during the course of the year, individual training. I have a 90 minute instructional video that fans can get for their youngsters.

"That's it. I'm just having fun. I'm putting my kids through college. My son goes to Fresno State, and my daughter goes to USC. People say, 'Why didn't you send your kids to Illinois?' Unfortunately, I have hot weather kids."

Johnson undoubtedly shares his shooting knowledge while training athletes.

"I've always been able to shoot. That's kind of my ticket. That and train. I can always stand still and do it. I'm blessed to still be able to work out about 2-3 miles a day on the treadmill. At a time when I lot of the guys I played with are not able to do the running and all that stuff, I'm still able to do it.

"I'm enjoying life. My wife and I met at Illinois, so there are still a lot of Illinois connections."

Former Illini star Deron Williams is playing a starring role with the Utah Jazz, and Johnson gets a front court view of all the top point guards in the League. Is Williams becoming the best in the business?

"He's definitely in that class. The point guard position in the NBA right now is very good. He's right there in the class with Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. Those five are probably our best point guards, the class of the position."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories