Eddie Johnson A Shining Example For Illini

The University of Illinois basketball team endured some lean times in the 1970's. Three different coaches struggled to return the Illini to prominence following the Slush Fund disaster of 1966. But it wasn't until 1979 that the Illini, led by Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith, returned to the national spotlight. Johnson returned to campus weekend to honor his jersey number.

A graduate of Chicago Westinghouse, Eddie Johnson played for Illinois from 1977 to 1981. Upon graduation, he was Illinois' all-time leading scorer with 1692 points, a 15.2 average over four seasons. He still ranks sixth on the career scoring chart. And he was tops in rebounding as well with 831, a number that now ranks fourth.

The 6'-8" star had a long and distinguished NBA career spanning 18 years from 1982 to 1999. He totaled more than 19,000 career points playing for Kansas City, Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Houston. Illinois coach Bruce Weber had him speak with his present players, reminding them that Johnson brought his best every day, something they should emulate.

Eddie spoke on WDWS radio prior to the Purdue game and expressed his joy in being honored by his school.

"I haven't been back since the All-Century team. Unfortunately for me, my work with the Phoenix Suns is corresponding with your season. It's always difficult to get back. But I definitely made room in my schedule this time to get back and enjoy what was probably the best years of my life."

Johnson explained his role with the Suns.

"I'm doing what I've always done since I retired, doing TV for the Phoenix Suns. I'm enjoying it very much. Over the years, I've wound down my schedule a little bit. I used to do all 82 games, but now I just do about 40 games a year. I'm putting my interests in other things."

He was reminded how he is one of several Illini who now have successful careers in broadcasting.

"It goes to show you we were taught well. I know Lou Henson taught me well. I had to listen to his speeches for four years, so that helped me tremendously."

Johnson credits Henson's coaching with making him the player he became.

"If it wasn't for him sitting this All-American down on the bench and letting him know that he didn't understand everything, I would not have made it to the NBA and stayed as long as I did."

Illinois started out the 1979 season with a bang. They won 15 straight games, culminated with a last second Eddie Johnson baseline jumper to beat Earvin Magic Johnson and ultimate national champ Michigan State. Illini fans remember his exploits.

"Nobody's forgotten. I'm reminded about it probably 20 times a year. Whether I'm going through an airport or out here in Arizona, there's a ton of alumni from Illinois. I always run into Illinois people who remind me they were there. The count right now is up to about 60,000 people who were there right now."

That team couldn't sustain its success, but it set the foundation for the future.

"I think it was a turning point for us. When I got there, we didn't win very many games that first year. The second year, we had a young team with some very good players mixed with veterans. Mark Smith, (Steve) Lanter, (Rob) Judson, Levi Cobb, (Ken) Ferdinand and (Neil) Bresnahan. It was just a good mixture for us, and we went on a role. It was fun.

"Unfortunately, Lanter broke down with an injury, and we didn't have a point guard. At that time, shot clock was nowhere in sight. Teams held the ball on us, and we had a difficult time containing it. But we loved the run up to that point."

Eddie couldn't help but reminisce about teammate Mark Smith. Mark would have ended up with more career points than Johnson had he been as motivated.

"Mark was probably the most talented and versatile player to ever go to Illinois. Even in our senior year when we were going back and forth as to who was gonna be the all-time leading scorer, I was more of an offensive minded guy and he really didn't care. I think he really wanted me to get it.

"I learned so much from him on the basketball court. And he taught me what not to do off the court. Mark was a very active guy. He was into the party. He was a guy that loved to have a good time. Unfortunately for him, it did cut down his life. I mean very soon, 40-41 years old.

"But to me, he was one of the best basketball players Illinois has ever had. He was a guy that just did everything for you. He was my roommate for three years, and he taught me alot about the game."

Johnson has many memories of his years at Illinois, but he shared a special one.

"The walk from my dorm room to the Assembly Hall was probably one of the best walks I had to go to a game. Especially at night the way it was lit up. We used to call it the Flying Saucer. It was just unbelieveable. It was a pleasure to play in that building. And the things they have done there since then, it is definitely a home court advantage now for Illinois anytime we play."

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