Welcome back to the GOAT Atlanta Hawks Series. Missed the previous entries? Check them out here:
Our #12 Atlanta Hawk was Jason Terry before there was a Jason Terry, a scoring point guard who shared time with other "true point guards" during his time with the Hawks.
The #12 GOAT Atlanta Hawk: "Fast Eddie", Eddie Johnson
"Fast Eddie" was a key component on one of the GOAT Atlanta Hawks teams, the 1979-80 Central division winning club. On that club, Johnson was second in points per game and assists per game, and was the guy who could always make the play, the big play. But on a team with so many other capable players, and a coach in Hubie Brown who liked control, Johnson's stats didn't always shine with all the luster his talent could have provided.
Johnson was before his time as a combo guard, the point guard body built into a sublime scorer. Though 6'2, Johnson could score with anybody, as was evidenced by his run through the SEC as an Auburn Tiger. Despite a stellar college career, his hard to define skill set and his team's mediocre record, combined with a publicly bad relationship with his coach at the time, Bob Davis, Johnson slid to the Hawks in the 3rd round of the 1977 draft.
He split time his first season with the "true" PG, Charlie Criss, but his second season, he was logging plenty of minutes from Brown and his stats reflected that. In both 1980 and 1981, Johnson represented the Hawks as an All-Star and started both times. In the 1980 game, Johnson showed off his game with 22 points, 7 assists, and 6 steals all of which helped the Eastern Conference win.
Johnson played (8) full seasons with the Hawks before being sent to Cleveland in the middle of his ninth. He was a very popular player, as most natural scorers tend to be, but was plagued by drugs and related troubles through the 80's, marring what might have been for Johnson and Atlanta.
His struggles, documented in this excellent mid-crisis story by SI in 1981, lays out the already difficult road that Johnson chose, ultimately ending in prison in 2006.
The first indication that Johnson had serious difficulties in "the real world" came in the spring of 1979, when his alma mater set aside a day to honor him and invited him, Brown and Hawk teammate Armond Hill for a day of ceremonies in Auburn. At the banquet that evening, Johnson sat on the dais slumped forward in his seat. During a speech that was largely a tribute. Brown articulated what many of Johnson's friends had been thinking for a long time: "Eddie is going to have to decide between his social life and his occupation. [He] has the tools to be one of the greatest players in the league. The only person standing in his way is Eddie Johnson."
Despite the obstacles Johnson put in his own way, he has the 9th highest points per game, 5th highest assist rate, 3rd most total assists, and 5th in total points.
He got lost along the way, but to fans like myself who watched those Hubie Brown teams improbably succeed saw a young guard with incredible speed and a money jump shot, scoring and making big plays for a terrific team, one of the best in Atlanta Hawk history.