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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Johnny Neumann

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Buffalo’s basketball fans missed all the fun when it came to Johnny Neumann. His stay in Western New York was very brief and he had little effect on the franchise. In hindsight, Neumann’s time with the Braves was one of the few dull spots in his basketball life – one that carried him literally all over the world. It remains today as an example of the sadness of unfulfilled potential.

“Maybe things just came too easy for him, but it always bothered me that Johnny Neumann never was the player he should have been,” ex-teammate Dave Twardzik once said.

Carl John Neumann was born in Memphis, Tennessee. As for the date, one source called it September 11, 1950, another put it at September 10, 1950, while a third says he was born on September 11, 1951. Let’s call the first one the likely winner, since it was provided by a funeral home. He was the son of Robert Herman Neumann and Margaret Marie Neumann. Johnny had two brothers, Robert Jr. and William, and a sister, Brenda. Robert Sr. was a traveling salesman who used to take the boys to Cincinnati Gardens to watch the Royals play in the 1960s. They all moved to Memphis to watch son Robert Jr. (eight years older than Johnny) play basketball at Memphis State.

Johnny went to high school at Overton in Memphis. Neumann was one of the top players in the country when he played there. He and Larry Finch – a future standout at Memphis State - were the standouts of a 1969 city championship game that had to be moved to the biggest arena in Memphis, Mid-South Coliseum, in order to accommodate the demand for tickets. The game still was a sellout. “I played with the Lakers in the Forum with Kareem and with movie stars sitting all around, but I can’t say the atmosphere was better than that night in Memphis,” Neumann said later. Johnny had 34 points and 13 rebounds in Melrose’s 76-65 win despite breaking his hand in the game.

Mike Arrison was a teammate of Neumann’s at Overton, and thus got to see the prep superstar at close range. “He was Johnny Neumann, maybe the best basketball player that had ever come out of Memphis,” he told reporter Geoff Calkins. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. … One day, after practice, we were asking, ‘Who’s that, is Neumann’s grandfather hanging out in the locker room?’... Turns out it was (Hall of Fame Kentucky coach) Adolph Rupp. We used to hang out at a girl’s house near the old Colonial Country Club – she had a basketball court – and the girl’s mother would stick her head out of the door and call out, ‘Johnny, Coach Wooden is on the phone!’”

The winner of the intense recruiting battle by 400 universities was the University of Mississippi, as he accepted the challenge of making basketball relevant at the school. Neumann succeeded at that right away. The Ole Miss freshman team played Memphis State that year to give Finch another chance to beat Neumann’s squad. Ole Miss came out on top, 103-95, and Neumann had 44 points to Finch’s 32. That season, Neumann averaged 38.4 points per game for a team that went 25-1. When an Auburn coach said that Neumann was a one-man show, Johnny sank seven straight bombs and yelled at him, “Is that good enough?” Meanwhile, the varsity compiled a 10-15 overall record with a 6-12 mark in the Southeastern Conference – good enough for a seventh-place finish.

Mississippi didn’t improve much in its won-loss record in 1970-71. The Rebels were 11-15, 6-12 in the SEC. But they sure weren’t boring, and Neumann was the reason why. He had a season to remember by anyone who was on the Oxford campus at that time. Neumann averaged – averaged – 40.1 points per game. Remember there was no shot clock or three-point line at the time. The number led the nation, and hasn’t been duplicated since then. He led the team in assists (3.2) and was second in rebounds (6.6). It’s interesting to note what needed to be done in order to reach that sort of scoring number. Neumann averaged 34.4 shots per game, and made 15.9 of them. He also averaged 8.3 free throws per game on 10.9 shots. In other words, Johnny took almost half of his team’s shots in a typical game. He didn’t play much defense, but the man could score.

You never knew what Neumann might do on a given night. His career high was 63 points in a game against LSU, and he had 60 against Baylor. “Johnny Reb” had five games during the season in which he scored at least 50 points. The comparisons to another great scorer in the South were obvious. Pete Maravich had been the nation’s leading scorer at LSU before graduating in 1970. Neumann was a second-team All-American selection, and the SEC’s player of the year.

“This guy had all the tools,” veteran coach and TV commentator Hubie Brown said about Neumann. “He could score, he could take the last shot. He could take it from outside, he could take you off the dribble.”

But there were problems. In hindsight, Johnny probably was a bit spoiled by all of the attention he had received even at that point. “I may have been his only friend on the team, that’s for certain,” teammate Steve Farese said. “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.”

The fans in Oxford must have been looking forward to two more years of Johnny’s “showtime” performances at Ole Miss. That never happened. The Memphis Pros of the American Basketball Association offered Neumann a chance to turn pro early and join his hometown team. He took a five-year, $2 million deal, and was off to the ABA. Neumann was the first so-called “hardship” case, when a player cited family financial problems in order to enter the professional ranks before his college class had graduated. His father had suffered a heart attack.

The departure might not have been the best idea. “You could take one look at Johnny Neumann and know he never should have left school early,” pro player Tom Meschery said later. “Signing kids like that was one of the things the ABA did that was very destructive. … He had the ability to be a great player, the athletic 6-foot-6 guard who could score and pass. But he was so immature and he never did grow up.”

The Pros had a young team in 1971-72, and Neumann was the youngest player on the roster. Even so, He showed an ability to score in the ABA from the outset. Neumann led the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, even though he only played 25.6 minutes. It took him a few months to start putting up points, but once he did, he didn’t stop. Johnny was in double figures in his last 23 games, and in 34 of his last 35 contests. He scored a season-high 40 against Kentucky on February 26, although the Colonels won easily, 123-100. Neumann was named ABA rookie of the year at the end of the season. As for the team, it finished 26-58 and well out of the playoffs.

The Memphis team became the oddly-named Tams (because the states of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi touched in the Memphis area) in 1972. The change didn’t help. The squad finished 24-60 under new coach Bob Bass, who later said that he had a role that season in reducing Johnny’s car collection from seven vehicles to three. Neumann finished second on the team in scoring at 19.6 points per game. After that season, it was discovered that Johnny had given power of attorney documents to two separate agents, and filed for bankruptcy. The agents were nowhere to be found.

Neumann started Year Three in Memphis as one of the team’s leading scorers (16.4 ppg.), but team management supposedly didn’t like the way that he was averaging more than a shot every two minutes. That led to a good-sized deal, as Neumann was traded to the Utah Stars for Glen Combs, Ronnie Robinson, Mike Jackson and cash. At least Johnny was joining a better team. The Stars were on their way to finishing first in the Western Division with a 51-33 record under Joe Mullaney. Neumann only played an average of 17 minutes per game, scoring about 10 points in that span. Willie Wise, Ron Boone, Jimmy Jones and Zelmo Beaty – all solid veterans – were ahead of him in scoring. The Stars made it to the 1974 ABA finals, but lost in five games to the New York Nets.

Now we get to the point in the story where Neumann sinks into journeyman status. In the summer of 1974, Johnny was traded with a draft choice to Virginia for Larry Miller and Jim Eakins. But after playing only four games (shooting 22 for 68 in the process), Neumann was sold to the Indiana Pacers. It was there that Johnny had his most famous moment of his career. “Of the many stories I could tell you, one really stands out,” teammate Bob Netolicky remembered. “(Indiana coach) Slick (Leonard) had not been playing him very much. About the middle of the second quarter Slick yelled, ‘Johnny, go in for Kevin (Joyce).’ He jumped up, tore off his warm-ups, and ran down to the scorer’s table. One slight problem - he had forgotten to put on his shorts, so here he is standing at the scorer’s table in his jersey and jockstrap. All of us almost passed out laughing.”

That Pacers’ team had a solid nucleus, and Johnny was ninth in average minutes at 17.4. “Johnny was a gregarious guy,” teammate Len Elmore said later. “Unfortunately, he constantly rebelled at authority. He was a hard worker with a high basketball IQ and very confident in his skill set, which was shooting/scoring and playmaking. He was special … no doubt about it.” The Pacers waived him on March 23, and his rights went back to Virginia. But he didn’t play any more games that season.

Neumann had his last decent statistical season with the Squires in 1975-76, as he averaged 16.6 points per game in only 22.2 minutes. But Virginia was barely holding on financially by that point in the ABA’s history, and Neumann was dealt to Kentucky with Jan van Breda Kolff for Marv Roberts and future considerations (probably cash). Johnny supplied some offense off the bench for the Colonels, scoring 10 points per game. Kentucky lost to Denver in the semifinals of the last ABA playoffs ever staged.

The ABA and NBA merged in the summer of 1976, and the Colonels did not survive in the merger. Neumann was not picked up in the dispersal draft. However, Braves co-owner John Y. Brown – the former owner of the Kentucky team – remembered Neumann. To be more specific, he remembered the eight-year personal services contract that Johnny had signed with him earlier. The forward-guard formally was signed as a free agent on September 22. Johnny only played in four games in Buffalo, but he tried to get his shots in. Neumann averaged 8.5 field-goal attempts in 12.3 minutes. Neumann scored 21 points in his Buffalo debut, a win in Milwaukee on October 21.

On November 8, the Braves suspended him indefinitely. It was reported that coach Tates Locke thought Neumann had an attitude problem, and the two had a major argument at practice the day before. They waived Neumann the next day, and replaced him on the roster with Clyde Mayes. His unemployment lasted only until November 18, when the Los Angeles Lakers claimed him. He stayed in Los Angeles through the end of the regular season and the playoffs, filling out the bench.

By this time, it was obvious that Neumann was never going to fulfill the potential that many thought he had. Just looking at him might have provided a clue; his weight ranged between 200 and 240 as a pro. “If he had been able to harness himself mentally, he would have been a great, great pro,” said Mike Arrison, a teammate at Overton. “But he just kind of dropped off the map. I was in Los Angeles once when he was with the Lakers, and I got his number and gave him a call. A woman answered, she asked who I was, and when I told her, she said Johnny would call me right back. I’m still waiting for that call.”

Buffalo gave the Lakers a third-round draft choice in June of 1977 – an odd move, since Johnny hadn’t thrived there the season before. He never played for the Braves that time, as he was dealt on October 18 to the Pacers for a third-round draft choice and cash. Neumann played 20 games in Indiana, and was waived on December 22. His pro career in the United States was over; he played a total of 455 games for seven different teams, and averaged 13.2 points per game. Johnny headed to Europe in the fall of 1978, playing one year in Italy – his nickname there was “Cavallo Pazzo” (“Crazy Horse’) - and two seasons in Germany.

"I played with some of the greatest players in the world, and I never thought it would come to an end," Neumann said in a 2017 interview. “But then I was arrogant, I was flashy. I drove Ferraris, had mink coats. I was out of control."

Neumann may have been done with playing basketball for a living, but he wasn’t done with basketball. Johnny moved into coaching, and compiled one of the longest resumes in the sport. The long, strange trip started with the Maine Lumberjacks in 1982, and passed through Europe (Greece and Cyprus), the Middle East (Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia), and the Far East (China and Japan). He earned several coach of the year awards along the way. Neumann was the national coach of Romania’s national team in 2010-12, and even wound down his career as an assistant coach at South Panola High School in Batesville, Mississippi, for a year.

“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,” Neumann said later in his coaching career.

Along the way, Johnny went back to the University of Mississippi and returned to the classroom. According to reports, he sat in the front of the class, received good grades, laughed at the teachers’ jokes, and told stories about his life to his much-younger classmates. In 2016, he picked up his diploma for a degree in general studies – what he called the biggest accomplishment of his life.

He was profiled in an ESPN documentary in 2013. Johnny returned to Oxford in 2013, to finish work on his degree. He was picked for the M-Club Hall of Fame It came in the same year that he was named an SEC Basketball Legend. And in 2018, Neumann made Mississippi’s All-Century team.

Neumann suffered from brain cancer in the later stages of his life, and he died on April 23, 2019. His burial arrangements were not made public. Johnny, who had multiple marriages, was survived by a wife, Liliana, daughters Esmeralda, Leslie and Maria, and sons Michael and Samuel.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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