Eddie Johnson Reflects on Kings Days
After being selected with the 29th-overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft, Eddie Johnson spent six years with the Kings. He currently ranks eighth in franchise scoring history with 9,027 points. The sharpshooting swingman notched a career-high 22.9 points per game (13th in the NBA) in 1984-85, and led the team to two Playoff appearances during his Kansas City-Sacramento tenure.
In a recent conversation with Kings.com’s Fan Correspondent Alex Kramers, Johnson, who now works as a television broadcaster, online sports writer and basketball trainer, reflected on his career highlights and spoke about the transition from playing to analyzing the game.
How would you characterize your emotions on Draft night in 1981?
“At that time, unlike the Draft now, I was a second-round pick so with that came no guarantees. I was a little bit disheartened because I was (the Kings) third pick – their first pick was Steve Johnson out of Oregon State and their second pick was Kevin Loder out of Alabama State. So I knew going in it was going to be tough for me because of the two first-round draft picks ahead of me, but I was fortunate that two of (Kansas City’s) top players – Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman – had signed with New Jersey as free agents so it opened up an opportunity for me to make the team. (Coach) Cotton Fitzsimmons gave me a heck of a chance to make it, and I did.”
How would you describe your typical gameday routine during your playing days?
“I didn’t really have any huge superstitions. If anything, my routine was to get into my game mode once I walked into the arena and just put my focus into my workout before the game and develop my attitude towards whoever had to guard me that night. I was one of the biggest trash-talkers in the game when I played, and I only did it to get inside the head of the guys who had to guard me.”
Regarded as one of the League’s best scorers and pure shooters, how did you approach the game offensively?
“My mindset was to be ultra-aggressive. I just had no conscience – I knew who I was, I knew what I did well. I just didn’t want to come in and slowly work my way into the process of the game – I wanted to come in with a bang.
“Cotton Fitzsimmons made a statement to a teammate of mine, and it stuck with me. We were down 22 (points) against San Antonio, and he put me in the game in the fourth quarter, and I was just relentless. I think I had something like 20 points in the quarter, and I was just going crazy. And he told one of the guys, ‘Eddie is just freaking relentless!’ It stuck with me because I think it means a lot (coming) from a coach, but also, I think it’s how you want to be when you play. You just don’t ever want the opposition to think you’re going to go through the motions.”
Who were the toughest players you faced during your career?
“A few stood out for me during my first years in the League. One was a guy named Michael Brooks. (He’s not) a household name – not too many people know about him – but he went to LaSalle University, played for the San Diego Clippers at the time, and the guy just ran the whole game. I asked him one time after a game, ‘Why do you run all the time even when it really doesn’t lead to anything?’ He said, ‘Well, I just run so I can score in the fourth quarter because you’re going to be mentally tired.’ And I took a lot from that. “Then, Kiki Vandeweghe and Purvis Short – two of the top small forwards to ever play this game – just made your life a living hell every time you stepped on the court when you had to play them.”
In 1983-84, you led the Kings to the Playoffs in just your third season. What was it like reaching the postseason for the first time?
“It was great for me because my first year we didn’t win many games. We were in a losing mode and changed coaches. We had a young team – Mike Woodson, LaSalle Thompson, Otis Thorpe and Ed Nealy. We picked up Reggie Theus from the Bulls and Larry Drew was on that team. Even though we played hard, we just could never culminate it into a successful season. The second year in Kansas City, we did – we almost made the Playoffs. We had to play the Denver Nuggets on the last day of the season to get in and we lost in Denver, but had a tremendous year. Overall, our years in Kansas City were great, but it really picked up in Sacramento.”
You led the original Sacramento team to the postseason in 1985-86. Can you describe the fans’ excitement during the city’s first-ever home Playoff game?
“It was great. We had the second- or third-best record after the All-Star Game, and we were on a tremendous roll. Unfortunately for us, we ran into a team that was just too big. The Houston Rockets had Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, and we just didn’t have any answers for them. But the run we had was great, and the one game we (played) at home in front of our fans, we almost pulled it out – all the credit goes to them based on their enthusiasm. It was a tremendous year for us because of the way we started out struggling and then the way the fans just supported us. We had some big wins. We beat the Boston Celtics that year at home, and it was a great year for the Sacramento Kings.”
What moments or games stand out the most during your Kings career?
“I would probably say the first game in Sacramento – it was against the Clippers. The atmosphere in that place, and the way the city received us, was unbelievable. It was just amazing – we lost the game, but it was a tremendous game and the atmosphere has stuck with me forever.
“I had my only triple-double in the history of my career when we were in Kansas City. As a matter of fact, it was a Playoff game against the Lakers – I think I had 13 or 14 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.”
Now as a TV broadcaster, how would you describe your transition from playing to analyzing basketball?
“After my (playing) career, I wanted to segue into something. Most players are only going to play 12 or 13 years. I was very fortunate – I played 17 years. There’s good and bad with that. The good is that I was able to stretch out my career and play a game I truly loved until I was 40 years old. The negative was that I have two kids and they had reached middle school. So along the way I had to make the decision whether I wanted to go into management, coaching or TV. Coaching is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I just knew it would really take me away from my kids. TV was just a better career choice for me because it allowed me to be around my kids though their middle school years all the way up to high school.
“Going to TV was fine – I’ve always been very talkative on every team I’ve been on, and I’ve considered myself (to be) a leader. I was never afraid to tell somebody they weren’t doing the job or they needed to do this or that. There was never any hesitation on my part. So going into TV, the easy part for me was I was going to continue to be the same person I’ve always been. Even though I work for the Phoenix Suns, I’m not a homer and my organization doesn’t promote me being a homer. They pretty much deal with how I talk about the game, whether it’s criticizing our team or not, so I think it’s allowed me to really do the best job I can do in this environment.”
Do you see a coaching position in your future?
“Coaching is definitely out there for me now. Both of my kids are in college so I’ll probably jump on an opportunity when it comes. I’ve gotten offers to be an assistant coach, but I just truly believe when you jump into something, you have to jump in all the way. Then, if it’s a career choice for me, I want to make sure I align myself with the right person. Once Mike Woodson, who’s still a tremendous friend of mine, along with LaSalle Thomson, gets another (head coaching) job, I’ll probably go help him.”