The Flames that Fueled Eddie Johnson's 43-Point Half
In truth, one of the best halves of individual NBA basketball began two weeks before it happened.
Cotton Fitzsimmons had just been appointed as the Suns’ new head coach. His unenviable task: turning around a grounded basketball team fresh off four consecutive losing seasons.
Labeling Fitzsimmons as “new” was misleading, however. He had coached the Suns previously in the early 1970s. He was also extremely familiar with many individuals on the Suns’ staff and roster, including veteran guard Eddie Johnson.
Fitzsimmons was the head coach of the Kansas City Kings team that drafted Johnson 29th overall in 1981. Under the fiery head coach, Johnson quickly earned a reputation as a scorer capable of catching fire at any moment. Their paths had diverged before reuniting in Phoenix.
Johnson averaged 17.7 points per game the previous season with the Suns, his lowest output since his rookie season, but still nothing to sneeze at. With Cotton back at the helm, he figured his role and production would get a boost.
To his astonishment, Fitzsimmons’ first words were a warning that the opposite could occur.
“At the beginning of the year,” Johnson recalled, “Cotton came to me and said, ‘Eddie, you’ve got to play good defense this year or I’m going to mess with your minutes.’”
Johnson was nonplussed and shaken. He thought his rapport with Fitzsimmons meant bigger things were ahead. Instead, he didn’t know what to expect. His play suffered as a result, and he shot just 7-of-26 through his first two games.
In Game No. 3, the Suns’ home opener, Johnson hit a new low.
“I normally would go into the game at about the end of the first quarter, maybe a minute or two left,” Johnson remembered. “He didn’t call me. I was sitting right there. I was like, ‘This man’s not going to play me.’ I started steaming. I just said, ‘I’m going to show him.’”
He did, but only because Phoenix fell behind 38-15 early in the second quarter. Veterans Memorial Coliseum resounded with the boos of fans who had hoped a better season awaited. In search of anything that might turn the tide, Fitzsimmons motioned for his irate guard to check in.
By halftime, Johnson already had 17 points and the Suns had sliced the lead down to 13. They wound up winning 111-103 thanks to two factors: 1) Johnson’s game-high 37 points in 29 minutes and 2) Phoenix limiting Dallas to just 21 fourth-quarter points.
Message delivered. Point taken.
“That was his way of motivating me,” Johnson admitted. “He always wanted to shock me. He always thought that I played better when I was mad.”
Fitzsimmons promptly inserted his reawakened scorer into the starting lineup. He scored 20 points on just 10 shots against Golden State two nights later.
Which brings us to Nov. 12, 1988.
“Who the hell is Reggie Williams?”
Johnson’s head angrily rang with this thought during the first half of that night’s road game against the Clippers.
Williams was a second-year forward out of Georgetown, the Clippers’ first-round pick a season earlier. He was a decent player, but injury-prone. He had played just 35 games in his rookie campaign, and thus was still an unproven commodity in the NBA market.
Yet there Williams was, talking smack to Johnson, the proven veteran. The problem was EJ’s game wasn’t providing much of a response. In the first half, he shot just 1-for-7. This seemed especially rare since it was happening against the Clippers, a team that won a grand total of 29 games in the previous two seasons combined.
Williams didn’t want the rim-rattling effect of his words to be forgotten, so he continued to let Johnson hear him after the halftime buzzer.
“We were walking off the court at halftime and I told him, ‘I’ll be back,’” Johnson said.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day was still three years away, but Johnson was intent on making his words as respected as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rendition.
“I was in the locker room and I was hot,” he remembered. “I was pissed off. I told [point guard] Kevin Johnson, ‘I’m telling you right now: give me the ball the first four or five times in the second half.’”
KJ waited a couple plays before doing so, but it didn’t take him long to realize that the other Johnson’s number was the best number to call. After his first two jumpers, Eddie trotted nearly side-by-side to Kevin, hands up, pleading for the ball. KJ gave it to him. EJ hit another jumper.
“I hit my first two or three shots and it was on,” Johnson said.
An and-one fast break layup followed. A pullup jumper. Another one. A baseline jump shot. A step-through move under his defender.
The Suns’ game plan was abundantly clear: get the ball to Eddie Johnson.
“It felt like a surreal time frame,” recalled former Suns center Mark West. “You’re seeing the next one and the next one and the next one go in. It’s the same thing when Tom got his 60 points. It was crazy. More than excitement, you’re just waiting to see how many he ends up with. When is he going to miss?”
Johnson did miss, but it wasn’t often and he knew it. He also felt his former tormenter should know it. And his teammates. Especially the ones with a front-row seat to his shooting exhibition.
“As I’m going past their bench, I’m looking at Reggie and saying, ‘I guarantee you never open your mouth again,’” Johnson laughed. “His teammates were laughing.”
They weren’t the only ones. Tom Chambers, the Suns’ leading scorer who found himself suddenly taking a backseat, could barely stifle his own laughter over the best comeback half he had ever witnessed.
“The thing that really amazed me about it was he was lining up in front of the Clippers bench to take shots,” Chambers said. “I always stayed away from the guys. I’d got to the other side. He’d talk before he got the ball. He’d talk when he got the ball. He’d talk after he shot the ball. Then, when it went in, he wouldn’t shut up. I was dying laughing inside because he just loved being right in front of their bench talking smack.”
Johnson didn’t stop taking shots or talking smack. He kept scoring. Fitzsimmons kept him on the floor for nearly the entire half. How could he do otherwise? Johnson’s shots barely grazing the rim.
As for Clippers head coach Gene Shue, the best he could do was throw up his hands after each make – that and keep Williams on the bench and out of Johnson’s ear.
It didn’t matter. Johnson was on fire, and neither silence nor fatigue could quench him. Meanwhile his teammates were only too eager to fuel him.
“The guy could just shoot lights out,” West said. “At the time he was one of the best shooters in the league and he had the green light. And Kevin [Johnson] was one of those guys where if you got hot, he was going to get you the ball.”
Kevin Johnson certainly did, racking up 17 assists thanks mostly to his scorching teammate. Aside from passes and the occasional high five, however, neither KJ nor other teammates interacted too much with Johnson, even during timeouts. Why distract the man with a bulls-eye on the basket?
“We were always very conscious of that,” Johnson said. “When a guy has it going, you don’t want to give him too much conversation. I had a way of taking myself away from it. My celebration was almost by myself in that situation because you don’t get to a zone that often.”
In terms of the zone Johnson enjoyed that night, you can count the number of players to have lived it on one hand. He finished with 43 points after halftime, compared to the 44 points Phoenix scored as a team in the first half. The Suns didn’t win, falling short in overtime, but he did manage to score one more point after the game was over.
“After the game,” Johnson laughed, ‘[Williams] came up to me and said, ‘You got that right. I’ll make sure I don’t say anything next time!’”