Standing about 6’4, he towers over me. His salt-and-pepper hair complements his changing eyes.
Dressed in an Ole Miss Polo, jeans and sneakers, the former Ole Miss basketball superstar sits down right in front of me and his deep captivating voice resonates throughout the room. Neumann has charisma. He exudes the self -confidence that prolific athletes possess. I’m sitting in front of Greatness. A legend. A basketball genius that in his prime was untouchable. Johnny Neumann.
Hailing from Memphis, Tenn., Neumann was a High School All-American at Overton High and brought his talents to Ole Miss in 1970. Although his basketball career at Ole Miss was brief, his stats have stood the test of time.
Neumann wasn’t just an average basketball player. He was one of the best to ever come out of Memphis. His skills and his basketball credentials are indisputable. The statistics Neumann compiled over just ONE season at Ole Miss are proof.
Some Forty odd years after his remarkable 1970-71 Ole Miss season, Neumann’s name is still forged boldly in the Southeastern Conference record book. His most impressive stats speak for themselves:
- He is one of only three players in the nation to ever average 40 points a game in a career.
- He ranks fourth all-time in points scored in one game, 63 vs. LSU in 1971.
- He ranks sixth all-time in points in a season, scoring 923.
“You have to understand I was tremendously gifted and never appreciated a lot of the things I had,” Neumann said. “And then all of a sudden when God woke me up and he slapped me down and I lost everything.”
In what seemed like a budding, golden career, at the age of 19 Neumann left Ole Miss and signed a contract with a Memphis ABA team (which later merged into the NBA). He began a lack luster eight-year career. Neumann played with teams such as the Utah Stars, Los Angeles Lakers, and Indiana Pacers.
After hanging up his basketball shoes, Neumann began coaching for over three decades overseas in countries that included Japan, Greece, Lebanon and China.
Yet when Neumann’s daughter, 6-year old Esmeralda, was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disorder. The devastated husband and father moved his family back to the United States in order to get Esmeralda the best possible medical treatment.
Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney condition in which proteins leak into the urine. Complications can result in fluid accumulating in the body, potentially leading to kidney damage or failure. Five in 100, 00 children are diagnosed every year with the condition.
As we drive to the Ole Miss campus residence hall where Neumann and his family lives, his eyes beam with joy as he talks about his Esmeralda. Pulling into the parking lot, Neumann’s wife Lilianna and Esmeralda greet us with warm smiles. Esmeralda clings to Neumann’s leg, hiding as his giant hands sift through her flowing tufts of dark brunette hair.
Between moving, caring for medical expenses and being in a legal battle regarding pay for his most recent coaching stint in Romania, Neumann has met dire financial straits. First Neumann and his family moved back to Memphis hoping to get Esmeralda medical care at St. Jude, but to no avail. The former basketball superstar found himself depressed and distraught, living off of food stamps and other government subsidies to survive. He then made the choice to move his family to Oxford and finish his degree in General Studies at the University.
Although Neumann has faced many recent struggles, it hasn’t dampened his zeal for life or his faith. His financial history has ranged from signing lucrative basketball contracts to barely scratching out an existence to support his family. Neumann could have easily given in to depression, but the skilled hoops dreamer has transformed his humbling experiences into a life lesson learned.
As I sit in front of Neumann, his head is reverently bowed, giant hands clasped together as he talks about trials and tribulations that have come upon him, yet the most beautiful part about it all is his resounding faith.
Now that the older Neumann has returned to campus as a non-athlete, he has had a little trouble adjusting.
“I’m pretty good with computers, but this Blackboard deal has messed me all up and it’s taken me a while to learn that,” he says with a smile.
Even though he has had some academic difficulty, Neumann has three priorities: to finish his degree, provide for his family and help others along the way.
“I want to show others that I had this (sports success), and then immediately lost it all and that this was God’s way of showing me ‘Wake up! I’ve carried you this long. Now you have to be a non- athlete. Go back to school. I’m there to help you — now get your act together!’”
Neumann felt a deep sense of obligation to return to Ole Miss and follow through with some type of philanthropic work. He hopes to counsel Ole Miss student athletes to not make the same mistakes he did.
In our many conversations, Neumann stressed that a lot of young athletes need to realize that the money may be there, but it can be taken away from you in an instant.
“I’ve owned Ferraris, I’ve had nice houses, lived in elaborate houses where everything was paid for, but that’s really not what life is all about,” he said. “As long as you have God and the love of your family you can work and be happy.”
As I wrapped up my interview with Neumann, I began to reflect on the gravity of everything he had said. To be so humble and continually thankful for what he’s gained, but also for what he has lost, speaks volumes. His Ole Miss basketball career was one of the greatest of all time, yet his stats fail to surpass the measure of the man that Johnny has become. The record books won’t let us forget Johnny. But he is still writing his own exciting human-interest story that reveals an even more important lessor.
Ladies and Gentleman, number 14 Johnny Neumann, is back.
Sha’ Simpson is a journalism student at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.