Growing up in Phoenix, my parents had season tickets to the Phoenix Suns. I was lucky enough that this was in the Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Charles Barkely golden era of Phoenix basketball. Back when they still played games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum (aka the Madhouse on McDowell), there was an older lady who had tickets next to us.
And she hated Eddie Johnson.
I have no idea why, but every time he touched the ball, she would yell "Don't give it to that damn number 8!" Maybe it was because she didn't appreciate Johnson's silky smooth jumper. Maybe it was because that meant Dan Majerle or Jeff Hornacek probably weren't in the game. Maybe she had something against dudes from Illinois. I don't know.
She usually yelled it the loudest at the beginning of games, because there was no point yelling it at the end of games. You can't really yell at a 20 point per game bench scorer without people starting to wonder if you're out of your damn mind.
Eddie Johnson joined the Suns in the transitional 1987-88 season. He was a part of the influx of new players after Jerry Colangelo's purge of just about everyone implicated in the drug scandal leading up to the season. It was the end of an era as it would also be the last season that Larry Nance, Alvan Adams and Walter Davis donned the purple and orange. That team would finish a disappointing 28-54 and usher in a new era of Phoenix greatness. Despite starting 59 games and putting up a solid 17.7 points per game, it wasn't until the following year that Johnson would make his true impact on the Suns.
The 1988-89 season was a renaissance for Phoenix basketball. Many people credit the additions of Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle for the biggest single season turnaround in NBA history to that point. And those people were not wrong. But they might want to add Eddie Johnson to that list.
Relegated to the bench, EJ thrived in the second unit. A preview of what lay ahead for opposing defenses was demonstrated 5 games into that magical season in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
After scoring a mere 2 points in the first half, EJ dropped 43 in the second half and overtime. He was dirty, making fallaways, partially blocked shots and jumpers of all sorts. You can see his form in the ugliest of makes: shoulders always square to the basket, shooting arm fully extended, wrist in perfect gooseneck at the end of the shot.
Eddie Johnson was deadly that year. He put up a blistering 41.3% from behind the arc and managed to score almost 22 points a game... from the bench. Like the recently departed Gerald Green, he had absolutely no conscience. He forgot all the misses and remembered all the makes. Eddie Johnson was probably the first gunner I fell in love with. And the rest of the NBA did too. Eddie Johnson would go on to win the NBA's "Sixth Man of the Year Award" that season.
Given his impact on the franchise and current position as color commentator par excellence, it's hard to believe he only played 3 seasons and change for the Suns. In fact, EJ already had 2 teams and 6 years under his belt when he joined Phoenix. He would go on to play for another 9 years (including a tour in Greece) and for 4 more NBA franchises.
While he never matched that 41.3% mark from long-range again in his career, he was a consistent scorer wherever he went. Aside from his Sixth Man trophy, his other great claim to fame is to be the highest scorer in NBA history never to be named to an All-Star Team. For his career, he's #47 on the NBA's all-time points list with 19,202. That's more points than Isiah Thomas, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson or Julius Erving.
If you go to Eddie's website, he refers to himself as an average NBA player. But the numbers tell another story. Average players don't have nearly 20 year careers. Average players don't have better scoring careers than several hall of famers. Average players don't stick in your head two decades after they stopped playing for your favorite team.
I'm glad the Phoenix Suns and their fans were able to experience peak Eddie Johnson (both on the court and behind the mic). And I'm glad they kept passing it to that damn number 8.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com