PHOENIX – His story is full of chapters. Some are complete, defined by adversity and accomplishments, and others remain unwritten, blank pages waiting to be filled with more life experiences.
Former NBA standout Eddie Johnson is beginning his 20th year as the color analyst for the Phoenix Suns, who open their season tonight against the Dallas Mavericks. He also is completing his sixth year as a radio host on Sirius XM radio, and is a motivational speaker for businesses.
Johnson grew up in Chicago, first at Cabrini-Green, the now-demolished housing project that became a national symbol of crime and urban struggle, and later on the city’s West Side. After his father left when Johnson was young, the soon-to-be basketball star was determined to prove skeptics wrong and make a name for himself.
“It puts you in a position to make a choice, you know. Do you follow your peers and the things that they are doing that are not good? Or do you stay straight and lose friends and have successes?” Johnson said. “And that’s what I did. I was a very focused individual and I knew what I wanted.”
Basketball became his passion from an early age. He was also driven by his goal to take care of his mother. With the help of Janice Gehrke, a counselor at Westinghouse High School who kept Johnson on track, plus his own hard work, he was recruited by many schools.
Johnson chose the University of Illinois and played basketball there while majoring in history. Guided by his professor and now good friend, Art Goldsmith, he was presented with the idea to attend law school. But with his end goal of playing professional basketball in mind, Johnson went on to become the 29th pick in the 1981 NBA Draft, selected by the Kansas City Kings.
He played for 18 years. He competed for six NBA teams, including the Phoenix Suns, and also spent one season playing in Greece. At the time of his retirement in 1999, Johnson’s 19,202 points in 1,999 games was the 22nd highest total in the NBA.
After his time in the league, he had a choice: stay home and spend time with his family or coach and continue the life of traveling for games. He decided he’d prefer to be home with his kids, Justin and Jade, who were in middle school at the time, and his wife, Joy. That led him to stay in Phoenix and begin the first year of his career calling games for Arizona State basketball.
In the second year of his broadcast career, Johnson became the Phoenix Suns color analyst. After 20 years in the business, he is still going strong in his position with the Suns and has had many memorable experiences.
“I got a chance to call some games that Michael Jordan played in at the end of his career. You know, obviously the great Suns team with Amar’e (Stoudemire) and Steve (Nash). So those were the best especially when the Suns were doing well and they were beating the Lakers in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “Devin Booker’s 70-point game a couple years ago, it was thoroughly enjoyable calling that game when he did that. So a lot of great memories in a position I think a lot of people would love to have.”
Just like for the rest of the world, Johnson’s job looked different after the coronavirus pandemic struck. When the Suns went to the NBA bubble in Orlando to finish their 2020 season, Johnson stayed in Phoenix and used new technological developments and strategies to do his job. He tried to make his fans feel as though he was at the games in Orlando.
“It’s always much more difficult to be able to describe a game and call a game looking at the television, instead of actually being there and feeling the energy of the crowd and being able to see it up close and personal. So that was tough,” Johnson said.
Kevin Ray, Johnson’s longtime friend and play-by-play announcer for the Suns, reflected on the adjustment of covering games played in the Orlando bubble.
“First off, we were certainly thrilled and grateful to be able to continue working, being one of those 22 teams to continue working, and you understood it was going to be different.” Ray said. “The fact the communication was very clear and everything was upfront we knew exactly the type of environment we would be working in and you just learned to adapt.”
Although the bubble atmosphere was different, Johnson and Ray made the most of their experience. And Johnson continued to work with the goal of bringing the game experience to fans.
“We had fun calling games,” he said. “We were all just in a room here in Phoenix. We were watching the games and calling the games. And you know, a lot of fans thought we were there, so that made me feel really good, to know that I was doing a good job.”
While Johnson enjoys his position with the Suns, he also appreciates working as a motivational speaker for businesses and their employees with the goal of improving other people’s mindsets. When speaking, he tackles the topics of health, depression, staying focused and leadership.
“It’s those types of things that I love,” Johnson said. “Just being in a room with successful people who have a desire to get better and not be content on where they are.”
Johnson continued to spread his knowledge and message in his book “You Big Dummy” that was published in 2013.
“In the book I just talk about a lot of things I motivate people with. I give them my story on where I came from, how tough it was, what I had to do,” Johnson said. “And just give them different advice based on, like I said, leadership, motivation, improving themselves, resume, being able to trick people, because that’s what a resume is, believe it or not. And so it’s just those things in the book.”
Johnson has continued to give back to the community in different ways. To Ray, this is why Eddie plays such a big role in the Suns community.
“For Suns fans, he’s a beloved figure just because of his time with the Suns, even when he was competing against the Suns, when he played for Seattle in the ‘93 playoffs,” Ray said. “But again, because he’s made himself visible in the community and made Phoenix his home, he’s made no secret about this is where he loves to be.”
While Johnson balances different careers, in his free time you can find him on the fairways.
“Eddie loves golf and he’s a pretty good golfer, so he loves to live on the course,” Ray said.
Johnson had to overcome adversity throughout his lifetime and has accomplished many goals he set for himself. With some chapters of his life complete, Johnson is ready for whatever may be written on the blank pages to come.
“That’s about it for me, but it’s not done. My story is not done.” Johnson said.