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Johnny Neumann, 68, passes away; Ole Miss basketball legend was once in a lifetime player and person

“Johnny Reb” was an All-American in his only season in Oxford.

David Cobb-USA TODAY Sports

Former Ole Miss basketball legend Johnny Neumann died Tuesday night at the age of 68 after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, per the Oxford Eagle. The Memphis native was a transcendent player in high school, college, and later in the ABA before fizzling out after some bad decisions, on-and-off the court.

Neumann played at Overton High School where he led the state in scoring during the 1968-1969 season. This is where he developed his style that catapulted him to the forefront of SEC basketball in the 1970’s. Johnny, who drew comparisons to Pete Maravich after leading the nation with 40.1 points per game and winning SEC Player of the Year in 1971, may have only played one year at Ole Miss, but he left his mark forever.

“This guy had all the tools. He could score, he could take the last shot. He could take it from outside, he could take you off the dribble,” said iconic coach Hubie Brown in the SEC Storied documentary about Neumann’s life, “The Rebel.”

In a time before the internet and recruiting services and rankings, Neumann’s talents had coaches come to him. Former Overton teammate Mike Arrison told a few remarkable stories to long-time Memphis columnist Geoff Calkins about growing up playing alongside a legend.

“He was Johnny Neumann, maybe the best basketball player that had ever come out of Memphis. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do...One day, after practice, we were asking, ‘Who’s that, is Neumann’s grandfather hanging out in the locker room...Turns out it was (Hall of Fame Kentucky coach) Adolph Rupp.

We used to hang out at a girl’s house near the old Colonial Country Club – she had a basketball court – and the girl’s mother would stick her head out of the door and call out, ‘Johnny, Coach Wooden is on the phone!’”

“The best I ever played against,” former Ole Miss teammate Steve Farese said. “And I played against Pete Maravich.”

Calkins has been around for a long time in the city of Memphis and he has seen tons and tons of basketball talent in and around the city. And Neumann is up there on the proverbial Mt. Rushmore of Memphis Hoops, according to Calkins.

“In a city of basketball legends – Larry Finch, Penny Hardaway, James Wiseman – Neumann was as legendary as any of them.”

After one “season” on the Ole Miss JV team (at that time freshmen were not allowed to play on varsity) his record-breaking sophomore season put him on the map in college basketball. The 6’6 shooting guard led the SEC and nation in scoring by a rather wide margin, bolstered by two remarkable games against LSU and Baylor. He dropped 60 on the Bears and 63 on the Tigers that year.

After just one year in Oxford, Neumann signed a five-year, $2 million contract with the Memphis Pros of the American Basketball Association. Neumann was later drafted by the Chicago Bulls in the 6th round of the 1973 NBA draft. He eventually went on to play for four ABA franchises, three NBA teams, and two European squads before beginning a lengthy coaching career spanning 11 countries, including a stint as the head coach of the Romanian national team.

Neumann returned to Oxford in 2013 to finish his degree, which is when I had the pleasure of sharing a few recreation administration classes with him. He always sat up front, eager and ready to learn, and loved to regale us with stories of his time coaching in various countries.

He implored us all not to make the mistakes that he did in his youth, as he recounted how his arrogance and selfishness alienated his teammates and affected his relationships. He laughed louder at our professor’s bad jokes than anyone else.

Neumann was inducted into the M-Club Hall of Fame in 2015, finished his degree in 2016, and was named to the basketball program’s All-Century team in 2018, a fitting end to a long and winding journey as a Rebel.

You have to think that he and “Pistol Pete” are finally going to go at each other one-on-one now.