URBANA — Standing in front of a ballroom filled with orange-and-blue-wearing members of the Illini Rebounders group at the Holiday Inn on Friday, Eddie Johnson described his physique as a college basketball star in 1979 as “body-building-looking guy.”
The 35 years between then and now have done nothing to change that as Illini coach John Groce said, “If we wanted to suit Eddie up right now, we’d probably get away with it.”
You know what else hasn’t changed? The emotions Illinois fans feel when they see replays of the shot Johnson hit in the closing seconds in 1979 to knock off No. 1 Michigan State, a team that went on to win the national championship led by a point guard named Magic.
With Tom Izzo’s fourth-ranked Spartans in town for a game against the Illini tonight (7 p.m., BTN), Johnson will be recognized at halftime to commemorate the 35th anniversary of that shot.
When a video of the 15-footer from the right baseline was shown at Friday’s Rebounders luncheon, the room erupted with cheers as if was happening live.
“A lot of different things changed my life, but that was the first one,” Johnson said of the shot. “It’s given me an opportunity to still be remembered by people, and that’s what you want. You want to be able to leave a legacy, leave something behind and help contribute to someone’s happiness. That was my opportunity to do it. I jumped up and seized it and it was against a tremendous team.”
With his coach, Lou Henson, decked out in his famous orange blazer and sitting to his left, Johnson, in a fitted light blue dress shirt complete with an orange-and-blue striped tie, told the assembled crowd how he so desperately wanted the ball in his hands on that last play to fell the Spartans.
“Coach designed the play. I walked out of the huddle and I went to (the point guard) and I said ‘Look, you better get me the ball,’ ” Johnson said as the crowd burst into laughter. “I just wanted it.”
It’s a confidence that built inside Johnson growing up on Chicago’s west side. At every corner there was something present that easily could have thrown the sixth child of seven raised by a single mother off course.
“The pressure of basketball was nothing compared to what I had to deal with growing up,” Johnson said. “I had to find a different route to school every day just to avoid gangs, avoid temptation, avoid peer pressure. Basketball was easy.”
So confident in his ability as a basketball player, Johnson was disappointed to be drafted in the second round (29th overall) of the 1981 NBA draft. He backed it up, playing 17 seasons for seven different teams. His 19,202 career points are the most of any player never named to an all-star team.
Fourteen years removed from his basketball career, Johnson remains as confident as ever, dedicating himself to various professional responsibilities off the court.
The 54-year-old has been a color analyst for the Phoenix Suns’ television broadcasts since 2001 and has called games for the Big Ten Network the previous two seasons. Johnson also started JJJ Sports in 2000, a company that hosts camps and clinics for youth, as well as producing instructional videos for kids to help them become well-rounded in sports and life.
And as he displayed during Friday’s 45-minute address, Johnson is a motivational speaker, too.
“I love to talk,” he said, as wife Joy nodded in agreement.
Most recently, Johnson penned a book called “You Big Dummy.” On Friday, after he spoke, Johnson autographed copies of the book for a long line of Rebounders during a meet and greet.
“I wanted to write a book that was a blueprint to how I made it,” Johnson said. “I want kids to know I looked at myself as a big dummy. I didn’t know everything. I put myself in the basement and I watched, I learned, I listened, and that’s what they need to do. I’m giving them some secrets to success.”
Despite Groce’s wishes, Johnson won’t suit up for the Illini tonight. But the ever-confident Johnson is sure his alma mater, which has lost three straight, can benefit from his presence.
“Big, bad Michigan State is visiting, but EJ’s here. I’m gonna bring some karma,” he said. “We’re gonna get it done. I feel good about it.”
It has been 35 years since Eddie Johnson’s shot beat Michigan State. We asked “Illini Legends, Lists & Lore” author Mike Pearson for three more of the great’s best moments as an Illini:
1. Nov. 25, 1977: After a much-publicized prep career at Westinghouse High, Eddie comes off the bench in his collegiate debut to score 12 points in 18 minutes. Fans could sense that the program was about to turn the corner.
2. Mar. 14, 1981: Eddie’s team-high 19 points helps Illinois beat Wyoming at Pauley Pavilion, 67-65. It’s the Illini’s first NCAA tournament game in 18 years (1963).
3. Mar. 19, 1981: With his ninth rebound of the night — and the final one of his career — against Kansas State in an NCAA tournament game — Johnson becomes Illinois’ career rebounding leader (831 to Skip Thoren’s 830).