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Documentary on former hoop star Neumann’s life provides a cautionary tale

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Hoop aficionados from Harlem to Hokkaido can appreciate the details of a good global basketball odyssey.

Heck, any human with a pulse can.

Well, folks, Johnny (John) Neumann’s tale is unique, including many setbacks along the way.

It’s also inspiring (more on that later).

A supremely gifted player, Johnny, a small forward/shooting guard, made the game of basketball look easy. He could do it all on the court, especially as a scorer during his one-of-a-kind sophomore season at the University of Mississippi, which drew comparisons to Pistol Pete Maravich’s offensive prowess for Louisiana State while playing under his father Press. Neumann was dubbed the “next Pete Maravich.”

Japan was one of the many stops in his worldwide odyssey, playing in both the ABA and NBA and coaching the game he loves in Germany, the United States (minor leagues) plus stints in Belgium and Greece, Cyprus and Kuwait, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and China.

From 2007 to 2010, the older, wiser man now referred to as John coached upstart Rizing Fukuoka for their first two seasons in the bj-league before taking over the cash-strapped Takamatsu Five Arrows for one year. And then the 1970-71 NCAA Division I scoring champion (40.1 points per game in his lone varsity season for Ole Miss, a season after Pistol Pete led the nation with a jaw-dropping 44.5 ppg average) was off to Europe to make a living and support his family, coaching the Romania men’s national team before returning to the United States a few years later.

In a February 2008 interview with Jack Gallagher of The Japan Times, Neumann reflected on his time in the game.

“I was a bit of a jerk when I was a player, but I am a better coach because of the experience,” Neumann told Gallagher. “I try to help these kids learn from what I did.”

(And, in 2008, Neumann led the expansion Rizing to a playoff upset of the heavily favored Five Arrows, who were the title runner-up the previous season, to usher in their first postseason experience. He nabbed bj-league Coach of the Year honors that year, too. He was a runner-up to future NBA bench boss George Karl for Continental Basketball Association top coach accolades in 1982; in later years, his coach of the year honors also came in Greece and Cyprus, with five total awards during his years in Europe.)

Neumann’s career and, to a lesser extent, life, is the subject of a compelling new documentary, “The Rebel,” which made its debut on May 30 on the SEC Network.

From start to finish, the ESPN Films production, which was directed by Paul Carruthers, features a wide range of interviews and narrator Luke Perry — yes, the actor — delivers the details crisply and clearly.

The back story on Neumann’s rise to basketball stardom is fascinating. Interviews with well-known pundits Hubie Brown, Paul Finebaum and Woody Paige as well as former high school and college teammates and opponents provide authoritative analysis throughout the nearly 49-minute documentary.

It’s time well spent.

The viewer gains a real understanding of his life, his accomplishments and his mistakes. And this: the realization that Neumann was born with a remarkable combination of athleticism, hoop intelligence and on-court showmanship.

While at Overton High School in Memphis, Neumann scored 26 ppg as a junior, then raised his average to 34 ppg his senior year.

Neumann refined his game competing and practicing on the playgrounds of Memphis, often playing in the Orange Mound neighborhood where, the documentary noted, he was frequently the only white ballplayer participating in games. In the 1890s, Orange Mound, on the city’s southeast side, became the first U.S. neighborhood to be constructed by African-Americans.

Taking a trip back in time, Neumann, wearing jeans, a white long-sleeved shirt and sneakers is seen shooting a basketball at an Orange Mound court. It puts his formative years in perspective; this was one place where he refined his game — and thrived.

During the turbulent 1960s marred by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the latter in Memphis on April 4, 1968, basketball could bring people together.

In 1969, Neumann’s Overton High squared off against Memphis hoop power Melrose High, a school in the city’s black neighborhoods.

Neumann, a high school All-American, had 34 points and 13 rebounds in a 76-65 loss to Melrose.

“After the game, there were no problems, no violence, nothing,” Neumann said, looking back on the game. “It was just a tremendous spectacle event that I feel really brought the community at that time together.”

Neumann’s high school exploits did not go unnoticed.

Adolph Rupp, the University of Kentucky’s mentor, “came to visit me,” Neumann recalled in the film. “Everyone imaginable recruited me.”

And rightfully so.

Ex-Ole Miss teammates explained why.

Said Cecil Jones: “His talent level was far superior to everybody else’s.”

Coolidge Ball, the first black athlete to play for the Rebels, put it this way: “He just had a skill set that was unbelievable.”

That talent shined through during Neumann’s time on the Rebels’ freshman squad, when he averaged 38.4 ppg and led it to a No. 2 ranking nationally and a 25-1 record. (Freshman were not permitted to play varsity ball in those days.)

As a sophomore, he was eligible to play on the varsity team for the 1970-71 season. And he put points on the board in bunches.

He scored 57 points against Southern Miss, dropped 60 on Baylor and torched LSU for 63. The Rebels won their first six games, then dropped 13 of their next 18.

Indeed, it was the Johnny Neumann Show.

“In an era with no 3-point line and no shot clock,” the narrator observed, “Neumann put up scoring numbers that even by today’s standards are astounding.”

He was fearless.

“All good players have to be arrogant and egotistical to a point,” Neumann said, reflecting on his Ole Miss career. “Was I more arrogant? Probably, yes.”

He added: “I was a young, arrogant spoiled kid, and I didn’t listen.”

During the closing days of Neumann’s sophomore season, his father had a heart attack. He returned to Memphis to be with his family.

While he was visiting his dad at the hospital, someone from the ABA called the hospital room. Neumann quit the Rebels with two games left in the season. It became known as an NCAA hardship case.

He promptly signed a five-year contract for $2 million to play for the ABA’s Memphis Pros.

The camera zoomed in on a series of news articles to put this into context, including one by The Associated Press, which reported Neumann’s thinking at the time.

“My father may never be able to work again,” Neumann was quoted as saying. “I am now assuming the head of the household.”

And at age 19 he was, suddenly, “one of the highest paid athletes in all of sports,” the narrator declared.

The film does a fine job of chronicling Neumann’s missteps at this stage of his career. Neumann spent money like it grew on trees. (Declaring bankruptcy, his ex-wife, Carolyn, said she had about 25 cents to her name.)

His first big purchase?

A Pantera sports car. He then bought an El Dorado Cadillac. He purchased Jaguars, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes.

In one display of immaturity, he quit the Memphis club before a teammate convinced him to come back. He scored 38 points in his first game back.

“I was my own worst enemy,” Neumann admits in the film.

Like in his coaching career to come, Neumann bounced around the ABA, suiting up for Memphis, the Utah Stars, Virginia Squires (two stints) and Kentucky Colonels.

In 1976, he went to the Buffalo Braves in the NBA, then to the Los Angeles Lakers (1976-77) before heading back to the Pacers, then taking his game overseas in ’78 to play for Gabetti Cantù in Italy.

When Neumann was with the Colonels, Hubie Brown, long recognized for his expert NBA commentary, coached him.

“He revitalized my career,” Neumann said of Brown.

But it wasn’t a one-way street.

“He just accepted the organization, the discipline and the accountability, and he just fit right in,” Brown said during the film.

“…He has a very high basketball IQ.”

Others saw that, too.

After the ABA’s Pacers, Nets, Nuggets and Spurs were absorbed by the NBA in 1976 and the former league went out of business, Buffalo acquired Neumann.

“They knew that this guy could play,” Brown said, referring to the Braves.

In the 1977 Western Conference finals, Neumann played for the Lakers. It would be his final deep foray in the playoffs in the United States.

Throughout the film, Neumann reflects on his journey as a player and coach and man, and it’s an honest look at his disappointments, mistakes, regrets. (He’s been married five times.)

The documentary’s production crew gets a close-up look at Neumann’s daily routine as he pursued his general studies degree at Ole Miss more than 45 years after he first set foot on campus.

The camera follows him in the classroom to his modest off-campus apartment, showing him going about his business, studying and preparing for his classes. His devotion is inspiring.

It’s no longer a life without limits. It’s a purpose-driven life: a return to Ole Miss in the 2013 to be a student again.

“(Neumann) hopes a degree will bring him a coaching job that will allow his family to reunite in America,” the narrator stated.

Neumann’s 9-year-old daughter Esmeralda has a rare kidney ailment known as nephrotic syndrome and returned to Europe with her mother while he pursued his degree.

His words stay with you long after watching the film, too.

“I’ve been humbled many times in my life,” Neumann said. “I’ve cried, been extremely lonely and been afraid. I have been humbled, but a better word is I’ve been broken.”

Not many athletes or ex-athletes speak with unflinching honesty, especially when the camera is recording.

It’s fascinating to watch Neumann walk through C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum, his old stomping grounds, decades later and soak up the memories and reflect on that brief, but unforgettable time.

He had not been there for 42 years.

But he wants to be honored for what he accomplished, while wearing No. 14 for the Rebels.

“I don’t understand why my jersey number isn’t retired,” he says, sitting in the stands.

It’s a compelling, thought-provoking snapshot of Neumann’s circuitous journey back to Oxford.

While on campus, he’s seen focused on his studies in the library. Generations of students have come and gone since Neumann arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1969 as a hoop phenom.

At 65, he was busy studying again.

“Next week, praise God, it will be over with,” he said.

In one emotional scene in The Rebel, Neumann is seen attending his graduation ceremony at Ole Miss in May 2016.

“Getting my degree is the biggest achievement that I’ve ever had in my life,” Neumann declared.

Former Overton High teammate Mike Arison succinctly summed up Neumann’s ups and downs.

“Johnny Neumann’s story is too much, too soon,” Arison said in the film. “At 20 years old he suddenly comes into more money than any of us could’ve thought possible.”

He’s back in basketball again. This past season, Neumann, who turns 66 in September, served as an assistant coach for South Panola High School boys team in Batesville, Mississippi.

It’s the latest stop on his global basketball odyssey, and only about 40 km from Oxford.