Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Train Wreck Called "Fast Eddie"


A Train Wreck Called "Fast Eddie"
by Robert A. Waters

In John Updike’s poem, “Ex-Basketball Player,” Flick never makes it beyond his hometown. Unlike Flick, Edward Lee Johnson, Jr. moved easily from Ocala, Florida to basketball stardom. After four years at Lake Weir High School, he earned a scholarship to Auburn. Johnson had an outstanding career there. Then “Fast Eddie,” as he was called, was drafted into the NBA.

In his rookie year, Johnson shared playing time with Charles Criss of the Atlanta Hawks. The following year, he was a starter. After that, the years piled up, good years mostly. He was an all-star in 1980. By 1981, Fast Eddie was known for his hot-dog style of play. He scored almost 20 points a game that year. In his ten years in the NBA, he averaged 15 points a game.

But by 1987, it was all over.

He returned to his hometown a hero. No one there yet knew of a white powdery cancer eating his soul. By the late 1980s, his hometown of Ocala had shed its long-held Southern heritage. (The powers that be even moved the Confederate statue from the front to the back of the courthouse.) Northerners were moving in by the thousands and were mostly accepted by the locals. The gleam in the eyes of city administrators was green. The more people there are, they reasoned, the more money there is to be had by all. Fast Eddie Johnson was a celebrity. Like other Ocala sports stars, he could easily have turned his good fortune into gold.

But within a year of returning, cocaine had drained the gold from his bank accounts. Although he still had a small stipend from investments, it was never enough to quench the poison thirst.

The inevitable arrests followed. If local newspapers are to be believed, more than a hundred. The charges were endless: burglary, robbery, forgery, theft, battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest, manufacturing drugs, selling drugs. Johnson served time in Florida State Prison. Twice.

Thoughts of a comeback had long-since died. The respect he’d once had from colleagues and hometowners was gone. By 2006, Fast Eddie was a train wreck. And it was only going to get worse.

On August 8, 2006, the mother of an eight-year-old girl called police. She’d come home to find her daughter, shaking and trembling, curled up on the floor in a fetal position. The sobbing child told her mother that Eddie Johnson, an acquaintance of the family, had come to the house, taken her into her bedroom, and raped her.

Johnson was arrested. He was already awaiting trial for the rape of a woman that happened just a few weeks earlier. Although he denied the charges in both cases, Johnson was held for trial.

On October 30, 2008, Eddie Johnson was convicted of, among other charges, “sexual battery on a child under age 12” and “lewd and lascivious molestation of a child under age 12.” The only sentence available for the judge to hand down is life in prison without the possibility of parole.

(In a sad footnote, the coach of the Phoenix Suns is also named Eddie Johnson. Not “Fast Eddie.” Just Eddie. But newspapers around the country mistook him for the other Eddie. Suddenly, Just Eddie was being maligned by the sports world. It took months for him to clear his good name. “I don’t fault the other Eddie Johnson for having that name,” Just Eddie said. “I think it’s a great name. He just doesn’t happen to be a great guy.”)

The train wreck called “Fast Eddie” Johnson had spun off the track and crashed. It’s sad. But what’s even sadder are his victims. Those he robbed and stole from over the years. Those kids who once idolized him. The victims of his physical and sexual assaults. But most pathetic is a child who’ll have to live forever with the fallout from a brutal rape. The horror of that memory will always haunt her, will change her.

As Edward Lee Johnson, Jr. goes off to prison, the wreckage strewn in his wake is the saddest thing of all.