Mistaken Identity

By Michael Tillery

Imagine watching the national news and seeing your picture all over the TV. You mistakenly were associated with being involved in a despicable and heinous sex crime because you shared the same name with the alleged criminal. If you were eating food at the time you saw the report you actually might choke. How many people would you call? Would your heart almost beat out of your chest? What would you really do? Your life—until you hopefully cleared your name—would be a nightmare.

When mistakes in the media happen, the result can be a lifelong quest in trying to clear the affected individual’s name and credibility. Eddie Johnson 47, analyst for the Phoenix Suns, was involved in such a story. He sat down recently with Michael Tillery to rectify what he called “the worse day of my life.”

Eddie “Fast Eddie” Johnson, 51 years of age and former All Star with the Atlanta Hawks, was arrested in Ocala, FLA and charged with residential burglary and sexual battery on an underage child.

The girl and her three brothers were staying in the apartment while their mother registered them for school, according to a police report. Johnson walked into the apartment uninvited and told the girl’s six year old brother to lock the door police said. The girl told detectives Johnson ordered her into a bedroom where he sexually assaulted her according to the police report. He then told her not to tell anyone about what just happened and tried to kiss her in the kitchen before leaving the report stated.

She told her mother about the alleged assault when the women returned to the apartment police said. The girl’s mother said she knew Johnson from the neighborhood, but said he had never had permission to be in her home.

Johnson was arrested in a field near the apartment building. He told detectives he had been in the apartment with the children, who had been jumping on the bed. He also told detectives, he kissed the girl on the head, which he does all the neighborhood children “as a friendly gesture,” according to a police report.

Since 1989, online Marion Country court records show Johnson has had numerous convictions: burglary, battery, robbery, marijuana possession, possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting arrest, along with the charge last month of battery on a law enforcement officer or obstructing an officer without violence the Ocala Star-Banner reported for Wednesday’s editions.

Johnson, a 6′2 guard from Auburn University, played in the NBA from 1977-1987 with the Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Seattle Supersonics. He represented the Hawks in 1980 and 1981 in the NBA All Star game and scored 10,163 points in his career.

Edward “Eddie” Arnet Johnson, from Illinois University, spent 17 seasons in the NBA. He played for the Kings, Suns, Supersonics, Hornets, Pacers, Rockets and Greek team Olmpiacos (1994-1995) before retiring from basketball in 1999 with 19,202 career points. In 1989, he received the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award as member of the Suns.

Michael Tillery: Eddie A. Johnson, How did this happen?

Eddie A. Johnson: I think that it was a chain reaction—so to speak. I just got back from vacation in Hawaii Wednesday morning. I got a phone call from one of my best friends and current Atlanta Hawks head coach, Mike Woodson saying that people have called him and said my picture was attached to the story about Eddie Johnson molesting an eight year old girl. He knew right away that it was the other Eddie Johnson who used to play in the league and was disturbed obviously—almost as much as I was. Someone obviously didn’t do their homework. When I got home, I saw some phone calls from some of my family and friends asking what happened. The Chicago Tribune, in their overzealousness to get to print, did not read the entire Associated Press report of his arrest. They read it maybe a quarter of the way. The end of the report stated his height—6′2, and his college—Auburn. I’m 6′8 and went to Illinois. Big difference. Being that a lot of graduates of Illinois live in the Chicago area, it was a big story. Skip Bayless on Jim Rome’s radio show, and who also works for ESPN’s Coldpizza, was ranting on me and just killing me verbally. Saying he doesn’t know why the Suns hired me with such a checkered past and all kinds of other stuff. I guess someone called in during the middle of his tirade and informed the station that he was talking about the wrong one. He killed me on the air for like a minute and a half and then only apologized for 15 seconds.

Eddie A. Johnson: In the span of 8 hours. I basically got reeled in by a company who attaches pictures to stories. My picture was first placed in the story by an Atlanta TV website. The ball kept rolling from there. My picture was basically on every TV station’s website—across the nation and abroad attached to this article. Those three entities not doing their entire jobs cost me my reputation. I have to clear my name and make sure that everybody knows that I’m not that guy who was arrested.

Michael Tillery: So the initial story had it right?

Eddie A. Johnson: The Associated Press didn’t make a mistake. Their article stated “Ex NBA All Star Eddie Johnson.” I never made the All Star team, so they were correct. They said he was fifty-one years old—correct. At the bottom of the article they said he was 6′2 from Auburn—also correct. Their release was factual. They could have written it a little bit better—maybe putting his bio at the top or used his picture. A lot of people thought it was me. When you mention that name in sports circles, you automatically think that it’s me. People don’t think of him. That’s where the confusion started. I still say you do your homework. I still say you take in the fact that I’ve never had problems. I don’t have a shaky past. If anything, people should pause and say this can’t be right. Then you go do your research. Whoever printed this story was negligent and reckless and basically didn’t do their correct job. That’s the most disappointing thing about it.

Michael Tillery: The other site I work for, Black Sport Network, really goes out of it’s way to make sure stories are correct in their entirety. We don’t make snap judgments on particular incidents because we don’t want to look like fools. I talked to my boss when this story hit and asked him did he hear about you. We both thought there was something funny with this story and decided to reserve judgment until we heard more about this. I recently saw you on ESPN. After this story hit I thought back to that appearance and thought to myself that no one would have you on if your past was as checkered as some of the outlets were reporting. Especially with the way athletes currently are scrutinized, there’s no way—especially being African American—that you would be given a pass and be allowed to do what you do so eloquently. I hope that all these outlets that have portrayed you in such a negative light go to great lengths to apologize. We obviously are here to help and I hope through us running this, people will say to themselves, “I knew it wasn’t him!”

Eddie A. Johnson: In their desire to be the first, outlets push and push further. The way media reports today, some don’t care who they hurt. The Chicago Tribune put a retraction in the paper yesterday—which was nice—but it still is not enough. That’s one of the largest newspapers in the world. For them to be negligent in that fashion is just not right. It’s disappointing.

Michael Tillery: They just now have began to put his picture in the story.

Eddie A. Johnson: That would have squashed it right there. As I said before, I understand that when you mention my name, you are not going to think of him. He retired in 1987, I retired in 1999. My career was a little bit more visible than his. I understand all that. To push it along by putting my picture and stating that it’s the “Fighting Illini’s Eddie Johnson” is ridiculous. Skip Bayless ranting and raving is what caused the furor and all the finger pointing at me. The entities that reported this reach millions of people. If I wanted to create a nightmare, that’s how I would have created it. A company that can distribute my picture to every news station with one click? The Chicago Tribune is read all over the world. Jim Rome is one of the most listened to radio shows in the country. That would be the perfect nightmare. It happened in that order and that’s the scary part about it. I received an email last night saying that over in China, they still have my picture on the article. One English speaking daily goes to over six million people! It’s not over. I appreciate that Blacksportsnetwork.com contacted me to help in rectifying such a potentially ugly situation for myself and my family.

Michael Tillery: Do you think there were other motives involved, or do you think it simply was a case of mistaken identity?

Eddie A. Johnson: I think that it was a mistaken identity type thing. I also think that it was the big story. That’s how our society works. These three entities wanted it to be me because that would make it a bigger story. They didn’t want it to be the other one, and because of that, they just didn’t do their research. At the Tribune, they wanted it to be me because I went to Illinois. We are big there for obvious reasons. Skip Bayless went for the jugular by saying he couldn’t understand why Jerry Colangelo hired somebody like me. He just went right into it. It’s just the way people think. They want to get pats on the back for breaking news. This other Eddie Johnson would have stayed small. He’s irrelevant to them. He doesn’t have anything to do with the league. Even though he was a very good player, he’s not well remembered. That’s not good enough.

Michael Tillery is a Delaware writer who just can’t understand why so many of our heroes keep dropping the ball. He can be reached via email at masdalunkin@aol.com



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