He was shooting free throws by himself after practice, just as he had done most of his athletic life. It was a ritual that had helped him become an all-star in the National Basketball Association.

But that day early last month, the police came for Atlanta Hawks guard Eddie Johnson. He resisted. He kicked and he fought, but the officers -- with papers signed by two psychiatrists ordering Johnson temporarily committed -- took him to the psychiatric ward of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital.

Johnson, 26, is considered one of the best guards in the NBA. Last season his teammates selected him as the Hawks' most valuable player, despite an off-season incident in which he was arrested on drug charges that later were dropped.

This season he was expected to run the Hawks' offense for new Coach Kevin Loughery. Instead, everything came tumbling down on Eddie Johnson.

At the direction of his personal psychiatrist in consultation with another doctor, Johnson spent one week in the hospital for a manic-depressive disorder. This type of disorder is generally considered to reflect a biochemical imbalance in the brain. The manic phase involves severe mood swings characterized by excessive elation, irritability and talkativeness.

When Johnson was released from the hospital, his psychiatrist, Dr. Lloyd Baccus, and the Hawks felt that he was not ready to join the team for the start of the season, and Johnson was suspended.

Last Saturday night Johnson sat in the stands at the Omni as Atlanta, struggling with a 3-4 record, was defeated by the Detroit Pistons.

As he watched Isiah Thomas and John Long run around the Hawk guards, Johnson, who was to resume practice with the team three days later, talked about the problems that led to his committal and how he has attempted to deal with them.

Johnson characterizes himself as "a bit arrogant, a touch cocky and more than a bit vulnerable, but still only human." What brought about his recent problems, he says, was that he could not cope with the pressures around him.

Johnson says he is fine now. "I'm not nervous about anything. My friends and people involved are the ones who are nervous. I know I'm going to be okay. I am okay."

Johnson resumed workouts with the Hawks Monday, and General Manager Stan Kasten said he was "very pleased with the results." But, Kasten added, Johnson's behavior is still "monitored very closely."

The decision about when to activate Johnson will be made by Loughery, who says Johnson "is as good as any guard in the league."

"Eddie's situation isn't a common problem at all," said Kasten, who is close to Johnson. "There are a lot of complex things here. Eddie is a terrific kid, extremely intelligent and very articulate. He's just had some problems. We feel it's worth it to stick with him and see him through all of this if at all possible . . . "

But Johnson isn't completely convinced of the Hawks' motives.

"I'm concerned about myself as a person, and they're concerned about me only because of how I reflect on the team," he said.

Johnson, from Auburn, was picked by Atlanta in the third round of the 1977 draft and has been a star since. In the 1979-80 season, he averaged 18.5 points and 4.7 assists, and as an All-Star Game starter, scored 22 points and had seven assists.

Before the 1980-81 season, Johnson was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs, possession of drugs (cocaine) and driving without a license.

"I'm a country boy, and all of a sudden I was in the big city making it in the big time," he said. "And I ran into a lot of leeches and snakes. I went around with the wrong people . . . It caught up with me."

At the time of his arrest, the Hawks agreed to seek psychiatric help for Johnson, and the drug and driving charges eventually were dropped. Johnson was diagnosed as a manic depressive and put on lithium, a medication to control the condition.

Under medication, manic depressives can lead normal lives. Golfer Bert Yancey spent time in 11 hospitals before being diagnosed as a manic depressive several years ago. He now operates a golf school in Hilton Head, S.C., and rejoined the PGA Tour this year.

The 1980-81 season was Johnson's best. He averaged a career-high 19.1 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field.

But for reasons no one -- even Johnson -- can explain, he stopped taking his medication this past off-season. Kasten said he "could see a gradual change in his behavior over the summer."

At the team's first practice this year, according to Kasten, Johnson exhibited disruptive behavior. After meeting with Kasten, Johnson and team president Michael Gearon, Baccus drew up the papers to have Johnson temporarily committed. Under Georgia law, a person may be involuntarily committed for a week by two psychiatrists. Longer committals must be ordered by the courts.

"They sent me to the best psychiatrist," Johnson said. "It was good for me. I needed to settle down, both physically and mentally. I'm not a junkie. Drugs aren't the issue."

After a week in the hospital, Johnson was released under Baccus' care and, according to the Hawks, he has resumed his medication.

Even though he hasn't played competitively since last season, Johnson is confident.

"This is my livelihood," he said. "I know how to stay in shape. I've reached the point in my career where this game is easy for me. I play with my head."

Eddie's younger brother, Frank Johnson, is a rookie guard for the Washington Bullets, and when the Bullets went to Atlanta to play the Hawks last week, Eddie sat at courtside with his mother and Hawk owner Ted Turner.

"I felt a little nervous when Frank went in, because I always want him to do good," Johnson said.

Frank Johnson prefers not to talk about his big brother's problems. Like others, he can only hope that Eddie can solve them.