Listen to Kevin Johnson's teleconference

Kevin Johnson
Phoenix Suns
April 5, 2000

Kevin JohnsonKevin Johnson made his return to action Sunday against the Timberwolves. (AP Photo)
On March 25, longtime Phoenix floor general Kevin Johnson leaped out of retirement to return to the Suns after Jason Kidd's broken ankle left a void in the team's backcourt. Johnson played his second game last night in a one-point loss to the Lakers, as he scored 14 points to go with four assists.

Johnson, 34, has career averages 17.9 points and 9.2 assists. Only five players in NBA history have averaged more assists per game (Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas and Kidd, minimum of 400 games), and only Walter Davis and Alvan Adams scored more total points as members of the Phoenix Suns.

Q: How would you grade your return so far and how are you feeling?

Johnson: First, I'd like to say it's great to be back in the NBA. I'm joining a Phoenix Suns team that is very special. We've battled a lot of adversity early on. We've had a coaching change, lost Tom Gugliotta, Rex Chapman and then Jason Kidd. Yet our team still manages to be productive on the court and put ourselves in a position to win. So I'm excited.

I would rate my performance as satisfactory. I'm trying to get into good basketball playing shape. And that's going to be my biggest challenge in the remainder of the final two weeks, because we don't have a lot of practice situations. I'm working my way into shape during game situations. But again, it's a pleasure to be back.

Q: Kevin, what made the time right to come back now, considering you had other offers before?

Johnson: It really came down to, in the final analysis, I couldn't see myself putting another uniform other than a Phoenix Suns uniform. I had felt that for me to play, it would take a very unique situation. Certainly I couldn't drum up this situation, the way it presented itself.

Jason Kidd broke a bone in his foot against Sacramento. In the fourth quarter of that game, I got a call from Cotton Fitzsimmons, asking would I consider playing for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. I was shocked by the call. I indicated to him that I would need a night to think about it, to talk to my family and certainly pray, and that I would let them know first thing in the morning.

When the morning came, I felt that duty was calling. I was in good shape. I had been working out very rigorously for the last three months. I wasn't in basketball shape, but I had been working out and I felt I had a good foundation. I liken that phone call to when your country calls, and it's time to go serve your country. I felt very similar when the Phoenix Suns organization called me. This was a situation that it was very difficult to say "No." I felt that there was a need and I was the only person to fulfill it at this particular time, and I tried to accept the challenges.

Q: What's the toughest challenge about getting back into game shape?

Johnson: The two toughest things are getting your legs into playing and conditioning shape. That's the hard thing, and unfortunately you can't speed up that progress and there's nothing you can do away from basketball that is going to get your legs into basketball shape other than playing basketball.

The second thing that requires a lot of adjusting is timing. That factors in being a step slower, trying to get a handle on the basketball, making good, crisp passes, being able to react both offensively and defensively. So I think getting your legs in shape and timing are the two most important things.

Q: Being in the same age group and generation as Karl Malone and John Stockton, how do you compare yourself to them, seeing that they've hardly missed any games?

Johnson: I certainly take my hat off to those two guys. They are true professionals, and their ability to play night in and night out is really, really incredible. And watching them from a distance, they have certainly been an inspiration to me even before I took the two years off. I just respect those guys and what they've been able to do.

Taking the two years off and looking at those two guys continuing to plug away, certainly that was encouraging to me. I'm a few years younger than both of those guys. I just turned 34 last month. They are at least 36, 37. And that serves as encouragement. Those guys are still playing very, very good basketball. They put their team in a position to win night in and night out. I think you learn, and they both display this, that it doesn't require as much energy. You become a little more smarter, a little more experienced. And you pick your spots and I think those guys continue to do that.

Q: What did you miss the most by being away?

Johnson: Initially when I walked away from the game, I tried to stay as far away as possible. Meaning I didn't come to any games, I didn't watch a lot of basketball, because I didn't want to get the bug. I felt it was best for me to keep as much distance as I could from the game. While I was away, I didn't really miss anything. I had a lot of things going on, I was appreciating my time, my life after the NBA and my life away from basketball.

But once I came back, a couple of things jumped out and I realized I really missed this. I missed the competitiveness of playing NBA basketball. You can't get that anywhere else. The second thing I missed was the camaraderie from your teammates. You have that common goal and team spirit and unity, and everybody on the same page, and that was something that I missed. And lastly, I really missed the relationship with fans and community and the state of Arizona. I was fine when I was away, but when I came back, I realized just how exhilarating it was to have the interaction that I've had over the last 12 years with this community.

Q: You've had your share of injuries. Do you think the time away was a blessing to give your body a chance to heal?

Johnson: Certainly it was a blessing, and it definitely gave my body a chance to heal. My body feels great. I can't say enough about how my body has been able to rejuvenate itself. I haven't been injured in the last two years, so I hope I can continue my streak now that I'm playing basketball.

Q: What is it like getting used to the media again?

Johnson: I've enjoyed my quiet time. I've been a public figure for all of my adult life and the majority of my adolescence. I enjoyed my private life. But I realize it's part our responsibility, and I'm trying to make myself available and do my part.

Q: Can you evaluate the Western Conference playoff race and where you see you guys fitting in?

Johnson: The Lakers are the team to beat. Ron Harper was in the locker room last night, talking about how he wants to win five rings. He has three now.

Portland got off to a great start. If they get it back on track, they are going to be a team that can challenge. Certainly, you can never count Utah out. And San Antonio, the defending champs, they'll be in it when the playoffs get into gear.

A lot of people have written us off when Jason went down. We hope to have him back by the second round. But we'd like to think that we have a chance to contend to at least get out of the first couple of rounds. And the final three teams in the West are good basketball teams, too. Minnesota, Seattle, Sacramento. There is a lot of parity there.

Q: Are you guys as a team looking to catch Utah to get a better spot?

Johnson: Our goal, with eight games left, it would be great to win seven of those games. And if that moves us up in front of Utah, that's great. But we'd like to secure our No. 4 spot so we can open up at home. That would be very important to us, and to play good basketball going into the playoffs. Then we'll feel good about our position.

Q: Do you have any feel for whether you are going to continue beyond this year?

Johnson: I haven't given any consideration to whether I play beyond this year. I mean, this challenge in front of me is so daunting, and everything happened so quickly, I haven't had a chance to be introspective or reflective. My whole life was flipped upside down in a span of 24 hours. And it's been adjustment after adjustment. If I can just get through this season and help our team do well in the playoffs, that's my only goal.

Q: What was it like the first time you stepped into practice, in the game?

Johnson: The first time I practiced, it was very difficult to keep up. Not so much that I couldn't eventually keep up, but just not playing for two years, and then having to react to this speed at this level of competition was very, very difficult. Specifically, as it related to my legs. The timing with the basketball I knew would come eventually.

The first time I stepped onto the court for a game, we were playing Minnesota on the road. Each day I become more and more comfortable. One thing that has helped speed up the whole process of transition has been the familiarity of this organization. Psychologically, emotionally and mentally, all those things are in place. I'm playing on the same team, the same arena, the referees are the same. The players, the trainers, the coaching staff. All of those are familiar. My route from home to the arena is the same. All those things have made my transition a lot, lot smoother.