Kevin Johnson Deserves a Call From the HallBy: Greg Esposito, Suns.com
Posted: February 7, 2013
Long before fans knew who Goran Dragic, Steve Nash or Jason Kidd were, there was a point guard that changed the face of the organization and the city. This 6-1, athletic and heady young rookie joined the Phoenix Suns in the midst of one of its darkest periods as a franchise in 1988. But as the saying goes, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”
On the heels of a scandal that shook the organization to its core, “the deal” that went down on February 25, 1988, sent the team’s then best player, Larry Nance, to Cleveland for what many Suns fans at the time called “unproven players.” One of those players was Kevin Johnson, and while his name was unknown at the time, he would quickly become a fan favorite, the face of the franchise and eventually a legend in the city. If Suns fans have their way, he’ll be adding Hall of Famer to that list in the future as well.
Before he ever arrived in the Valley, his hard work and leadership were apparent to those who were on the same court as him. One of those was former teammate Mark West, who played with Johnson in Cleveland before making the trip to Phoenix with him as part of the aforementioned trade.
“I thought he’d be a very good leader,” West said. “He was probably as competitive of a person as I’ve seen in my entire life. We had Mark Price in Cleveland at the time and Mark had to stop practicing because Kevin was going to hurt him to get the starting spot. He was an incredible competitor and incredible athlete.”
Upon his arrival in Phoenix, both his competitiveness and athleticism became abundantly clear, not just to teammates and opponents but to everyone in the NBA. In only his third game in a Suns uniform -- wearing No. 11 rather than the No. 7 which would later become synonymous with the name KJ -- he scored 10 points, dished out 16 assists and grabbed four rebounds. Not a bad way to introduce himself to the Phoenix fans. He followed up that performance by shooting 16-of-21 from the field for 36 points and had 15 assists over his next two games. The best was yet to come that rookie season, though.
As his teammate that year Suns legend Alvan Adams remembers the moment he realized that Johnson was going to be something extremely special.
“He’s a leader,” Adams reminisced. “He came to the Suns my last season. I remember a late season game. We were playing Seattle at home. We were already mathematically out of playoff contention. Late in the game, I’m in and Kevin is in. There was a timeout and coach is talking, and it’s a close game. We broke the huddle and Kevin says ‘and Alvin, keep your guys off the boards. We’re only going to win it if we all keep our guys off the boards.’
For a split second I paused and thought ‘that’s a rookie talking’ but just as quickly I thought ‘that’s leadership. He’s earned the right to be heard because he works hard and knows the game.’”
That game took place on April 16, 1988 and despite his team being just 26-51 entering the game, Johnson gave it his all with 31 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in a 121-119 overtime win over the Sonics. It’s a quality that would become a hallmark of his career.
It was performances like that which left a major impression on Adams. An impression that has lasted 25 years.
“I knew he was going to be a darn good player in the future,” he remembered. “I knew he was going to be the face of the team for awhile. I didn’t know he was going to be as good as he was though but I knew the Suns were going to be in good hands after I retired.”
Adams’ instinct was right. The following season Johnson took the reigns as one of the team leaders and as a fan favorite. It paid off to the tune of what was the biggest turnaround in the organization’s history. The team went from 28-54 in 1987-88 to 55-27 in the 1988-89 season - which tied, at the time, the best record in franchise history.Gallery: KJ Over the Years
While he didn’t do it alone, the team did add free agent high-flyer Tom Chambers and new head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons in the offseason, Johnson did take his career to the next level. That season he averaged highs per game in points (20.4), assists (12.2), steals (1.7) and minutes (39.1) while putting up impressive rebounding numbers (4.2).
The combination of the offseason acquisitions, Johnson’s career highs and his will to win helped the Suns shock the league. They made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before their division foes, the Lakers, ended their magical run.
Despite going up against some of the league’s toughest competition in only his second season as a professional, Johnson was unfazed. He wanted to win at all costs regardless of who was guarding him.
“With all this athleticism, his driving thing was to win games against whatever odds were put against him,” former center Mark West remembered. “He didn’t care what that guy’s status was when he faced him. Whether it was Magic [Johnson], who was unbelievable and maybe the best point guard to ever play status or whatever, [Kevin] went at him.”
He would take another run at Magic and the rest of the league’s point guards during the 1989-90 season and found success yet again. He set a new career mark in scoring, having the second highest average on the team at 22.5 points per game, led the team in assists (11.4) and he once again took his team on a deep playoff run. That run included beating their vaunted rivals, the Lakers, for the first time ever in the playoffs when they went head-to-head in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Kevin Johnson averaged 21 points and 10.4 assists over the next two seasons, the highest average of both on the team, but they would come up short of their ultimate goal of making it to the NBA Finals in both seasons.
But it was time for a change. That change included a new arena -- one KJ’s play over his first five seasons helped build -- and a new role for Johnson. A role that he, like the good teammate he was, would welcome.
On June 17, 1992, the Suns’ roster got a face-lift. Gone were Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. In was superstar Charles Barkley. With the Round Mound of Rebound’s arrival, KJ found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was no longer the “face of the franchise” but rather playing Robin to the team’s new Batman.
Many athletes would take this as a slight, but Johnson took it as a chance to elevate his team to another level. While his numbers dropped slightly, he proved to be a guiding force for the team through the media circus caused by having the league’s best player and record that year.
“From top to bottom of our roster we had a complete team,” Johnson said of the 1992-93 season. “Charles obviously carried us, but we complimented him in so many ways. We could run or slow it down and our defense was often overlooked. It was solid.”
His unselfish attitude and play finally helped elevate the Suns to the NBA Finals, which had eluded them since the magical run of 1976. On the NBA’s biggest stage, KJ, despite a nagging knee injury, once again answered the call. When Coach Westphal asked him to take on one of the toughest challenges of his career, he welcomed it with the same fiery competitiveness and desire to win as he did in practice as a rookie in Cleveland.
“On the flight to Chicago for game three of the Finals, Coach Westphal took me aside and informed me I'd be guarding Michael Jordan for the next couple of games,” Johnson reminisced. “Not exactly what you want to hear after coming off two losses in Phoenix and where I felt I could have played much better. Coach knew a lot more about the game than I did because we ended up winning two in Chicago to make it one of the most memorable Finals series of all-time.”
While Johnson played well on Jordan, ultimately the shooting guard and his supporting cast in Chicago proved too much for the Suns. They would win Game Six and take the series 4-2.
Over the next five season injuries would hamper Johnson’s ability to consistently be on the court. He would play in just over 70 percent of 410 games over that span. When he was on the court, though, he was electric. He still averaged 17 points, 8.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. He also provided arguably the most memorable moment in Suns history during the 1994 playoffs.
Despite injuries that prevented him from playing in all but 67 regular season games, Johnson returned in time for the playoffs. In the second round the Suns ran into the Houston Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon and KJ decided to just jump straight over the all-star center.
In game four of the Western Conference Finals at what was then known as America West Arena, Johnson came down the baseline, jumped up and posterized the waiting Olajuwon with a brilliant one-handed jam. A memory so ingrained in the brains of Suns fan who grew up in the 1990’s that they can describe it without the aid of video or photographic evidence that it ever happened, even decades later.
While Johnson had many more individual moments that stood out over the final five seasons of his career, it was one selfless moment that made one of the biggest impacts.
After having retired at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season and sitting out of basketball for a year and a half, KJ returned to the city and team he loved. Unlike some athletes who decide to flip flop on their retirement like a used car salesmen trying to close a deal, his reason had nothing to do with individual stats or accolades.
His return to the game only occurred because he wanted to help the Suns in their time of need. Towards the tail end of the 1999-2000 season, starting point guard Jason Kidd broke his ankle. The team called Johnson while frantically looking for a replacement. On April 3 in Minnesota with the team standing at 47-25 and on their way to the playoffs, Johnson returned.
It was just another example of Johnson’s willingness to go the extra mile for a franchise that had given him so much over the years. That selflessness, along with his athleticism, desire to win and career statistics, make him more than worthy of being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2013.
“If you look at his numbers,” Mark West said, “They’re comparable to a lot of other point guards who have made it into the hall. If you look at the guys who are in the hall that he competed [against], even Stockton. Go ask them about playing against him. Go ask Magic about playing against him. Go ask Isiah, and I think you’ll probably get the same answer I gave. Yes [he belongs in the Hall].”
One Hall of Famer, and another former teammate of Johnson’s, agrees with that assertion.
“I’m pulling for him,” Charles Barkley told Suns.com. “KJ was one of my truly great teammates. I would love to see KJ go to the hall of fame.”
It isn’t just players of his generation who have a great respect for Johnson’s game and think he’s hall-worthy. One of the biggest names and talents in the game now, LeBron James, agrees with Barkley and West.
“It was his approach to the game,” LeBron said. “He was one of those guys who could dominate the game both offensively and defensively. He was a complete point guard; he could easily play in the game today with what he brought to the game.”
Public and player opinion is one thing, but if it’s based purely on numbers, Johnson is a no-brainer to receive the call from the hall. Johnson’s career average of 9.13 assists per game is the sixth highest in the history of professional basketball. The only names above his are Magic, Isiah, Stockton, Robertson and Chris Paul. That’s four Hall of Famers and one guy who is likely to punch his ticket five years after his retirement.
If that wasn’t enough, Johnson’s career playoff average of 8.9 assists per game is the eighth highest in the history of the game as well.
When Johnson arrived in Phoenix the franchise found itself in the dark. Thanks to his dedication to the game and special skill set, the Suns were rising and the darkness lifted in no time. By the time his career ended, he had played a huge role in taking the organization to heights it had never seen before. He earned the respect of fans, foes (including Michael Jordan fan and current star, LeBron James), teammates and opponents. He accumulated statistics on the level of the greats at his position and redefined what it meant for an athlete to be selfless. Now, 13 years after his career came to an end, it’s time for him to add one more thing to the list that proves he is one of the best ever.
It’s time for his bust to be enshrined in Springfield. It’s time for the Basketball Hall of Fame to open its doors to him.