Suns News

Kevin Johnson: The Spirit of Giving

By Jeramie McPeek, Suns.com
Originally published: December 1995



CHRISTMAS EVE, 1972, SACRAMENTO, CALIF.

A 6-year-old little boy tosses and turns in his bed. It's 10 o'clock at night and Santa should be coming soon, bringing with him a new baseball glove. Or maybe a bat and ball.

Before he can step up to the plate with the bases loaded in his dreams, a gentle touch and a soft voice brings him back to consciousness. "Wake-up Kevin," an older gentleman whispers. No, it's not St. Nick making his rounds.

It's grandpa.

Grandpa George.

"We're going for a ride."

Kevin Johnson crawls out from under his warm covers, bleary eyed and confused.

It's a brisk 38 degrees out as they walk to the car hand in hand. Peering up towards the stars he searches for a glimpse of flying reindeer, but none are found.

As they drive, George Peat, Kevin's grandfather, explains the sudden trip into the night. A local newscast had just reported a burglary in the nearby projects. Plundered of her presents, a single-mother had nothing to give her three children come sunrise.

Pulling up in front of the home, George Peat hands his young grandson a $20 bill and sends him up to the porch.

Repeating granddad's message over and over in his head, he stretches out his tiny hand as a woman opens the door.

Timidly he hands her the money and says "Here's some help, hoping you have a good Christmas."

A Valuable Lesson

"That was a lesson I never forgot," Johnson, the Phoenix Suns' eight-year veteran said. "I think that just laid an early foundation for me realizing that as long as there was somebody suffering or somebody that was a little bit disadvantaged, I had a responsibility to try and make a difference." A major difference in Johnson's life from early on is what set him apart from the suffering and disadvantaged surrounding him everyday. The difference being his grandfather and the rest of his family.

Kevin Maurice Johnson was born on March 4, 1966 to Georgia Peat and Lawrence Johnson in the capitol city of California. Unwed and just barely 16-years-old when she had Kevin, Georgia was not ready to be a mother and gave her baby boy to her parents, George and Georgia Peat, to rear.

"It was very difficult because I was still in high school myself," said Kevin's mother, now known as Georgia West from a second marriage. "Thank God I had my parents who were able to raise us, because I was just a kid myself."

At the age of 3, Kevin lost his father in a drowning accident in the Sacramento River. During a fishing and swimming excursion, Lawrence Johnson dove into the city's largest waterway and never resurfaced.

"There are some pictures I have with me in his arms when I was a young kid," he said. "But my grandfather stepped up to the plate and pitch hit and did a great job so it wasn't something that I missed at all growing up."

George Peat was a sheet-metal worker and Georgia, also known as Pat, was a barmaid at a local tavern. A couple of hard working folks who instilled that work-ethic in their daughter and their grandson.

The family lived in a two bedroom house in Oak Park, a suburb on the south side of Sacramento. Originally established in 1889, the area was populated mainly by blue-collar workers of English, German and Irish descent. An amusement park called "Joyland" represented the feelings of the early residents.

By the time Kevin was born, nearly a century later, the once-promising area had taken an economic turn for the worse. After World War II, it was slowly transformed into a ghetto, much like today's south Phoenix. Many believe the downfall was brought on by the construction of Highway 99 which now separates it from the rest of the beautiful "City of Trees."

A predominately minority neighborhood of about 20,000, Oak Park is plagued by drugs, crime, unemployment and a school system with a high drop-out rate.

"Most of my friends weren't able to make it out of that community," Johnson said looking back. "I think the major difference for me had to do with my family. I was taught that I had a safe haven where I could always get love and support, encouragement, advice and counseling within that structure of home. Outside, sometimes things were turbulent and a little bit windy but I had the necessary equipment to weather those storms and I didn't feel my friends had that."

Much of the advice and support Johnson received while growing up was to study hard, something he did well at a young age. At Ethel Phillips Elementary School, KJ skipped fifth grade because he was such an advanced student.

"We had to have several meetings at the school because they raised such a stink about it because he was so young," his mother recalled. "They had the fourth and fifth graders in one room and Kevin did all of the fourth grade work, then all of the fifth grade work and they still couldn't find enough for him to do. He started to become a little nuisance because they couldn't keep him busy. "It always concerned us because he was so young, he was a full year behind the other kids. But he was always real competitive so I think it was a challenge for him."

The Drive to Succeed

Competition was something Johnson experienced at an early age. His grandfather taught him the game of chess and his mother taught him the art of speed skating.

A former national roller skating champion herself, Georgia showed her son the techniques for being a speed demon on wheels. After months of practice, he began a two-year stint of racing competitively. In junior high, his family took him to Oregon, Washington, Texas and Nebraska for meets.

"He was so fast that they made him the last leg of the relay," she said. "There would be times when his team would be almost a full lap behind and he would catch up and win."

Johnson won on a regular basis during his skating days and even competed in the nationals twice. Once, after winning a medal in regionals, West said her son slept with the ribbon around his neck and the medallion in his tight grasp.

The skates were put into the closet before he started high school in exchange for cleats, for it was baseball that he truly loved. Even as a little boy, Johnson could not be found outside his home without a plastic bat and a ball. He joined Little League at 7, the earliest age permitted and worked his way up through the minors and majors of children's ball.

Running the bases and catching pop flies were natural for Kevin, who grew up only 90 minutes outside of the Bay Area where his favorite Major League team - the Oakland A's - dominated the sport in the early 70's.

"My foundation was baseball," he said. "My grandparents, their interest was baseball. My mom was a great softball player and I just always saw myself becoming a baseball player if I had any chance at all of becoming a professional athlete."

Although she lived a mile away from Kevin and her parents most of the time he was growing up, Georgia never missed one of her son's games. She even attended his practices to further show her love and support.

"I told him there are so many great athletes you have to be different if you want to make it," she said. "Pro athletes are one in a million to make it. I was hoping he could do it in baseball, but I didn't know if he could."

Taking mom's advice to heart, Kevin spent the summer before he started high school at the batting cages, practicing a left-handed swing. By the time school was back in session, he was a strong switch hitter. But the advice she gave him on being different wasn't just concerning his batting stance.

"She had felt it was important to sit down and talk to kids about puberty and adolescence and what you go through," he explained. "She just said 'Don't make some of the mistakes I made,' and the best thing I always remember is her saying 'It's OK to be different.'"

From the fall of 1979 through the spring of 1983, Kevin Johnson dared to be different at Sacramento High School, a couple miles north of his home and a couple south of Ronald Reagan's home during his eight years as the governor of California.

It was at the inner city school that Johnson played his first game of hoops. As a freshman, his friends talked him into going out for the team just to keep busy and stay in shape.

"This is important for young people to know; there are two kinds of peer pressure," he said. "There's negative peer pressure that we always seem to talk about, but then there's also positive peer pressure."

He was an average cager on the freshman basketball squad and a standout shortstop on the Dragons' baseball team. But as his time at "Sac High" shortened so too did his talent margin between the sports.

At the end of his sophomore hoop season, Johnson was brought up from the junior varsity to the varsity team for the playoffs, and was never sent back down.

"As a junior he was a baseball player who played basketball," said Ron McKenna, Kevin's varsity basketball coach at Sac "But by the time he was a senior he came around and became a basketball player who played baseball."

Focus on the Future

A two-sport letterman, KJ quickly became a popular member of the student body, but according to those who knew him, he never let it get to his head.

The school's principle at the time Thea Stidum, said Kevin was always a very caring young man, concerned with the well-being of his fellow classmates.

She recalled one incident in particular in which during a fundraiser for the "Mathletes" club on campus, a girl collapsed participating in a jump-rope-a-thon. Johnson, who was passing by at the time, quickly volunteered to step in for the exhausted student and finish jumping rope for her. While he was happy to help skip rope, the teenager was glad to skip membership sign-ups for the mathematics club.

"Like a lot of people, he didn't always like school," Stidum said. "In fact, I remember he went to his counselor to try and get out of taking geometry. Luckily, the counselor wouldn't let him, otherwise he might've never been able to go on to the University of California because that was one of the required courses."

Although the focus on his studies waned in high school, he never lost focus on the future, a focus that could be seen in his brown eyes.

"I've observed something in other athletes who became successful and students who've made it in the performing arts as well," Stidum said. "They have a picture in their heads of what they could be, could do and where they could go in life and Kevin had that. He didn't let other things or people interfere with what he thought he could do."

Captain of his senior squad, Kevin became the team's leader, not only on the floor, where he led all high school players in the state averaging 32.5 points a game, but on the sidelines where he led cheers for the reserves who mopped up in the fourth quarter after he'd overwhelmed their opponents. His leadership began to appear even before the season tipped off. During a pep rally, in which the varsity squad would be unveiled to the student body, Johnson first took his role.

Awaiting their introductions backstage, the Dragons got out of control as they began to horse around. They ignored the teachers assigned to attend them behind the curtain and weren't prepared when showtime came. Doug Peckham, a teacher at the high school who was in charge of assemblies, pulled Kevin aside and asked him to keep the rest of the guys in line.

"He looked at me and I could see a light went on," Peckham said. "He understood and from then on, at every assembly, all the players were on time and very well-mannered."

Word spread quickly through the community of KJ's talent on the court like the cool breeze that flows through more than a million trees in the Sacramento Valley. Like the discovery of gold here in 1848, his excitement lured residents out in droves. Several games found thousands of fans packing the bleachers and the balconies of the "Pavilion," Sac High's enormous home gym, just to watch the 16-year-old work his magic.

Like lightning from free throw line to free throw line, KJ was faster than the light rails that run through the city, and just as effective. Twice he went off for more than 50 points in a game. "It was an exciting time for us all," McKenna said fondly. "Sac High had prior success in football and prior success in baseball, but until he came along we had never really had much success on the court, so the school really rallied behind him."

With his school and community rooting him on, Johnson led the Dragons to a tie for the Metro League Championship and in doing so earned league MVP honors.

Higher Learning

Recently hired Arizona coach Lute Olson joined Oregon State, Washington State and the University of California at Berkeley in recruiting KJ after his outstanding performance in an all-star tournament in Phoenix following his senior year of high school.

But only Cal's beautiful campus on a hill could offer him each of the "three P's" he required.

1. "Proximity." Less than 90 miles from Sacramento, Cal was close enough to drive home on weekends to be with his family.

2. "Pac 10." He wanted to play in the best conference in the west.

3. "Prestigious Academic Program." Berkeley would provide a valuable education in case he fouled or struck out of sports.

The 6-2 guard continued his winning ways for the Golden Bears as he was named to the All-Conference freshman team. He also played a season of baseball, but saw little action as he fought for time on a nationally-ranked team. But the most important decision he made at Cal, wasn't to give up the diamond for the hardwood, it was to follow Jesus Christ.

"I'm a person that always seeks and always searches for the truth, and at that point I was looking for a role model or someone to pattern my life after," he explained. "I did it through a lot of literary figures like Henry David Thoreau or athletes like Dr. J. But I always found that they fell short of the perfect role model I was looking for."

Invited to attend church with a high school friend, Johnson became interested in Christianity and was born-again after reading of Christ's life in the New Testament. "For the first time, I found someone who was that perfect role model, who didn't contradict himself," he said.

His new beliefs helped him overcome many of the temptations that had led him astray in the past. "During high school and the first two years of college, I was pretty much like every other kid," he once told a newspaper reporter. "I'd go out and have a few drinks and chase girls. Finally, I realized that wasn't going to get me where I wanted to go. Not only that, but I didn't want the role-model thing tarnished by hypocrisy."

Two of Kevin's closest friends, Michael Burstein and Mohammad Muqtar said they've seen some major changes in the role model's life through the years.

"I've definitely seen intellectual growth," said Burstein, KJ's roommate during his freshman year. "Sometimes we'd talk to 2 or 3 in the morning, he on the top bunk and me on the bottom, just like growing up. We'd talk about politics and religion and all sorts of deep topics."

Muqtar was also impressed with Johnson's maturity.

"He was always so open-minded," he said. "I am a devout Muslim, Michael was Jewish and Kevin is a strong Christian. That made for some interesting discussions."

Studying late into the night, KJ met Mohammad, a Somalian who worked at the campus library and the two quickly became friends.

"One time I went with him after the library had closed and we went over to the gym," Muqtar said. "We used to sneak in and he'd shoot and I'd rebound for him.

"He used to turn the lights off in the gym and he would just dribble. It was completely dark." While working on his moves in the lightless gymnasium one weekend night, a janitor found KJ and asked why he wasn't out partying.

"Party's won't get me where I want to go," Johnson simply replied.

It was his game, his school and his Christianity that would take him there.

Two-Sport Star

"People ask me if I ever thought Kevin would make it to the level he's at now," said Cal coach Dick Kuchen, who recruited Johnson out of high school. "I can honestly say that when I watched how he developed as a player in those two years I coached him, I knew he could."

During his freshman and sophomore years of college ball under Kuchen's guidance, KJ displayed the explosive quickness he is now famous for. After stealing the ball in the opponents paint, he would race down the floor, weaving in and out of defenders before slicing to the cup for a lay-up.

But for his final two seasons at Cal, the pointman was forced to play a slowed-down, half-court game as Lou Campanelli was hired on as coach. With a totally different approach to the game than KJ was used to or enjoyed, the two often butted heads early on.

"We clashed in terms of two different personalities," Campanelli said. "He just needed some of the loose ends put together. In the beginning he resisted and we had to be strong with him. And that's because he was used to doing things a different way. But I think eventually we got on the same page."

Under Campanelli's system, the point guard was encouraged to develop a three-point jumper instead of always penetrating and the importance of passing and defense were strongly stressed. Three strengths Johnson now brings to the Suns.

"Kevin was always very talented, he just needed some direction," Campanelli said. "He had to learn all the things it takes to win."

Learning quickly, Johnson led his team to a win over rival UCLA his junior season, defeating the Bruins for the first time in 25 years. He recorded the first triple-double in Pac-10 Conference history in an overtime victory over the Arizona Wildcats his senior season.

Georgia West arranged for busses to carry Kevin's hometown supporters down to several games caravan style as he carried his fellow Golden Bears into the National Invitation Tournament for the first time in over two decades.

"The progress he made from when we first inherited him to the time he left was remarkable," Campanelli said.

Before his final season at Berkeley, Kevin was almost stolen away by his first love when he was chosen by his childhood team the Oakland A's in the 23rd round of the 1986 draft.

After his senior year of high school, Johnson was one of the youngest players ever to play American Legion Ball, let alone start.

"The Major League Scouting Bureau listed him as a top prospect out of high school, so I followed him at Cal," said Jim Guinn, a former Oakland scout. "I watched every basketball game that he played in. I thought I had a chance to slip one in on the other scouts."

Johnson worked out with the A's at the Oakland Coliseum some that summer and even had two at-bats with their farm team in Modesto. Although he struck out both attempts, the major-league franchise paid the tuition for his final year at Cal with hopes he might one day choose fastballs instead of fast breaks.

"I thought he had a chance to play in the Major Leagues because the ability was there," Guinn said. "But from Kevin's standpoint I think he made the right decision, because once you sign a contract in basketball you're an instant success. In baseball you never know what could happen in the minor leagues, even when you have the talent."

Returning for his senior season at the University of California, Johnson finished his career as the institution's all-time leader in scoring (1,655), assists (521) and steals (155) - records which made his number 11, the first retired in school history.

On to the NBA

A special ceremony was held before a Suns preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, played at Cal's Harmon Arena, in Oct. of 1992. KJ's recently acquired teammate Charles Barkley grabbed a bundle of commemorative T-shirts bearing a likeness of the point guard from a vendor and threw them to the fans in attendance.

Invited to speak at the event was Kuchen who said the shirt's picture of Johnson dribbling a ball epitomized his game.

"If you think of famous musicians you always think of them with their instruments," he said. "Every time I think of him it's hard to visualize Kevin without that basketball. The basketball is almost a part of his personality."

The gala marked the second time Kevin has had his jersey retired, the first being in 1991, when Sac High hung his number 11 on the gymnasium wall under a Converse banner, the shoe company he endorses. "In Phoenix , 7 is heaven," said KJ's JV basketball coach Bob Honda. "But at Sac High, 11 will always be Kevin."

Following the presentation, Johnson stayed around for close to an hour to talk to, sign autographs for, and take pictures with his old friends and fans.

"Some of the Sacramento Kings have been on campus before and stayed in their car and talked to the students through the roof," said Peckham. "Kevin doesn't get into that kind of stuff."

The receptions Kevin received at his alma matters were far better than the one heard in Cleveland when the Cavaliers selected him with the No. 7 pick in the 1987 Draft. In a day that saw the Suns choose Armon Gilliam with the No. 2 pick overall, a chorus of boos and catcalls befell Cavs' management. The Cleveland faithful were hoping to get Kenny Smith, Reggie Williams or Derrick McKey, not Johnson who only averaged five assists a game his senior year.

Having turned down an offer to fly to New York for the big day, KJ, his family and friends were celebrating in the two rooms they rented at Sacramento's Beverly Garden Hotel.

"I was just elated," his mother said. "I couldn't believe it, and then to be drafted so high, it was a miracle."

Although not subject to the barrage of bad feelings in Cleveland, KJ and his loved ones sat and listened as NBA Hall-of-Famer Rick Barry, an analyst for the draft broadcast, questioned the selection. "Kevin who?" he said. "Why'd they pick him?"

"I thought 'He's going to make them eat those words,'" West said. "Kevin was right there hearing it all, but we were just so excited that it didn't really bother him."

Obviously, Barry hadn't been in attendance at the postseason Aloha Classic in Hawaii. Sure, before the event Kevin was thought to be a late first-round to early second-round pick, and critics were calling him a shooting guard in a point guard's body. But after the 21-year-old showed off some crisp passing and was named the Defensive Player of the Tournament, his stock rose significantly. "I knew Hawaii would be very important to me," he told the Cleveland media days after the Draft. "I viewed my visit there as strictly a business trip. I would have played in a coat and tie if I had to."

The Cavaliers' front office didn't need to see their prospect in a suit to know he was suited to run their offense. Although slated to slip into a starting role, Johnson instead started the season as a back-up to second-year guard Mark Price who showed dramatic improvement in training camp.

After 52 games in Cleveland, Kevin was given his opportunity to shine. But he would be shining in Phoenix as a member of the Suns. Cavalier's Director of Player Personnel Gary Fitzsimmons and his father the Suns' head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons negotiated a trade that sent KJ along with Mark West, Tyrone Corbin to the Arizona desert while Larry Nance and Mike Sanders headed for the snow in Ohio.

Helping Our People Excel

Mohammad Muqtar flew down to Phoenix to stay with Kevin, who he calls "Willy," while he got adjusted to his new environment, which didn't take long. Averaging nearly 13 points and nine assists in 28 games for the Suns, KJ earned Rookie-of-the-Month honors for April.

His first full season in the purple and orange, Johnson won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award after tallying 20.4 ppg and 12.2 apg while leading the Suns to a 55-27 record and a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

The Suns' point guard would be a member of the "20-10 club" the next two seasons as well, becoming one of only five players in history to achieve such a feat.

But KJ's most memorable mark during his early pro years may have been the mark he made on the lives of Sacramento youth. Gathering together a group of boys during the summer of 1989 for daily sessions in mobile classrooms at Sac High, St. Hope (Help Our People Excel) Academy was born.

"Christ really put it on my heart, a pressing need and I had a vision," he said. "My vision was to go back to my community and find some kids and start. In reading my Bible I realized that when Christ started he started with 12 disciples, so I figured if He knew what He was doing, then maybe I should start with 12."

On July 1, 1989 the group of boys met for the first time that summer for tutoring in "the three R's," reading, writing and arithmetic as well as cultural studies and computers by teachers who volunteered their time to the project.

Months later, Johnson committed himself to opening a development center for youth and met with several prominent experts in the field of children's education while traveling around the country on his yearly NBA tour.

The First Annual St. Hope Academy Dinner to raise funds for the new facility was held in 1990 and featured KJ, Ronnie Lot of the San Francisco 49ers and current Suns' forward and former Sacramento King Wayman Tisdale.

For $40,000, the Suns' three-time All-Star purchased a vacant lot at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 16th Avenue. Just down the block is the house he grew up in - surrounded by desolate and dilapidated shacks - a cute little house he now owns that his uncle and cousins live in In attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony in November of 1990 was his grandfather, George Peat, who, together with his now deceased wife, were the inspiration for Kevin's founding of the Academy. Mr. Peat passed away on July 1, 1991 as St. Hope celebrated it's second anniversary.

"They weren't Christians growing up, but they raised me with Christian values," Johnson said. "I learned more than anything the importance of family and the importance of giving back to the community and for that I'm eternally grateful."

During the school year, St. Hope serves 48 kids, 24 boys on Mondays and Wednesdays, and 24 girls on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 7:30 p.m.

"The kids that we serve are at-risk kids that come from a dysfunctional family," said Richard Jennings, Executive Director of the Academy. "We're trying to put them on a new course than the ones that their parents and grandparents have previously been on."

The 7,000 square-foot, million-dollar facility contains classrooms, a computer lab, a multi-media station, a conference room, a large dining and living room, bedrooms for occasional slumber parties and offices for the staff and counselors. There is a large entertainment room filled with arcade games, pool, Ping-Pong, and air hockey tables, and a tiny, secluded room where students or staff can go to kneel on pews in prayer and concentration.

"If you read the New Testament, you realize that Christ's greatest strength was his ability to make time for prayer," said Johnson who wakes every morning at 6 to pray and read scripture. "If the Son of God needs to pray all the time, then that certainly tells us that we need to make time for prayer. That doesn't mean an hour or two hours or three hours, it could be two sincere minutes."

A deeply-religious basketball star who participates in Christian Athlete Ministries, Kevin attends a Bible study before each game and stresses the importance of The Holy Book to the kids of St. Hope, just as he teaches them the value of their heritage.

Adorning the hallway walls are brochures from black colleges, inspirational Ghanaian proverbs, and paintings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Above the doorway to each room in the building are plates with the names of famous African-Americans in history, each of which the students must learn and write papers on.

"I really like history," 9-year-old Jennifer Anderson said as she twirled her pony tail. "It teaches us about our culture and where we came from."

While KJ's financial ability to construct his dream for children came from his success on the court, St. Hope only has one court for the kids to play ball on after their homework is done - and it's only half a court.

Paul Martinez, a high school senior who attends St. Hope and helps tutor the younger kids, was one of the original 12 members of KJ's fraternity for learning but didn't quite enjoy it in the beginning.

"I was young and he was a famous basketball star, so I was pretty excited," said Martinez, who is considering enrolling at Grand Canyon University. "But it didn't turn out to be what I thought it was going to be. It was like classes and I thought it was going to be like basketball and fun stuff."

Out of the Bright Lights

Dozens of reporters crowd around KJ's locker and stick recorders and microphones in his direction. Bright lights and queries flood him as he sits quietly, a distant expression on his face.

Only moments earlier, Johnson and the Suns had walked off the America West Arena floor, eliminated from the playoffs in a Game 7 clash with the Houston Rockets, despite his 46-point, 10-assist outburst.

"It burns down in my belly, but I can't let this define who I am and I don't think any of my teammates can allow this to define who we are as people," he says quietly. "It's a screwed-up world out there, and somehow we have to make it a little bit better."

Getting into his black Porsche with the "HOPE 7" plates he leaves the arena garage and heads to a local hospital, not for treatment of exhaustion or depression, but to visit the children's ward. He doesn't want any media coverage, although a hospital employee leaks the story, he only wants to bring a smile to the face of some sick kids.

"There is so much purity and innocence in young people," he said after a recent practice. "They're not tainted. The only thing that destroys kids, especially when they are young, is our own prejudices - I mean adults' prejudice and the baggage that we bring to young people."

Since signing a new contract with the Suns in 1993, in which he received a no-trade agreement to go with a multi-million dollar salary, KJ has made Phoenix his home and the children of Phoenix, his primary concern.

Wanting to perfect the St. Hope Academy in Sacramento before opening a new one, Johnson has donated his time and money to the south Phoenix YMCA. A $10,000 contribution started off his drive to help raise funds for building a gymnasium for youth to play sports and hold activities. He donated dozens of pairs of shoes for auction - from his days at Cal to the Converse sneakers his wears today.

"He wanted to make sure that the YMCA offered kids in south Phoenix additional educational and social development and not just recreation before he got involved," said John Carnero, Executive Director of the South Phoenix YMCA. "That's just Kevin's make-up - it's his priority. I've seen a genuine concern in seeing that these kids have an opportunity and are given a chance."

Wanting to insure his half-brother Ronnie West was given the same opportunities to succeed that he had been given growing up, Kevin talked his mother into letting her 12-year-old son move to Phoenix last year, to live with him in his home on Camelback Mountain.

"Initially I said 'Oh no, not my baby,'" Georgia said. "But Ronnie came because he needed a role model. That's the age that they are starting to have some trouble."

At the urging of Johnson, the boys' mother soon followed them to Arizona, moved into a house Kevin bought her and found a job as a registered nurse. But when she arrived, her youngest son had grown up and matured.

"He never argues when I say he can't go to a game on a school night, because he already knows," she said. "He does his homework and his priorities are already in line."

Growing up an only child, "the son rose and set on Kevin," his high school coach said. "We spoiled him, but he wasn't rotten," Georgia replied. But unlike his mother and his grandparents, Johnson has been strict with his little brother.

"I think Ronnie thought 'Oh boy, I'm going to get to play ball and go to games,'" Georgia said. "He was in for a rude awakening. Kevin's a real disciplinarian. He's going to make a great father." Finding that special woman and raising a family is a big goal for Kevin Johnson, but first he has the rest of this season and next that he will lead the Suns' offense before retiring - after which, his future path is uncertain.

"I have no idea," he said. "I've got to let the Lord put it on me."