Kevin Johnson recalls some of his most cherished moments

Driving the (Memory) Lane

By Joe Gilmartin

Posted: March 5, 2001


When Kevin Johnson is officially inducted into the Suns' Ring Of Honor on Wednesday, appropriately enough on a night the Suns are playing the Sacramento Kings (KJ was born and raised in Sacramento), he'll take a lot of memories up to the America West Arena with him. And he remembers every detail of every single one.

In fact, the Suns' all-time leader in regular season assists, and just about every postseason category, sounded almost insulted when asked if he remembers exactly when he first got word he'd been traded from Cleveland to Phoenix along with teammates Mark West and Tyrone Corbin and three draft picks for Larry Nance, Mike Sanders, and one draft pick.

"Of course I do," he said. "I remember it like it was yesterday. We had played in Dallas the night before coming here. And what I called the 'scrub team,' meaning myself, Tyrone and Mark, had all played very well in that game. We had come in with our team down and led it to victory, and even played in the fourth quarter, which didn't happen very often with guys like Mike Price and Ron Harper around.

"So I was excited. I'm thinking, 'Now I'm finally going to get some good minutes,' and we're playing in Phoenix, where I'm very familiar with ASU. But just before it was time to go down and catch the bus to the arena the phone rang in my room, and it was Lenny Wilkens. 'I want to let you know you've been traded,' he told me."

KJ said he was totally stunned.

"The trading deadline was that day," he said, "and my name hadn't been mentioned in any trade rumors at all. So I didn't expect anything like this to happen. And I remember having two feelings. The first was anger and I was going to make Cleveland pay. That was just my competitive nature coming out. And the other was that I was coming out West, where the weather was great and I'd be on familiar turf. And I knew I was going to get a chance to play, because I knew the state of the Suns organization. So now I was very excited. Then I asked Lenny who else had been traded, and when he said Tyrone and Mark I felt even better because I wouldn't be going by myself."

About an hour later KJ's phone rang again. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns' once and future coach but then the team's general manager, was on the other end.

"Kevin,' he said, (you had to be there to appreciate KJ's spot on imitation of Cotton's unmistakable small town Missouri twang), 'I want you to know everything's going to be just fine. I have the utmost confidence in all three of you, but I want you to know we wouldn't have made the deal without you because we think you're the future.'

"I remember trying to place Cotton exactly, and thinking, 'Oh yeah. The guy with the little perm that used to coach the Spurs.'"

KJ also remembers initial reaction to his arrival wasn't exactly positive.

"We had a press conference at the arena," he recalled, "and the fans were unhappy, and a lot of the media seemed upset. Everybody really liked Larry, and it was like everybody was saying, 'Three unknowns for Larry?'

"So we went up to the rafters and watched the game. (No, not the same rafters where his banner will soon be hanging. These rafters were in the old Madhouse on McDowell). It was very boring, because I think each team only had like eight guys dressed. Mark and Tyrone were really hurt because a lot of their best friends were in Cleveland, but I hadn't been there long enough for anything like that.

"So we go back to the hotel, and they're drinking their sorrows away. And I'm saying, 'No, you don't understand. This is going to be great!' And they're going, 'Get outta here, rookie.'"

But it didn't take long for everybody to realize the rookie was right.

"I didn't start the first two or three games," KJ said. "But then I started doing things that were positive and fans appreciated the energy myself, Tyrone and Mark had out there. And even Mark and Tyrone were saying, 'Hey, this might be okay.'"

So much for the first coming of KJ. Fast forward a decade to his Second Coming, so to speak, when he came out of retirement late in the 1999-2000 season to help fill the void created by an injury to Jason Kidd.

"I'd always said I wanted to walk away from the game on my own terms, which means knowing I could still play," he said. "I didn't want to be an athlete who played just for the money long after his prime because he had nothing else to do. So even when I first came into the league I was prepared at some point to walk away in a good situation. And when I left, the media asked me if I would play anywhere ever again. I said it would only be in a unique situation, and Bob Young of The Arizona Republic kept asking me what a unique situation was. And I said I didn't know, but I would recognize it when I saw it.

"So when Cotton called and said, 'Kevin, we need you to play,' I knew instantly this was a unique situation."

And how did this make him feel?

"I was in great shape and I didn't miss basketball at all. But I realized this gave me a chance to do something I loved one more time and my team needed me. And it was kind of an honor that the organization would come to me and say, 'Kevin, you're the only one that fits this role at this particular time.' It was like one final dance, or one last curtain call.

"It was a chance you don't normally get and I had a chance to get it. I had the opportunity to prove I could still play and that was special. And it capped my career even better than the first time I walked away, because this was bonus time. You lay in bed some nights and wonder, 'God, if I had one more game.' And I got another two months and helped us get out of the first round of the playoffs, which hadn't happened in a while. So I had great feelings when I went back and when I walked away the second time it was truly the best."

How about his memories of his one trip to the Finals in 1993, when the Suns lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games?

"One of the best team experiences and individual highlights combined I've ever had," he said. "There's just nothing like it."

Even though he got off to such a rocky start the first two games, that he was booed in Phoenix for perhaps the first and only time in his long career?

"I played terrible in those first two games," he admitted. "But the fans did not boo me. That is not what happened. The reason everybody thinks that is that Charles (Barkley) came to my defense afterwards and said the fans shouldn't have booed me. What actually happened was a heckler was thrown out and fans were booing that just about the time Paul Westphal took me out. I thanked Charles and appreciated his support, but like I said, this is not what happened. I never cleared the misconception up for the record because I had other things to worry about, like going to Chicago two games down."

Johnson of course played brilliantly in Chicago as the Suns surprised everybody by winning two out of three and bringing the series back to Phoenix. But as I said, he remembers everything.

When he is honored Wednesday, fans will notice that he appears to be in great shape.

"I work out every morning, and do a lot of cross training and things," he said. "Everything but basketball."

Not even a hoop in the back yard?

"Nope. The last shot I took was in the second round against the Lakers when I came down and missed a jumper. That was it for me."

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