KJ Round Table

Posted: March 6, 2001

Brad Cesmat, host of the 620 Sportsline on KTAR, the Suns' flagship station,
geared his show on Monday night towards Kevin Johnson, the Suns legend who will be honored during a special halftime ceremony on Wednesday night. The following is a transcript of Cesmat's round table interviews with Johnson and several of his former Suns teammates.

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Cesmat: Kevin Johnson will be with us in a few minutes, but first I've got Cotton Fitzsimmons, former Suns coach, on the phone who's going to talk with us a little about KJ. I'm also told that joining us is Tom Chambers. TC, are you there?

Chambers: I'm here guys.

Fitzsimmons: I'd say that's the other piece of that puzzle. They were a pair together. You can't separate them.

Cesmat: Tom, think back to Kevin Johnson, when you first started playing alongside him. What were your thoughts of this kid?

Chambers: Well, it brought a smile to my face, first of all. He was enthusiastic, energetic. He had skills, he could jump, he liked to distribute the ball. He could shoot it. I mean, he was just a really, really complete athlete. And most of all, he liked to run. He was always running. And to clear up one more thing, I wouldn't have come to Phoenix without Kevin Johnson being here ... I wanted to come here and be on a young, running team with some enthusiasm and go from ground zero where we were starting from to getting ourselves back to an elite team. So it was just awesome playing with Kevin.

Cesmat: Cotton, when you made this deal to get KJ here, how close did it come to not happening? Take the fans back through the art of the deal.

Fitzsimmons: Well, it took a long time. It wasn't an easy deal because it had to be a big deal for the Phoenix Suns. Cleveland only really needed one player and his name was Larry Nance, who played at small forward for them. Hot Rod (John) Williams would play big forward, Brad Daugherty would be the center, Ron Harper and Mark Price (in the backcourt). So they only needed one piece of the puzzle, whereas we really didn't have anything. Once we let Nance go we started over. We kept a very young Jeff Hornacek, who hadn't really come into his own yet. So we had to make sure that we got enough players to get started, and once we did that, and once we looked and signed the first free agent in the history of the NBA, who is the best guy out there for our team, a guy who could run, a guy who could score, his name's Tom Chambers, and if you put those two guys together you're going to win.

Cesmat: Tom, what did KJ do for your career? When you look back on your career, how much more money did he make you (laughs)?

Chambers: Well, not even the money (laughs). Money is an overrated thing. The thing he did for me and for the Phoenix Suns organization is he really, really made us go to a new level. And we were at a very consistent level. We were winning 50-something games every year. WE weren't up and down, and all around the place, we just went out and outscored people. It was an exciting brand of basketball, the type that everybody dreams of playing, and we were able to do that every single night.

Cesmat: I'm talking with Cotton Fitzsimmons and Tom Chambers. They're swapping KJ stories, and now KJ joins us for a couple of minutes.

Johnson: Hey Brad, you're talking to two of my favorite people.

Cesmat: Trying to get them all lined up for you. They're swapping stories about you. They haven't said anything too risque yet (laughs). When you were playing alongside TC, what did that do for your career, Kevin?

Johnson: I think everybody knows that our two-man game - we were able to do some things together as Batman and Robin - a lot of people in this league dreamed of playing that brand of basketball. That was Cotton's charge to us, "Go out and do your two-man game and let it go as far as you can." And I became an All-Star because of those two people.

Cesmat: Cotton, how coachable was KJ early on in his career?

Johnson: Uh oh.

Fitzsimmons: Hey, you're talking to two guys that weren't that coachable (laughs), I'll tell you that now. But the difference in KJ was, he went to Cal Berkely and when you go to Cal Berkely, I guess they want you to be deep thinkers and the one word they always want you to use is, "Why?" "Why would we do this? Why would we do that?" I finally got tired of it and went over and handed him the ball, and said, "KJ, go do what you do best." And then he was really easy to coach. I didn't bother him anymore.

Cesmat: Hey Tom, do you have any Kevin Johnson stories you want to share?

Chambers: No. I can't think of anything. Just the whole deal. You know, I've been retired longer than Kevin so I have to smile about those days with Cotton and Kevin, and all of the things that you went through. But when you're playing, and right after, you don't really appreciate it. But after time goes by, everything just grows and grows and becomes more important to you, and you realize that you really did something cool. You did something very important and the picture just broadens. You know, you're so narrow minded as a player that you just don't appreciate all of the things, and as you get a little older, and you all know how old I am, you appreciate it a lot more than when it was actually happening.

Cesmat: KJ, do you have any dirt on these two?

Johnson: I want to say first of all that Cotton, you've seen the kind of coach that he is, he never wanted a player to question anything he assigned us to do (laughs), which to me is bad coaching. And Tom, on the other hand, I think he made two good points. One is the fact he is a little older than the rest of us (laughs).

What Tom is talking about, how much we appreciate each other now, maybe even more so than when we were together, that's why young players now need to play with older players who are still playing, so some of those older players can tell the younger players, "You've got to make the most of this moment. You have to appreciate each other. Sometimes it doesn't get any better than this." I think if we had recognized that while we were going through it, that would have made it that much more special at the time.

Cesmat: So Tom, does it change your life to be put up in the Ring of Honor?

Johnson: It makes you really feel appreciated. Every time I go to the game, my little boy, who's just 6 years old, looks up there and sees me, and they wonder why I'm up there. It's just kind of a neat thing to be able to look up there and feel important, and have people pat you on the back and appreciate you for what you've done for the city and the franchise. It's really cool. It really is.

Cesmat: Cotton, when Kevin runs for president or governor, are you going to be his campaign manager?

Fitzsimmons: I think I'll be his advisor. I'll just keep him cool. I'll tell you Brad, it was a lot of fun watching them grow and mature together. I heard you talk about this earlier, but when the Lakers swept us that year, 4-zip, and they were all tight games, Magic Johnson, I'll give him the credit, he just wouldn't let us win a game in the last few minutes. I knew we were close, but I didn't know how close. And then the next year, we beat the Lakers 4-1 and we sent Pat Riley out of coaching for a year and into the NBC booth, and that was quite a thrill. I think that was really the turning point as far as the franchise was concerned. I think everybody in Phoenix realized the Suns were here to stay. It was very important to them because the whole time these guys were playing and putting up numbers and collecting victories, Jerry Colangelo was building a new building (America West Arena) that he had to have in order for this to be a solid franchise. I've got to give Jerry credit. He was just willing to do whatever we needed to do in order to win. It was that simple and that's exactly what we did. We surrounded Kevin Johnson with people that could really do things. (Jeff) Hornacek could fill the basket. (Dan) Majerle could fill the basket. And when we had Eddie Johnson and then we got Chambers and we had Mark West doing the dirty word for us inside, that team couldn't lose.

Cesmat: On that note, we'll let Cotton and TC go. Guys, I appreciate it. We'll see you on Wednesday at the Arena. Kevin Johnson's still with us. Kevin, are you nervous about this Ring of Honor?

Johnson: No, I'm not nervous. I'm really excited. I mean, I'm joining some great players up there and it's one of those nights that you get to enjoy with your family and friends. You get a chance to thank everyone one final time, and it's going to just be a really memorable evening, and I'm looking forward to it.

Cesmat: This will finally be your retirement speech?

Johnson: Yeah, I think it will be. There's no other way than to be able to retire this time and make that final call at center court. I'm really looking forward to it. And how blessed am I that I am able to have Sacramento be playing Phoenix on March 7, the night that they're going to honor me?

Cesmat: Cotton brought up Mark West and he really is a guy that didn't get a whole lot of pub or notoriety around that team. He just went out and did the dirty work, and now Mark West joins us live here in congratulation Kevin Johnson on going into the Ring of Honor. Thanks for calling in Mark.

West: Oh Brad, glad I could call in. Congratulations, Kevin!

Johnson: Hey, thanks Big Daddy. I appreciate it.

West: Yeah, I just wanted to call and say congratulations and it's well deserved. I think they should've done it when you first retired. I guess they knew they'd be needing you back (laughs). They kept an ace in the hole, I suppose.

Cesmat: Now Mark, when you and Kevin were together in Cleveland and then the trade came down, tell me about the young Kevin Johnson playing in Cleveland then when you finished up playing with him here with the Suns.

West: Well, it was interesting. We got Kevin and I think he got a taste of that cold weather and wanted to come back. He was always talking about getting out of there and coming back west, and we were like, "Well, you're here in Cleveland for a while." Little did I know he was going to drag me out here with him (laughs).

Cesmat: How did you find out the news that you and KJ and Ty Corbin were dealt? Do you remember where you were?

West: Oh yeah. I was in the hotel room getting ready to come to the game to play the Phoenix Suns. I was sitting in my room about ready to go down to the bus and I get a call from Lenny (Wilkens) basically saying, "You don't have to get on the bus." He told me about the trade and who was involved, and I think myself, Kevin and Ty caught a cab over to the game and sat up in the booth with Jerry (Colangelo).

Cesmat: KJ, do you remember that day?

Johnson: Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday. Except the booth that we sat in with Jerry was just press row up top (of the Coliseum). As Mark said, we were playing the Phoenix Suns and were staying at the Westin Hotel at the Metrocenter and I don't think there was anybody in America that was more happy than me at the moment they told me I was getting traded to Phoenix. I had to go down and console Mark and Tyrone and tell them things were going to be okay. Mark tried to poke a little fun saying I dragged him out here, but I see he's still residing in the Valley (laughs).

West: Oh yeah (laughs). It was a blessing. That's for sure. That's the truth.

Cesmat: Mark, I appreciate you calling in tonight.

West: Alright, thank you.

Cesmat: KJ, before we let you go, have you thought about your speech? Are you scripting it or are you just going to do off the cuff?

Johnson: You know what, I flew back from New York yesterday evening. You know, they had those snow storms so I had one of the last flights to get out of town. And I was able on the airplane to jot down some thoughts. I just wanted to make sure that I didn't forget anybody to thank. So I was able to do that to make sure I got my bases covered. So I'll have an idea of what I'm going to say, and then certainly speak from the heart.

Cesmat: I'll see you Wednesday, Kevin. Thanks for the visit.

Johnson: Thanks, Brad. And thanks for having my teammates on. Take care.

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