Original Old School: Shining Star
SLAM 104: Whether with his scoring, passing or leadership, Kevin Johnson was always a difference maker.
SLAM: You and Tom Chambers also formed a powerful scoring tandem. Describe Tom’s game, and how he scored all those points.
KJ: Tom was an incredibly versatile scorer who could just as well nail a 20-footer as throw it down over the opponent’s big man. We had great success running the pick and roll, which was perfectly suited to our respective games. Tom’s versatility virtually made the play unstoppable.
SLAM: Your last full season, ’97-98, you played with Jason Kidd. What were the similarities and differences in your games?
KJ: We are both leaders and will do what it takes to achieve success. There haven’t been too many better, more creative passers than Jason and that’s what separated him from other point guards, including me. With Jason’s size, he could also post up smaller guards, something I rarely did. I was more of a natural scorer than Jason and used my quickness as a big advantage. One other similarity—we are both Cal Bears.
SLAM: Was it hard to adjust to playing the two after a whole career as point?
KJ: Yes. As a point guard, I want the ball in my hands, so playing the two-guard took getting used to. Again, I was ready to do whatever it took to win games, so I adjusted. The switch also required me to start working on my jump shot more and I added greater range, so it helped my game to some degree.
SLAM: The third point guard on that team was Steve Nash, who barely played. Did you see any indication of greatness to come?
KJ: The Suns management was always astute in identifying talent, so we knew Steve had some game. In practice he showed quickness and great passing skills, so we knew when given a chance he would perform at a high level. But two MVPs? I don’t think any of us saw that coming. He is a phenomenal point guard.
SLAM: Was there anyone—other than MJ—you found particularly difficult to defend?
KJ: I always had hard-fought battles with John Stockton and Terry Porter, who were both very smart and strong point guards. It was also always fun playing against Tim Hardaway because he wanted to push the game and pick up the pace—something we had no trouble doing. There was not much one could do when he had the “UTEP Two-Step” working. Throw in his long-range game and he was virtually unstoppable.
SLAM: Why was it so important for you to retire at the top of your game? You always said you would play 10 years. You ended up quitting after 11, when you definitely could have kept going.
KJ: I always looked at basketball as a stepping-stone to something bigger in life. My grandfather taught me to be a “good neighbor” and give back to my community, so I knew that I had another career following basketball. It was fun, but now I’m really enjoying myself helping young people in Sacramento.
SLAM: You retired in ’98, and then came back for the last six games of the 2000 season after Jason Kidd broke his foot. Were you looking to get back in the game?
KJ: No. I had already moved on to something I was meant to do, but when Cotton [Fitzsimmons] called and asked me to return until Jason got healthy, I likened it to a citizen being asked to help his country—I couldn’t say no.
SLAM: What were your goals when you founded St. Hope?
KJ: My goals for St. Hope were always to improve the quality of life for residents from Oak Park, where I grew up. We started operating out of a portable unit on the campus of Sacramento High School and now we run the school as a charter school. We also have a 25,000-square foot mixed-use complex that houses a Starbucks, barbershop, bookstore, art gallery, theater and 12 loft apartments.
SLAM: Can you see it expanding to other cities?
KJ: We’ve always sought to build a replicable model that could be used in other neighborhoods across the country. In July we formed a partnership with the New York City Department of Education to assist them with a charter school in Harlem and we fully expect to open our own charter school in Harlem within the next several years.