Original Old School: Shining Star

by April 09, 2011

From holding down the point guard position to trying to hold the Kings in Sacramento, Kevin Johnson has always been a leader. The former Phoenix Suns’ staple is still one of only three NBA players to ever average at least 20 points and 12 assists in a season (the others: Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas). Johnson spoke with Alan Paul for this SLAM 104 interview that occurred a year before Johnson’s Sacramento mayoral campaign. The 6-1 guard was elected mayor the following year (2008), and maybe this story had something to do with his victory. Okay, maybe not. But we’d like to think so. —Ed.

by Alan Paul

I always took a special interest in Kevin Johnson because we were in college together. Classmates, kind of, sort of. Although I’m a Michigan man, I spent one semester at UC Berkeley 20 years ago, right when KJ was starring for the Golden Bears, and he was a huge presence on the campus.

In the mid ’80s, Johnson and backcourt mate Chris Washington breathed new life into a dormant program, helping Cal both make the postseason and beat their archrival UCLA for the first time in 25 years. Kevin Johnson reminded me of my favorite player, Isiah Thomas: a slight 6-1 with extreme quickness and a great handle, which together allowed him to blow by anyone at any time. KJ played under control at 110 miles per hour and always kept his teammates involved, never hogging the ball, even while seemingly able to score at will.

But the thing that really struck me about KJ was that during my brief stay at Cal, I saw him not only on the court but also in the library—more than once. That intrigued me, because at UM, I saw basketball players hanging in pizza joints and bars, but never at the library. And Johnson was no mere player; he was a true star.

In ’87, KJ was drafted seventh overall by the Cavs, who already had second-year man Mark Price at the point. In February of his rookie year, Cleveland sent him to Phoenix, where he immediately thrived. In ’88-89, his first full season with the Suns, Johnson averaged 20.4 ppg and a career-best 12.2 apg and was named Most Improved Player. It was the start of a three-year run averaging better than 20 and 10, making KJ one of only five players to accomplish this feat, along with Isiah, Tiny Archibald, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. His career assist rate of 9.1 per game is fourth in NBA history behind Oscar, Magic and John Stockton. He also averaged 17.9 ppg for his 12-year career.

Most telling, the Suns won no fewer than 53 games in each of KJ’s first seven seasons in Phoenix, with the point guard passing to a series of high-octane scorers, including Tom Chambers, Eddie Johnson and, from ’92-96, Charles Barkley. The Suns took the Bulls to six games in the ’93 Finals, including a 129-121 triple-OT win in Game 3 that remains an all-time classic. It was probably this game, in which he played memorably great D against Michael Jordan, that cemented Johnson’s greatness among even casual fans.

But as great a basketball career as it was, it marked only the beginning of Kevin Johnson’s life work. While still with the Suns, he founded St. Hope, a non-profit school for inner city youth in his boyhood Oak Park neighborhood in Sacramento, CA; St. Hope now runs an independent charter school while also branching into other community development areas. Twenty years later, with his excellent playing days receding in the rearview mirror, it’s clear that my first impression, formed in the Cal undergrad library 20 years ago, was spot-on; there is nothing ordinary about Kevin Johnson.

SLAM: People talk about scoring point guards versus pass-first ones, but you combined both, seemingly with ease. Was that your goal?

KJ: At a young age on the basketball court, I was often made the leader by my teammates and I did whatever it took to lead my team—whether it was scoring or passing. It depended on the make-up of the team and what was most in need. Scoring always came more naturally to me. I actually led the state of California in scoring my senior year of high school with more than 32 points per game.

SLAM: Charles Barkley came to Phoenix in ’92 and you guys got over the hump and made it to the Finals. Was he the difference?

KJ: Without a doubt Charles was the difference. We saddled Charles up and he carried us to the Finals with a truly MVP performance throughout the year, night in and night out.

SLAM: You had to sacrifice some of your game to give Charles space. Was that difficult?

KJ: I welcomed an opportunity to play with a true superstar and would have done anything to get us to the next level. It wasn’t difficult at all giving Charles space, and playing alongside him is something I’ll never forget. His ability to take over a game at any time was truly amazing.

SLAM: You had seven  double-figure scorers on that team. Was there ever any tension over touches? As the point guard, that would have fallen on you.

KJ: I took it as a personal challenge to make sure everyone was satisfied with his touches, and it was an easy job. We had a great group of guys that put the success of the team above any personal accomplishments, so tension was nearly non-existent.

SLAM: What are your memories of the triple-OT Finals game? You must have many…

KJ: It was an absolutely incredible game with every player using every drop of gas in the tank. Down 2-0 to the greatest player ever to play the game, we were facing a must-win situation and we responded. When it was all over, I had never been as physically and emotionally drained at the end of a game.

SLAM: You made your name as an offensive player but sort of cemented it by playing great D on Jordan in that game. Did you enjoy that challenge?

KJ: After getting over my initial jitters, I embraced the challenge. It’s not often one gets the chance to guard the greatest player in the game in the biggest arena the sport has to offer.

SLAM: You played with Eddie Johnson, one of the great, under-the-radar scorers in NBA history. How did he get his points?

KJ: Eddie was a great teammate who always had a smile on his face, a great scorer with a quick release jumper from all ranges. Eddie was our “microwave” with an ability to come off the bench and fill it up.