An exclusive interview with Kevin Johnson
Going Out on Top
By Jeramie McPeek
Originally printed in the May 1997 issue of Fastbreak magazine
"How many questions you got," he asked.
"A lot," I answered.
"All right, then you're gonna have to roll with me. I've gotta run a little errand before we leave."
It was late March and the Suns had just finished a short walk-through at the America West Arena. In about an hour, they would board a bus that would deliver them to their awaiting charter at Sky Harbor. They had an appointment with the Rockets the following night. But first, Kevin Johnson and I were supposed to hook up for a one-on-one interview. I wanted to sit him down and talk about his career, about the dreaded "R" word and about "What's next?" I never imagined, however, that he'd do the sitting anywhere else than in front of his cubicle in the Suns' locker room.
"So, where we goin'," I asked as we glided up the ramp of the arena's parking garage and out onto Jackson Street in his sleak, black Land Cruiser.
"You'll see," he said with a coy smile.
As we traveled north on Central I began to think maybe we were heading for a tiny coffee shop or perhaps a book store, two of his favorite places to go and relax. But then he veered off the main road and turned down a bumpy alley. After parking in an empty lot behind some small buildings, he led me through a back door and into an old fashioned barber shop -- Uncle Jed's Cut Hut.
A few young guys, probably 18-20 years old, were the only people inside. They smiled and slapped hands with their older friend as he sat himself down for a little trim; he had to get fixed up, the next night he would be playing his last game in Houston of the year. Make that the last game in Houston of his career.
FASTBREAK: All right, let's start out with the big question. Are you definitely going to retire after this season?
KEVIN JOHNSON: Definitely.
FB: Definitely? So you're saying there is no chance you'll change your mind?
KJ: I haven't changed my mind. I'm 100 percent, but you know I really would like to do everything to focus all my energy and time right now on this season and make the most of it. I've said all along the one thing that could change my mind is the Lord and he hasn't given me an answer any different yet, so we'll have to wait and see.
FB: Do you feel that God wants you to retire? Does He want you to go on and do something else with your life?
KJ: I think I have to feel that He wants me to keep playing and I haven't received that yet. If I don't get that confirmation then I would have to go with my own instincts, which is basically to have this be it and go out after 10 years.
FB: Why are your instincts to walk away after 10 years?
KJ: I just felt all along that if I could get a certain amount of years in the league, have great years and still have my health when I walked away, that would be great. You know, I want to be able to run around with my kids someday and not have to ice for three or four days. Health is such a delicate thing that I would really like to have. And another reason why I got to this point was that I've been injured previously for so long -- those four years consecutively -- that the rehabilitation and stuff just got so frustrating for me. It was something that I just don't want to keep on doing at that same pace. And then lastly, it's always been a personal goal of mine to be able to walk away and not play just for the money and be at the top of my game.
FB: But don't you think you could play another year or two and still be at the top of your game and still have your health?
KJ: I think I could play another year or two and be at the top of my game, but the health part -- I can't speculate on that. I mean, only the Lord knows that.
I just have always felt that after 10 years I'd have another challenge to embark on. I don't know what that is today. I'm glad I don't know what it is because it would probably be a distraction. I really want to focus on this season and getting into the playoffs and hopefully make a dent on the playoffs.
Then I'm hoping sometime during the summer I'll get an inkling of what my next mission may be. It may be to just rest a year, it may be to go back to school or maybe start another St. Hope somewhere. I don't know what it will be, but at this time I don't have it yet. And during the summer it will be that time for soul searching.
FB: Let's go back to the beginning. When you were first drafted by the Cavaliers in 1987, did you have any idea what lay ahead for you?
KJ: No idea. To be honest, even to this day, when I look at the statistics and the success I've had, it's hard to believe that I've done that. And I think one of the reasons why I've been able to maintain it for so long is I've never rested on it because I really don't think I'm that good. I mean, I've had to work hard to put up the numbers and to have had the success that I've had over the years.
I still say one of the greatest moments in my whole NBA career was getting drafted. And the reason for that is, that's getting the opportunity to play with some of the greatest athletes in the world and to be able to fit and excel and have some success at this level still is baffling to me.
FB: You were traded mid-way through your rookie season. What were your thoughts when you were heard you were going to Phoenix?
KJ: I loved it. I was excited. My body was convulsing a little bit in Cleveland. I'm from California and was used to sunshine and good weather, got out there for six gloomy months and it was tough. When I got traded to Phoenix it wasn't just basketball I was happy about, it was the climate and the change of scenery. I was familiar with Phoenix because I played in the PAC 10 at Cal. We played against the University of Arizona and ASU. So I was familiar with the Valley and couldn't wait to get out here and get settled in.
FB: You were named the NBA's Most Improved Player during your second season as your points and assists more than doubled. What was the difference for you?
KJ: Four things. One, obviously God blessed me. Two, in Cleveland I didn't get an opportunity to play a lot -- I didn't necessarily deserve it either. But when I got here I got an opportunity to play a lot and if you have an opportunity, you've got to make the most of it. Thirdly, I felt in Cleveland I didn't let my real personality come out -- I was kind of walking on egg shells. I was a rookie and kind of feeling my way through things and I said if I ever get a chance somewhere else to start all over I'm just gonna go at it like gang busters and let the chips fall where they may. That was kind of my attitude. Then lastly, it was Cotton Fitzsimmons just saying "Here's the ball. No matter how many mistakes you make we're going to ride you as far as we can, good, bad or indifferent," and you know that kind of confidence at a young age really meant a lot to me.
FB: For three consecutive seasons you averaged better than 20 points and 10 assists a game. Only three other players in the history of the game have accomplished that feat. In fact, only Tim Hardaway has pulled off a 20 and 10 season since and he only did it once. Do you realize just how amazing that was?
KJ: Yeah, you know, if I'm looking at me doing it, it's no big deal. It's just my job and you do what you have to do and the numbers or whatever, happen or don't happen. But as you get older, you kind of get a little more nostalgic and you look back at situations a little bit differently. I look at some of the statistics I've been able to put up and if that was another point guard, I wonder how would I view that or what would I think and to put up 20 and 10 is impressive but 19 and nine or 18 and eight for eight or nine years -- there's something there. To be a part of that, to be able to do that is something that again I'm very appreciative about.
FB: Like you said, you've averaged, or come close to, 20 and 10 for nine years now. Yet for some reason it seems like you haven't gotten the recognition that you deserve as one of the best point guards in the game. Do you ever feel that way and do you have any opinions as to why that is?
KJ: That doesn't bother me because if I won a championship, which is my goal, then no matter what kind of recognition you get or don't get, it wouldn't really matter. But the reason why some of that happened is I think, my second, third and fourth year I took over the NBA kind of like by storm -- a kid out of nowhere, putting up 20 and 10 and leading a team to 50-plus wins, the Western Conference Finals, beating the Lakers and the whole bit -- and then for some reason the next three or four years I had been injured and I think the expectations that not only myself, but other people had for me, whether it was inside or outside the organization, weren't able to be met. Durability and longevity are very important as it relates to carving your name alongside some of the great point guards to ever play the game. Unfortunately I've been robbed a little bit of that, but when the dust settles, we'll see where I stack up.
FB: You mentioned the injuries. Not only have you not been given the recognition you deserve, but you were criticized quite a bit during those three or four years of injuries. How hard was that on you? What kind of toll did that take?
KJ: I think it was hard more so for my family and it was frustrating for me personally because I couldn't get out there and play. The criticism -- I could live or live without. I mean, how do you criticize somebody for getting hurt, that's pretty ridiculous to me. But the frustrating part for me was the rehabbing over and over again, spending two thirds of my season for three or four years rehabbing physically and psychologically. The other part is not being able to be there for my teammates night in and night out where they could count on you and knowing because I'm not out there, the team's ultimately not going to reach the level that it was capable of reaching. That was what was frustrating, but not what was said.
FB: Before this season you had hernia surgery. While operating, the doctors found a second hernia that they think might have been there for several years. Do you think that had something to do with all those injuries?
KJ: The two things I'd say, God's blessing this year and the hernia surgery, those two things may have really alleviated the hamstring and groin problems I've had in the past and it's just unfortunate that the hernia surgery didn't happen sooner. But I probably wouldn't be the same player I am today had I relied 100 percent on just my body. When you can't play physically sometimes, you have to use your mind a little bit more to compete and to achieve certain things. I'm just glad that this year I've been healthy for the most part and I think God and the hernia surgery you know really had a lot to do with it. It looks that way.
FB: You talked about your game changing over the years. This season, you've added the three-pointer to your arsenal. In fact, with only a few weeks remaining you're contending for the three-point accuracy title. Why have you started shooting more this season and why didn't you earlier on?
KJ: You know what? I don't really know how it happened. I always felt decently comfortable shooting threes but never shot very many and to be honest, my percentage was probably 28 percent. But a lot of those weren't normal threes; there were a lot of full court, half court shots or bail out shots, but when I took a three and got a good look, I usually hit.
Another reason I never shot many threes is we had so many guys that shot threes; Danny Ainge and Majerle, Eddie Johnson and people like that. That was one of our strengths and I didn't want to make it one of our weaknesses. And as things evolved the last couple years, because I shot so many times, you know, offensively, and was a threat, if I started shooting threes, that would be other possessions where I would shoot the ball and would not get guys involved. Where as now, I just pick my spots. I mean, sometimes I look to shoot threes, sometimes I don't. It's basically what the team needs and I think it's just another added weapon, for not only my game, but our team.
FB: What are some of your best memories of the past decade?
KJ: Well, I loved the Madhouse on McDowell. I had a great time over there cause there were some great memories. There was a sense of innocence for all of us at the time -- the young bucks with a couple of veteran players. One great moment was beating the Lakers in the semifinals. We beat them 4-1 and we beat them pretty handily, they weren't injured and had all their players. I mean, Magic, Kareem, A.C., Worthy and Byron Scott -- they had their five best and we beat them twice on their own court which was an amazing accomplishment.
Again, being drafted was a great memory. Being selected Most Improved was a special individual award because when I speak to young people I always try to tell them the importance about it's not where you start but where you end up. It's all about improving.
Paul Westphal's prophetic statement about beating the Lakers when we were down 0-2 in the 1991 Playoffs and he said "We're going to win the next game in L.A. and we're gonna win Game 4 in L.A. and we'll come back and win Game 5 and everybody will say what a great series it was." That was truly one of the most special moments of my career. Playing in the Finals was another one. There's nothing like it. I've played in a lot of basketball games at a lot of different levels and nothing's like the Finals. When somebody is sitting around in a sports bar or wherever watching games that day and they say "Are you gonna watch the basketball game?" there's only one game they're talking about throughout the whole world. To be a part of that was very special.
FB: How about worst moments? Are there any games or times that stand out as being really bad?
KJ: There was probably three that were very difficult. When I got hurt the first time with a hamstring injury against Portland -- it was in Game 5 or 6 at home -- because we really still had a chance to get back to the Western Conference Finals and the Finals and that was kind of the beginning of my injuries as well. Obviously the shot that John Paxson hit is another one. You know, I can still see that as if it was just yesterday. And the other moments were probably those Houston series, both of them when we were up pretty handily and had a chance to really control the series and play them out. We didn't and they go on each of those years to win an NBA title. That was a little frustrating.
FB: Let's talk about the relationships you've had with some of your teammates throughout your career?
KJ: I've had a lot of them. I've had a lot. You know, my two closest friends have probably been Mark West and A.C. Green. But the closest I was to all my teammates was probably again, that old Madhouse on McDowell era with Jeff Hornacek, Tom Chambers, Mark West and Eddie Johnson and that whole group. I mean, those were just some fun times and we really had great team chemistry and played very well as a team. Since then, we've moved into the Purple Palace and there's been great memories but for some reason, whether it's my injuries or expectations or things not being fulfilled, it's just been a little more frustrating. It's not quite as special as it was in those early days.
FB: How about your relationship with Jason Kidd?
KJ: I think we have a great relationship. I mean he's such a special basketball player. Players like him come around once every 15-20 years if your lucky. I think everybody in the Valley really has a treat over the next 10 years or so to watch him play because the better players he has around him the more his game will be appreciated.
I for one love playing with him. I mean, it was difficult at first for me having to play strictly two guard but the trade off is playing with him and the energy he brings and how fun it is out there to play with him. It's well worth it.
FB: What do you see in the future for the Suns?
KJ: I see Jason leading the way. Beyond that I don't know.
FB: Would you like to be involved in any way with this franchise after you retire?
KJ: I figure I'll always be a spokesman for the Phoenix Suns and I'll always do anything they ever ask within my power -- time permitting -- to enhance this community or the franchise. But in an official capacity, I don't think so.
FB: Let's change course a little bit. You've given a lot to the game of basketball. What would you say that the game has given you?
KJ: An excuse to not hold a real job for 14 years, 10 in the league and four in college, financial independence where I'll never have to worry about where the next dollar is coming from for my family or my children or even their kids. That's two, three generations that it's provided me economic independence for and it's been a tremendous platform to let people know I serve Jesus Christ.
FB: How have you changed in the last ten years?
KJ: I think just maturation. I think just growing up. I mean I've changed from 10 to 20 and 20 to 30. I think I'm a little wiser than I was before. I'm not quite as impatient as I was before and a little more understanding of people. I think my skin is a lot thicker. You realize you can't change the world but it shouldn't stop you from trying. You can't fight every fight, you have to pick your battles wisely. You can't validate everything that's said about you whether it's good or bad -- it's not always true. One of the things I appreciate most is all the lessons I've learned in the last 10 years that I can share with my brother and the kids I come in contact with so they'll know what to expect, whatever vocation they pursue.
FB: Over the 10 years do you look back and wish you could change anything? If you could do it over would there be any big things that you'd change?
KJ: Not really. No, then again, you asked me about retiring, if at the end of this season I look back on my career and had regrets and things that I didn't feel were fulfilled or I didn't feel I had accomplished then I certainly that would be a reason not to retire. But at this point, I don't have any major regrets and there's not anything that I feel like I've haven't achieved other than winning a championship and there are guys that play 20 years and never win a championship so the longer you play doesn't necessarily increase your odds.
FB: When we talked in October, you said that the two things you wanted most for your final season were to stay healthy and to have fun. What's this last year been like for you?
KJ: Well, I've been healthy other than the first month of the season and I've had fun despite the ups and downs this season has dealt us. I mean we've had so many changes. It's been a year of transition and in spite of it all, it still looks like we're going to make the playoffs and that in itself is really special. I would like to think that our team is really peaking at the right time going into the playoffs. And I think for all the things we went through this year, I'm going to say they were all worth it to get to this point.
FB: Have you been thinking about it being your last season as each game slips by?
KJ: There's been two things that probably really stand out. One is when I was in Utah, and this was probably in mid-January, some of the fans said "Thank you very much for all of the years that you've given to us." I was trying to figure out why they were saying that and they basically were saying "This is the last time you'll play in Utah," and "Whoah!" that was really hard for me because we've had some battles and that really put it in perspective that this is my last time around in a lot of places.
As it relates to the games here at home, it's not so much the last time playing against a team but more than anything, every drive that I have to the arena, I know that they're one less. We've got four or five home ball games left and that's hard to believe that to leave around 3:30 or 4:00 like I do to get down here and prepare for a game will only happen a few more times. I'm trying to savor every single moment. When you're down to your final days, for some reason or another, the colors look different, the world is different and your perspective is much different. I don't know if you saw the guy in the movie Shine, but he was a guy who was mentally challenged and he just had so much affection for everybody; I think I'm at that point. I'm just so happy and I love everybody right now. So I'm having a good time.
FB: Are you going to miss playing?
KJ: Definitely. Definitely you know when you come to the end of your career you realize how much you love this game and how special it is. Sometimes you can get soured a little bit, whether it's injuries or some of the criticisms or the team not doing as well, but you know with all that said and done, this has been a great 10 years and I've truly been blessed to be able to play.
FB: You've never really been comfortable with your celebrity, have you?
KJ: By nature I'm a very private person. I'm a simple guy. I don't like all the extra attention and the exposure and being scrutinized and I've always been in the public eye. That's just not my nature. I mean, it's part of my job so I try to make the most of it, but I'm looking forward to quieter times when that day comes.
FB: Do you think that day will come right away or do you think that's a burden you're going to have to live with for a few years?
KJ: You know, if all things work out and I don't play beyond this year, it usually takes a year or two for things to kind of die down. Then you'll have a whole different generation of kids who will watch "Rewind" on Inside Stuff so often that they won't really remember or know who the guys were before Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson and Kenny Anderson and some of those guys, unless you've won a championship. You know, immortality is only served to a few in this game.
FB: Speaking of immortality, what do you think your place in history is here in Phoenix and also with the Suns?
KJ: I would like to think they go hand in hand. I think what we did on the basketball court was awesome to be able to win 50-some odd games and make the Phoenix Suns one of the most respected franchises not only in the NBA but in all of sports and to be a part of that is something very special to me; to carve out a certain standard for an organization. As it relates to the community, I think the thing that I'm most proud of and what I probably tried or aspired to do more than anything was to be as respected off the court as well as I was on the court by serving the community and somehow making lives better for those who need a helping hand.
FB: You signed a three-year contract before the 1994 season and with that, Suns President Jerry Colangelo, made you a promise that you would not be traded. What did that mean to you?
KJ: It meant a lot to me because in modern day sports you don't see too many guys playing for one team for an extended period of time. I grew up when you loved one team forever because those guys played on that team when they were young, in their prime and past their prime and their personality and character symbolized whatever team they played for, it was one in the same. Today, with free agents and the money that can be made and so forth, you just don't see that.
When Jerry and I sat down talked, I told him, more than anything, I would like to know that I'd be in Phoenix. If the Lord would allow me to play 10 years, my whole career for the most part, in Phoenix that would be an honor for me and something that I'd be very proud of.
Over the last couple of years when there were trade rumors and criticisms of me, people often wondered why I didn't refute some of them or comment on all them. But it didn't matter because I wasn't going anywhere. I had earned the respect from the people that most mattered being here in Phoenix and that's all we really strive. There's only a few people whose opinions we really care about. With everybody else's, some hold water and some don't, but it shouldn't mean much to you. You should never be inflamed by public opinion.
FB: Do you plan to continue living here in Phoenix?
KJ: Yes. I have a brother in high school and we opened up a St. Hope in Phoenix and I'm committed to living here for the foreseeable future.
I made a commitment when Jerry gave me the no-trade clause and I told him at that point in time that I looked at Phoenix as not being my second home, but my home. I'm committed to the Valley. I love the Valley; it's a great place to raise a family and the growth that's taken place especially in the downtown area is something that I'm glad that I'm a part of and was around to see before, during and now after.
FB: Have you ever thought about the fact that when you arrived in Phoenix, the Suns were the only professional sports team in the Valley? The Suns started winning again and suddenly the Cardinals moved to Phoenix, the America West Arena was built, then Arena Football and NHL Hockey arrived, and now the WNBA and Major League Baseball also call Phoenix home. And that's not to mention the building of Bank One Ballpark.
KJ: You're hitting on a good point and that's why Phoenix is so meaningful to me. One of the reasons why I went to the University of California at Berkeley is because they weren't a big-name program and they didn't get a lot of notoriety. I remember being on campus the first year and they didn't sell any basketball T-shirts or anything in the Student Union store. They didn't sell any paraphernalia or any merchandise with basketball on it and two or three years later, because our program had success, they sold it everywhere -- bookstores, on and off campus. And it was just awesome to be a part of that growth.
The same thing was here in Phoenix. When I first got here, the Phoenix Suns organization was in ashes. They had had drug scandals and a lot of negative things going on. In fact, Jerry Colangelo probably doesn't remember this but they used to boo him when he would be out there at half court giving a presentation. Now days it doesn't matter where you are at in the state of Arizona, you're going to see something with Phoenix Suns merchandise, where as before you didn't see that.
The growth in downtown is amazing; when I first came it was a ghost town. Now, they have football and hockey and basketball and baseball soon to come. I mean, I feel like I've been a part of that growth that has taken place here and again, that's why Phoenix is so special to me.
FB: How about the fans here in Phoenix and their support through the years?
KJ: I think the fans for me, and I've always said this, are the greatest fans in basketball. I mean, they've supported me and the organization when we weren't good. They come when we are expected to win, which is easy, but this year when we were losing, they still came out every ball game and supported us. They are die hard.
I think what says the most about the fans are two things, 1) how they support us on the court but when you see fans throughout the Valley -- when you walk the streets and you see their true admiration for what we do on the court, and it's very appreciative.
FB: You mentioned your St. Hope Academy here in Phoenix. Few people even realize that you opened a second one in the Valley. Can you tell us a little about it?
KJ: Yeah, everybody always talked about the St. Hope Academy in Sacrameto, but again, two or three years ago when I made a commitment to the Valley, I also started a St. Hope Academy out here. We have about 20 or 25 kids, we bought a house that's about 1,200 square feet and we pretty much run all of our operations out of that. It's very similar to the St. Hope in Sacramento. Not quite as comprehensive but if not just as effective, maybe even more effective.
The reason why a lot of people don't know about it is that I don't like fan fare and all that notoriety. I kind of like to do things quietly and all the people we've asked to support up unto this point have been very receptive. If you can't change and affect the lives of young people then what we do is not worth while at all.
FB: You touched on this earlier, but what's next for Kevin Johnson? What are some of the things that you want to do with the rest of your life?
KJ: I would like to have a family. Beyond that I am totally giving the Lord a blank slate to do or put on it whatever he wants. And I'll have to be obedient to that. I don't know what it is yet. I don't have my own ideas. If I did, I certainly would pursue it, but I don't and this is the first time in my life where once the season and the playoffs are over, that next day and those horizons after that I have no idea what to expect. And I'm not smart enough really to head in one direction on my own or another. I got to look at the Lord to guide me and I don't know where he's going to take me or leave me.
FB: That must be a weird feeling not knowing what's next.
KJ: It's a very weird feeling. You know, it's liberating in some respects. It's special because you don't have too many times in your life where you can look ahead and have no idea what's going to happen next or not have to do something to make a certain amount of money to pay the bills. I mean, I could do whatever I want and that's a special feeling that I'm going to savor a little bit, do some soul searching and again let the Lord deal with me. Whatever he puts on my heart will be my next challenge.
FB: Before you get to that challenge you have one more in front of you, the playoffs. It's your last shot at that elusive championship.
KJ: That's all we play for right now. The love of the game. The opportunity to play in the Finals. I'll deal with the championship secondly if I can just get an opportunity to play in the Finals. I had one opportunity, but I didn't realize how special it was. It was fun and I had a good time, but this NEXT time... I'm saying that like it's going to happen. Maybe that's an omen.