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KJ's final season may be delayed, but there's more games to be played
One More climb
By Jeramie McPeek

OCT. 6, 1996. FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ.


Something seems strangely amiss in the high altitude for Suns Training Camp this season. Maybe it's the absence of Sir Charles' booming voice making jokes about the rest of his teammates, who are actually practicing. Or perhaps it's the renewed dedication that Cotton Fitzsimmons and Danny Ainge have brought up to camp as they try to implement a new offense and a more aggressive defense. But most likely it's the nine new players with Phoenix across their chests running the floor, several of whom might be wearing different jerseys by the time you read this.


One of Kevin's favorite offseason pastimes is to climb Phoenix's Camelback Mountain at dawn.
Out on the court, Cotton has split the group into two teams, purples and whites, for a run to 21. Rookie Steve Nash and newcomer Sam Cassell are battling back and forth. A pick shakes Nash as Cassell drives in and drops the dime to Mario Bennett who throws it down. Hard. Back the other way, Nash pushes the ball up-court, fakes the dish, stops, pops, and its good.

As the two continue to show each other a thing or three, I realize what's truly missing. Kevin Johnson. At next year's camp it will seem normal to see Cassell and Nash running the point, but this is supposed to be the final training camp of KJ's career. Ever since entering the league in '87, he had planned to play for a decade. He wanted to be able to leave the game while he was still in his prime and still in good shape physically. Well, his 10th and apparently farewell season is about to begin, but like so many times in the past, he is sidelined with an injury.

"My ideal last season would include two things," he told me a couple weeks before doctors decided he needed surgery to repair a hernia that had developed in his abdomen. "One would be to stay healthy throughout the year and, secondly, I want to have a fun last season. I want to enjoy every game and what our team goes through."

Doesn't seem fair.

After years of driving the lane - like no one else dares - only to be hammered to the hardwood, the wear and tear of the NBA has taken its toll on his 6-1 frame. Pains, strains and sprains have forced the 30-year-old to miss an average of 30 games over the last four seasons.

"There's been times when I've wanted to play and maybe could've, but for the betterment of the team, I had to sit out to rest injuries and make sure they were fully healed before I returned," he said. "And then there's been times that if my house had been on fire I wouldn't have been able to sprint out of it."

This year was supposed to be different. During the offseason, Kevin was working out non-stop trying to stay in shape. There was reason to worry if a morning passed without his black Toyota Land Cruiser pulling up outside the Suns Athletic Club this summer. Inside, he would spend hours, cranking out repetitions on various machines.

And his legs were stronger than ever, as once a week he would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to beat the sun to Camelback Mountain. There, he would race to the top where, in the distance, he could see the America West Arena, and then race back down again. Often in less than 45 minutes.

"Over the last three or four years I've been trying all kinds of different things to stay healthy and get prepared physically for the season, but nothing's seemed to work yet," he explained. "So this year I decided to go all out and try anything and everything. Since Camelback is so close to my house and I've been hearing people talk about it for years, I thought I'd give it a shot."

Although his shot looked good, it just rimmed out. But don't worry fans, this game's not over yet. It's expected that KJ will be cleared to return to action before the season's first month is complete. That leaves five months and a postseason for him to make some more memories for us as well as himself.

"You know, you can think about what it will be like to turn 30. You can think you're prepared for it. You can see it coming when you turn 27, 28 or 29, but until it actually comes, you just can't imagine what it will feel like to turn 30 and that's kind of what this has been like for me," he said. "Until I am introduced for the first game of my final season, I don't know what it's going to feel like. Until the Suns play their last game of the year in Sacramento, my home town, I don't know how I'm going to feel. I'm sure it will be emotional for me.

"I just want to have the best season of my career and have fun doing it," he said. "I don't know what I hope to accomplish - there's so many things, that I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and enjoy every game along the way."

And we should enjoy them too. After all, the Phoenix Suns without Kevin Johnson just isn't the same.

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