OCT. 6, 1996. FLAGSTAFF,
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
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
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
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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