By Brian Taylor
When you mention the Phoenix Suns, what comes to mind? Most folks would say Steve Nash, the Fed Ex colored unis, scoring points out the wazoo or Shawn Marion doing inside-outside damage. People also think of the Larry O’Brien trophy, and how the Suns are pretty much in the hunt for that thing every year. There was once a time where the sun didn’t always rise out there in the desert, and that was the case in the PHX until the 87’-88’ season, when the Suns parted ways with All-Star Dunk Monster Larry Nance and picked up a young point guard from Cal, Kevin Maurice Johnson.
Taking the Danny Ainge route to the NBA, Johnson was drafted by the Oakland A’s, but chose basketball, being picked up by the Cavs. A lot of folks forget how Kevin got to the desert. Playing behind a possible Hall of Famer in Mark Price, KJ and the Cavs’ brass knew he wouldn’t get any burn, so they shipped him out west, and boy did it pay off for the Suns. In his first years in Phoenix, Kevin took the Suns from a drug-addled league curiosity to a perennial playoff squad.
The Suns went from feel-good story of the league to a serious title threat when they upset the Lakers in 1990, before bowing out to the Trailblazers ( and yes, Cliff Robinson was on that Blazer team, he should just have “AARP” on his jersey). Next thing you know, Thunder Dan, Jeff Hornacek came on board, and “Tommy Gun” Chambers was revitalized and the Suns were in the house.
In 1992, it all finally came together in the desert, and Jerry Colangelo’s dream was almost fully realized as Sir Charles brought his bald-head, a bomb-dunking, charm school flunking self to the Valley of the Sun. Kevin Johnson played with a reckless abandon knowing he had the Chuckster backing him up. As a matter of fact, KJ is probably responsible for one of the top ten dunks of all time. There, I said it. Here’s how it went down.
It was the 1994 playoffs (the one where the Rockets beat the Knicks in 7 for the title), and visiting Houston was matched up with KJ’s Suns, who were trying to go back to the Finals. Kevin had just beaten Kenny “the Jet” Smith to the baseline and was expecting Hakeem to handle his biz down low. But Kevin wasn’t having it. In one of the sickest plays in the history of basketball, Kevin….all 6’1” of him jumped up and emasculated “the Dream” with a dunk that caught everyone off guard. Steve “Snapper” Jones even flipped out while broadcasting it. Olajuwon tried the “make it look like I was getting out of the way” move to play off the fact that he got embarrassed on NBC. Best ever, although the one he had on his ex-teammate, John “Hot Rod” Williams was pretty insane too (don’t worry, I have a YouTube to prove it!).
In 1997, Kevin decided his body couldn’t take the nightly beatings anymore, in a league that was becoming more physical every year. However, staying loyal to the Suns organization, KJ came back in 1999 to provide point guard help when Jason Kidd went down with an injury. The following season, Johnson retired for good, but what a career it was. Kevin was one of only five guys ever to average over 20ppg and 10ast in three different seasons. In today’s NBA, you’d compare him to a Dwyane Wade, except with more assists. Today, KJ is known for his humanitarian work with at-risk kids in California, where he won a spot in the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Okay enough talk, check out Kevin in action!