Guard Kevin Johnson of Phoenix gets a big lift making assists—on and off the court
April 23, 1989

You think magic Johnson has a lot of career assists? You don't even want to know about the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson. Let's see. There was the time a friend needed a car, so Kevin gave him his Mazda RX-7. For keeps. There was the time the security guard at the Phoenix apartment complex where Kevin used to live was down on his luck, so Johnson gave him $5,000. There was the time Kevin tried to buy his grandfather a house, but gramps wouldn't take it, so Johnson gave him a car and later a satellite dish.

There was the old homeless couple in Berkeley whom Johnson helped out while he was a student at Cal. The woman was white and couldn't walk. The man was black and pushed her in a wheelchair. Anytime Johnson saw them he handed them a few bucks. His reason: "They looked so in love."

Then there are all the Phoenix Suns home games. He buys at least 10 tickets to each and hands them out to people he meets. Today one of the invitees is a guy who bags groceries at a Safeway. "You go to many games?" says Johnson in that polite, cheerful way of his.

"Nah. Can't afford it."

"Would you like to go tonight?"

Oh, and there are the assists that get printed in the paper. At week's end Johnson was averaging 12.3, third best in the NBA behind the Utah Jazz's John Stockton (13.6) and the Johnson (12.7) who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. He also was scoring 20.4 points a game. If KJ, as he's known, keeps it up, he'll become the fifth player in NBA history to enter point-guard heaven, that is, to average more than 10 assists and 20 points in a season. The four who have done it are Magic, Nate Archibald, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas.

New York Knick coach Rick Pitino calls KJ "the toughest player we've played in two years." Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers says Kevin "might be the best pure point guard in basketball." According to Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins, "Every time he gets the ball, he has a chance to break your defense." And Collins's main man, Michael Jordan, who is now playing point guard for the Bulls, says, "I don't see how Cleveland could have let him go."

The Cavaliers did just that in February 1988. Cleveland, which already had a top-of-the-menu point guard in Mark Price, sent Johnson, then a rookie, to Phoenix along with two also-tradeds—center Mark West and forward Tyrone Corbin. In return, the Cavs got forwards Larry Nance and Mike Sanders.

But none of the others involved in the deal—Nance comes close—is having the kind of season that the 23-year-old (barely), 6'2" (in sneakers), 188-pound (after dessert) Johnson is. He was the NBA's Player of the Month in February, when he averaged 24.5 points and 13.0 assists, and he didn't take March off, either (23.9 and 13.0). Whom does KJ remind you of? He can penetrate like Magic. He's as quick with the ball as Stockton. He's as good with his left hand from close-in as Larry Bird. His attitude is part Mailman Malone, part pit bull. He has dunked over a pair of All-Star centers—7'4" Mark Eaton of Utah and 7-foot Kevin Duckworth of the Portland Trail Blazers. And he's durable; at week's end he was fourth in the league in minutes played.

Beyond that, says teammate Tom Chambers, KJ "has the quickest first step I've ever seen." Because the only way you can save TV face once he's by you is to push, grab or trip him, Johnson goes to the foul line regularly. Once there, he's virtually a lock: He made 57 straight free throws earlier this season and was shooting .882 from the line as of Sunday.

Johnson has a pure behind-the-head jumper, too. "Guys like him can score at will," says Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson. "But they'd rather keep everybody else on their team in the game." Indeed, sometimes Johnson has to be cajoled into shooting. After he had scored only five points in the first half of a March 17 game against Portland, Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons took him aside and insisted that he take the open shot. Johnson poured in 34 points in the second half.

KJ is an equal opportunity destroyer. He has gotten 31 against the Knicks, 32 against the Sixers, and 30 points and 21 assists in one game against the Lakers and 24 and 17 in another. Fitzsimmons may be right when he says, "Nobody in the NBA can guard this kid."

Forget that. Nobody in the NBA can understand this kid. He answers the door at his condo in Phoenix holding a bucket and a sponge. He's cleaning his apartment. Making more than $500,000 a year and doing housework. Come right in. Chessboard on the coffee table. A piano. "I thought I should be more musical," he says. Where's the TV? It's in the living room, but he rarely watches it. "It keeps me from thinking and creating, you know, from imagining," he says.

The desk in his den is full of mail—all of which he answers—and paperwork. A yellow highlighting pen lies next to Pascal's Pensèes. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Erich Fromm and Plato are on the bookshelf. "My mom always told me I could be different," says KJ. "I never wanted to be one of the guys."

The people in Phoenix seem to like Johnson just fine. After all that the Suns have been through, including a drug episode two years ago involving 10 persons, among them several former players, it's hip to be square, and Johnson is nothing if not that. The chapel service he runs before every home game for teammates—and visiting players—gets larger every month.

Even the most callous beings on the planet, NBA refs, are trying the KJ Way. When a ball went out of bounds in one game this season, the official didn't see it, so he asked Johnson who touched it last. "I did," said KJ. On the sideline, Fitzsimmons's hair did a Don King.

When Johnson got called for a foul as he stole the ball from Moses Malone of the Atlanta Hawks earlier this season, he made a rare complaint. "Gee, I thought I got that one," he said to the ref. Later, the official sidled up to Johnson and apologized: "If you're complaining about it, Kevin, I must have missed it." Could Jimmy Stewart play this part or what?

There's a lot of It's a Wonderful Life in Johnson's past. Grampy George, a retired Sacramento sheet metal worker, who's white, was in love with Georgia, also white, who managed a tavern. "Apart, we were a couple of bums," says George. "But together, we made a pretty fair couple."

Georgia became pregnant by another man, but George married her. They named the baby—who was black—Georgia. When the younger Georgia was 16 she had Kevin (the father, who never married her, drowned in the Sacramento River three years later). The grandparents agreed to raise the child as their own. "Kevin had a couple of parents who were pretty hard to explain," says George. "But we were a happy family."

Kevin grew up tall and smart (he skipped fifth grade) and straight, even though he was raised in a tough neighborhood. His grandfather was so loved that kids would bring him their bikes to fix, and a wino once gave him his unemployment compensation to ration. "I can remember people knocking on our door at all hours," says KJ. "The bums would be asking for money. And Grampy would always give it to them—one dollar at a time."

One Christmas Day, the TV news ran a story about a family that had been robbed. Grampy jumped out of his chair, grabbed Kevin and drove to the victims' house. He handed Kevin some money and told him to give it to the family. "I hated it at the time, but I've never forgotten it," says Johnson.

Like grandfather, like grandson. Johnson can't do enough for other people. Not long ago, when he stopped in Berkeley, his former barber mentioned that his mother lives in Phoenix, so soon after, Johnson got her address and took her a dozen roses. Then there is the check a friend received for the exact amount he needed to get his teeth fixed, the elementary school in Oakland that gets so much help from him it has KJ Day every year, and the coach's wife who received an expensive print, which she had admired, as a gift.

Whatever drove Johnson in his youth didn't drive his pals. "Many of my friends from home have been sent up for drugs," he says. "But I didn't want that." No indeed. After being the leading high school scorer in California his senior year, he had his pick of colleges, and he based his decision on—are you sitting down?—education.

As a political science major at Cal, he would go from practice to a small campus library, where he and a friend from Somalia, Mohammed Muqtar, would study and whisper about theology and philosophy until the library closed at midnight. They then would use the key a janitor at Harmon Arena had given them to get into the arena, where Johnson would shoot baskets until 1 a.m. Muqtar was in charge of rebounds and stats. To hone his feel for the game, Johnson would sometimes turn off the lights and dribble in the dark. One night the janitor walked in while Johnson and Muqtar were talking and dribbling in the pitch dark. The janitor said, "It's Saturday night. Why aren't you out at the parties like everybody else?"

"Because," said KJ, "parties won't take me where I want to go."

Where he wanted to go was "the top, so I could have a panoramic view of the world." Even though Cal coach Lou Campanelli kept him chained to an Arthur Murray follow-the-footprints offense, pro scouts knew Johnson had the whole package, and Cleveland wanted it. The Cavs landed him with the seventh lottery pick in 1987.

That left Johnson with an enviable choice—professional basketball or major league baseball. He had signed, as a switch-hitting shortstop, with the Oakland organization after his junior year in college and worked out with the Athletics whenever they were at home during the summer of 1986. Says Oakland's director of scouting, Dick Bogard, "In three years he would've been in the major leagues."

Sorry. Johnson headed to Cleveland, where Price heard about him and winced. "I figured they were grooming him to put me on the bench," says Price. Instead, Price had such a great training camp in the fall of 1987 that Johnson had to take a seat. "He outplayed me so badly there was no doubt he was better," Johnson says. "And I was wondering, If this guy is less than the average NBA player...then maybe I don't belong in this league."

However, any doubts that he or anyone else had about whether Johnson belonged in the NBA disappeared after he arrived in Phoenix. With KJ dishing off to Eddie Johnson and Chambers for wide-open jumpers, the Suns were only a game behind the Pacific Division-leading Lakers. KJ has Phoenix doing so well that it appears the city council will finally move ahead with plans to build the Suns a new arena. Welcome to the KJ Dome.

The new wisdom is that the world revolves around four point guards: Magic, Stockton, Price and KJ. If this guy isn't the Most Improved Player this season, then Manute Bol wears a medium.

But no matter what, when the season is over, Johnson will return to Sacramento for the summer, as he always has, and live with his grandfather. His grandmother died last year. KJ says he goes back because "my grandfather was the one who taught me how to treat people, regardless of color, regardless of anything." Together, old, young, white, black, ending and just beginning, they make a pretty fair couple.

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEINKJ may become only the fifth NBA player to average more than 10 assists and 20 points. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEJohnson always wanted to reach "the top, so I could have a panoramic view of the world." PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEAs evidenced by his home library in Phoenix... PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSE...KJ has continued hitting the books since studying political science at UC Berkeley.