THIS SUN IS READY TO SET POINT GUARD KEVIN JOHNSON VOWS HE'LL QUIT AT AGE 31, EVEN THOUGH HE'S AS GOOD AS EVER

February 17, 1997

Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson, whose 10-year highlight film
would surely open with his slam over Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon
in the 1993-94 playoffs, has not jammed this season. He finds
that amusing. "Our trainer [Joe Proski] says some of our guys
have never seen me dunk," says the 6'1" Johnson, winking. "They
think I can't do it anymore, but I bet I have one left in me."

If he does, he should save it for the Suns' last game of the
season, and it should cap off his signature move: taking his man
to the top of the key, dribbling between his legs with his right
hand, stutter-stepping to get his defender off-balance and--how
many times have we seen this over the last decade?--streaking
down the lane before stuffing over some flailing center. With
that, the game should be stopped so the crowd at America West
Arena can stand and cheer him one last time. Now that's the way
KJ should end his brilliant career.

Johnson, who turns 31 next month, says he's retiring. Late-
thirtysomethings such as Tom Chambers and Earl Cureton have come
back to play, and even fortysomethings like John Long and Robert
Parish are collecting NBA paychecks. But Kevin Johnson will be
gone. Though he wasn't selected to make his fourth All-Star
appearance on Sunday, he was worthy: Johnson is averaging 17.1
points, and his 9.1 assists rank fourth in the league. He still
beats the quickest defenders off the dribble, and he still gets
tremendous elevation on his jump shot. In fact, Johnson may be
smarter, more versatile and better than ever. But this is it.
"I'm 100 percent certain of that now," he says. "I haven't
wavered."

Other than Michael Jordan, who switched to baseball at 31 only
to return after 18 months and reassume his place at the top of
the game, no marquee player in NBA history has called it quits
so young and so close to his peak form. "He has been great for
so long, I can't believe he's even thinking about retiring,"
says Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter. "I've always looked up to
him. When guys like him leave the league, it's not good--but I'm
glad he'll be gone because I won't have to guard him anymore."

All of which raises one large question: Why is Johnson going at
all? The primary reason is his 190-pound body. Over his last 4
1/2 seasons, KJ has suffered from an assortment of injuries--a
strained rib cage, a bruised right calf, a sprained right ankle,
a strained right quadriceps, a strained left groin, a strained
left calf, a bruised left knee and a strained left knee tendon
(not to mention having chicken pox and undergoing hernia
surgery)--that have forced him to miss 122 games.

"The last three or four years, two thirds of my season has been
rehab," Johnson says. "When only one third of it is basketball,
that's not fun. That's not what I want to do. I've lost faith in
my body. When I make a move, I don't know if my hamstring or my
groin is going to go out. It's hard to play that way, especially
when speed is my greatest asset."

Pistons assistant coach Johnny Bach has noticed the
psychological toll the injuries have taken. "It's too much
effort for him to enjoy the game," Bach says. "When Michael
Jordan doesn't enjoy it anymore, he's gone. There are players
who radiate enjoyment every time they play--Jordan, Magic,
Kevin. But with age and injuries, a player starts to wonder, Is
it worthwhile? Where is the joy?"

The thrill may have been long gone for Johnson. "He doesn't have
a love for basketball," says one former Sun, who requested
anonymity. "I don't think he's ever had a love for basketball.
It sounds crazy, but he's not a true basketball player. He's an
athlete who plays basketball. There was always something missing
with him. I think it's a love for the game. He's a very special
athlete who can do some incredible things, but he doesn't
understand how he does them."

The trade last August of Charles Barkley to Houston for forwards
Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant and guard Sam Cassell
also dampened Johnson's enthusiasm. Although he and Barkley
often seemed uncomfortable on the court together, they at least
formed the foundation of a title contender. Then in December the
Suns sent Cassell, swingman Michael Finley and forward A.C.
Green to Dallas for 23-year-old Jason Kidd, ushering in a new
era at the point: JK for KJ.

"Three years ago I decided that after 10 years in the league,
after 10 shots at a championship, that would be enough," says
Johnson, who told that to several teammates at the time. It will
be awhile before Phoenix, 17-31 at week's end, is in position to
take a run at a ring, and Johnson would be making that run as an
off guard.

Johnson will leave the league a different player from the one
who burst into prominence with Phoenix in 1988-89, when he
averaged 20 points and 10 assists a game for the first of three
straight seasons. Then, next to Jordan, he was the most
unguardable player in the NBA, a blur with a flair for acrobatic
finishes. But he no longer pushes the ball up the floor at every
opportunity, turnovers be damned. Instead, Johnson has become a
more reliable playmaker who slows the game down, runs the
offense and only occasionally looks to scorch his man off the
dribble.

"I couldn't have played this way five years ago--I would have
been out of control," he says. "Now I post up, I shoot three
pointers. I'd never done those things before this year. I really
like the way I'm playing."

If he continued to play (and stayed healthy), KJ would probably
have three more productive years left. He would earn another $10
to $15 million in salary and become a shoo-in for the Hall of
Fame. But Johnson says he has plenty of money and doesn't need
more glory. If and when teams contact him this summer to coax
him out of retirement, he'll listen to their pitches, but he
isn't likely to change his mind. "I think the only thing he
would consider is going to a place where he could help win a
championship, and how many of those teams have room under the
cap?" says Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns' vice president and
former coach. "But I don't think he'll play. He's never
backtracked on anything as long as I've known him."

So in all likelihood Johnson will return to his home in
Sacramento. He'll work at the St. Hope Academy, which he founded
in 1991 to provide cultural and educational opportunities for
kids, many of them from the Oak Park neighborhood where he grew
up. He'll keep in close touch with A.J. Brown, 18, a topflight
point guard at Washington High in Phoenix whose truancy and
admitted marijuana smoking prompted Johnson to take him under
his wing last December. And he'll play ball with his 14-year-old
brother, Ronnie, who is already 6'2". "I'll be able to school
him for a few more years," Johnson says with a smile.

Yet he's quitting without a clear plan of what he'll do next.
"Something will reveal itself," KJ says. "When I was young, and
had to be dragged off the field and court, I never wanted to be
one of those guys who stayed past his prime. I wanted to leave
the NBA with a good feeling, not bitter about the business or
the media. I wanted to leave on my terms."

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Injuries may have dampened his enthusiasm for the game, but KJ still packs a KO punch. [Kevin Johnson and Tyus Edney in game]

TIP-OFFS

FOR THE WEEK OF FEBRUARY 3-9

THE MOVE

Disappointed by their 22-25 start, the Bullets fired coach Jim
Lynam on Feb. 5 and replaced him with Denver president Bernie
Bickerstaff, who had stepped down as the Nuggets' coach earlier
this season. The Bullets are hoping Bickerstaff, an X's and O's
specialist, will bring discipline to a talented young group that
has thus far failed to gel.

THE STAT

Of the Warriors' 17 wins this season, only one came against a
team that currently has a winning record.

THE QUESTION

How long can Mavericks G.M. Don Nelson and rookie coach Jim
Cleamons coexist? Nelson, who was hired last Friday, says he has
no intention of coaching again, and Cleamons has a five-year, $5
million contract. But with Dallas 16-28, few are ruling out a
return to the sidelines by Nellie.

THE QUOTE

"It's a lot easier for myself and I'm sure for Michael [Jordan]
to be able to just go out and play and not have to worry that
every time the whistle blows, you have to turn around to find
out what his last move was." --Bulls forward Scottie Pippen on
the trials of playing with Dennis Rodman, who was suspended by
the NBA for 11 games after kicking a cameraman.

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