PHOENIX — Kevin Johnson never expected all of this.
Coming out of a poor northern California neighborhood, he never dreamed of getting to the NBA, let alone be one of the most electrifying players in the league for many years. From 1988-1997, Johnson averaged 19.8 points and 10 assists per game as he led the Suns to the playoffs every single year, including a berth in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Johnson is grateful for his time in the desert and believes his current success outside of basketball can be traced back to his time in purple and orange.
“My story is a Phoenix story,” Johnson said on Sunday, when he returned to Phoenix.
Johnson’s career began to rise from the ashes when he was traded during his rookie season from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1988. When he arrived to the valley, the team was in the midst of its fourth straight sub-.500 season and the organization was a mess.
Things were about to change.
The Suns had a dramatic turnaround in the 1988-89 season, which coincided with Johnson’s rise to the top.
“I remember when I first got here and this organization was in shambles,” Johnson said. “We only won 28 games that year and I think we had one of the three biggest turnarounds in NBA history the next year.
“We had a great run, for 11 years straight we were in the playoffs and I was on that team.”
During those 11 years, one particular moment sticks out with Suns fans, and all NBA fans. And that is his dunk on Olajuwon during the 1994 playoffs.
On Sunday night the Suns celebrated the 20th anniversary of that dunk by giving posters of Johnson’s “poster” to all fans and having Johnson talk with Al McCoy during halftime of the Suns and Houston Rockets game.
The 6-foot-1 point guard still has fond memories of that dunk.
“Hard to believe 20 years have gone by since dunk on Olajuwon,” Johnson said. “Every time I come back to Phoenix I get emotional because I grew up here, everything I learned as a young adult is because somebody taught me that.”
Johnson attributed his current political success to the people in the Suns organization and in the city of Phoenix, who helped him grow up. The current Mayor of Sacramento, who led the charge for the NBA to keep the Kings franchise in California’s capital, still loves the people of Phoenix and is very regretful about not bringing an NBA championship back to Phoenix.
“I have always had a love affair for the fans here,” Johnson said. “I was thankful and they supported me in ways I could not even imagine.
“My mixed feelings for this community, on the court, in the 1093 Finals we come up short and you think you have this window to get back, and next two years we run into Houston and they win it,” he added. “So, for three straight years we lose to the NBA champs, and after that Charles (Barkley) moves on and the window is closed. Yes, I have real strong mixed feelings for 1993, 1994, 1995 seasons and I thought we were primed to contend and win a championship and we didn’t do that.”
Johnson’s story may not include a NBA championship, but it may include an individual accomplishment that has been long overdue. This year, Johnson was announced as a finalist for the Hall of Fame, something that humbled the Mayor.
“It was overwhelming and very humbling,” Johnson said. “The first thing you think about is all the people you need to thank.
“The second thing you think about is the list of people that make the Hall of Fame, and that is a pretty big deal.”
There would be no better ending for Johnson’s Phoenix story than to be cemented into basketball lore at the highest of levels.
A true rise from the ashes.