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 un-guardable 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."