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. Latethirtysomethings 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 4½ 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, swing-man 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.