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Rick Reilly
April 24, 1989
Guard Kevin Johnson of Phoenix gets a big lift making assists—on and off the court
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April 24, 1989


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

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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.

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