The shovel will be sliced into the ground, the demolition crew crushing away on site, the traffic cramping our style long before Kevin Johnson is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Word out of Springfield, Mass., is that Mitch Richmond is in, Kevin Johnson is out. In the grand scheme of things – those life-changing, community-transforming, image-boosting developments – this is a downer, not a travesty. Politicians don’t win every election, and Sacramento’s young second-term mayor is well aware of that.
But this isn’t a bad start. He fought off the poachers trying to steal his hometown Kings to Anaheim and Seattle. He helped sketch a vibrant urban sports and entertainment complex just a few blocks from the Capitol. He coaxed two of the smartest people in the world – David Stern and Vivek Ranadive – into a conference room and, after several trying, difficult, excruciating months, devised the winning play.
Since we’re all about sports again these days, let’s get back to the point guard/mayor, who is known as KJ within professional sports and who was a finalist for the 2014 Hall of Fame class but is not among the inductees who will be announced Monday before the NCAA championship game. Richmond was elected the second time around, as were Reggie Miller, Don Nelson and Dominique Wilkins, among others.
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Wilkins’ initial omission was an outrage. Miller’s omission was a joke. Keeping KJ out of Springfield strikes me as something less sinister. This has nothing to do with politics; committee members were limited to evaluating basketball accomplishments, with the mayor’s political contributions falling into a separate voting category for “contributors,” individuals, say, who governed the league for three decades (Stern) or were instrumental in forming the WNBA and globalizing the sport (Russ Granik).
No, this has everything to do with memory, and memory lapses. With few exceptions, foremost among them Chris Paul and the soon-to-be departing Steve Nash, the elite, pass-first point guard has gone the way of the two-handed set shot. When a hobbled Nash comes off the Lakers‘ bench and passes for 11 assists in limited minutes, you know this game is on crutches. Everyone wants to be a scoring guard, which leads to excessive dribbling, an aversion to outlet passing, and a slower tempo that disrupts the game’s rhythm and flow.
NBA owners, executives and coaches counter with spread offenses or triangle principles and two-guard fronts – an effective response in at least one place, Phoenix – and by searching for the next Scottie Pippen, Pau Gasol or other offensive geniuses who can persuade the league’s best scorers to ditch the glue jars and share the ball like Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, etc., leading to parades and parties and tons of endorsements and Olympic invitations.
But most of today’s 30 NBA coaches? They panic, they pray. Is there a point guard in the crowd?
Sacramento, fortunately, has an elite facilitator in the crowd at almost every game. Unfortunately, Kevin Johnson is seated courtside, dressed in a suit, chomping on chips or pizza, and schmoozing with Ranadive and Mark Mastrov and Mark Friedman. He is too old and out of shape (barely) to suit up, and in this sense save the Kings from themselves. But there was a time …
“Fast, shoot, pass,” texted Don Nelson, while on a business trip overseas. “And smart. I had him on the 1994 World Championship team, and he was exactly what we needed. We had scorers. He distributed the ball, made the plays, did what we needed to win. Great, great, great player. Absolutely deserves to be in HOF.”
The late Cotton Fitzsimmons often spoke of KJ’s willingness – if reluctant – to defer and adapt to the newly acquired Charles Barkley. The pre-Barkley Phoenix Suns were a blur, a dunk-fest, fast break feast of Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Jeff Hornacek, all orchestrated byJohnson. Though only 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the former Sacramento High and Cal star drove baseline and posterized Olajuwon for his most memorable dunk, but more often threw outlets for jams, pulled up for textbook free-throw-line jumpers, or exploded to the basket for driving layups – his mouth half open and his tongue famously tucked just inside his lower lip – and the inevitable foul and free throw.
While this story will be revisited when Johnson most assuredly is nominated for the Hall of Fame again, consider a few of his other feats: He reached the playoffs in 11 of his 12 seasons, missing only as a rookie when he was acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers during the season. He averaged 17.9 points, 9.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds and routinely ranked in the top 10 in assists in an epic point guard class that included John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Mark Price, Mark Jackson and Gary Payton.
And as USA Basketball director and former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said a few weeks ago, his favorite memory of Johnson might have been in Chicago in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Two nights after Johnson had been embarrassed by Michael Jordan, he responded with 25 points and brilliant floor leadership, guiding the Suns to a spectacular triple-overtime victory.
“KJ was one helluva player,” Colangelo said, shaking his head.
A Hall of Fame player some day. Some day soon.