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Can former Phoenix Sun Kevin Johnson overcome his past to become Sacramento’s mayor?

K.J.'s image as a Phoenix Sun was squeaky-clean until . . .

One of the NBA's most amazing plays happened 14 years ago this month, when the Phoenix Suns' big-time point guard Kevin Johnson executed a startling one-handed dunk over future Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.

It happened during the second round of the 1994 playoffs against the Houston Rockets, and is inevitably replayed in those "Best Dunks of All Time" shows. K.J. was all of 6-foot-1, a little guy in a big man's league; Olajuwon was a 7-footer.

Johnson was one of the greatest Suns, a fiery competitor and fine playmaker who was a key figure in Phoenix's 1993 trip to the NBA Finals, where the team unfortunately ran into a juggernaut called the Chicago Bulls, led by a fellow named Michael Jordan.

Despite never winning a championship — the Suns still haven't won the big one — K.J.'s exploits on the court earned him (or at least his number 7 jersey) a spot with a handful of other franchise greats in the rafters of U.S. Airways Center.

Off the court, Johnson became known for his philanthropic deeds and sincere interest in community service both here in Phoenix and in his hometown of Sacramento.

He founded the St. Hope Academy, a program designed to help disadvantaged kids in Sacramento, and also funded a similar program in Phoenix, sans the fanfare that usually accompanies celebrity gift-giving.

But in early 1997, a story in New Times punctured a hole in Johnson's previously pristine public image, a story that recently resurfaced as a major campaign issue in Johnson's ongoing mayoral bid in his native Sacramento.

The paper had received a tip that a Phoenix attorney, Kent Turley, was threatening to go public with allegations that K.J. had sexually molested a 16-year-old girl. Turley wrote a letter (a copy of which came to New Times), in which he demanded $750,000 from Johnson or he would spill the beans about the allegations.

To put it gently, attorney Turley had been mightily displeased when New Times informed him that it had a copy of the letter and planned to write a story about the case.

Johnson's camp was just as upset. His supporters, legal advisers, and the Phoenix Suns organization tried to get the story killed before it hit the streets 11 years ago this week.

Unfortunately for all concerned, publication of the story ("The Summer of '95," May 8, 1997) ruined the potential plaintiff's payoff strategy by revealing the inside details of K.J.'s sticky situation.

The story used no anonymous sources, though the name of the alleged young victim was changed, as was that of a former friend of hers. The primary source of information in the piece was a detailed Phoenix police report that included audio-recorded interview transcripts and a recorded "confrontational call" between the girl and K.J.

The upshot: Johnson, 29 when the incident with the teen allegedly occurred in the summer of 1995, had major boundary issues (at the very least), as exhibited by his admission in the so-called "confrontational call" secretly recorded by the cops to having showered with the troubled youngster.

"Do you think us being naked together or taking a shower was normal, or healthy?" the girl asked K.J. during the taped phone call.

"I told you the judgment was not in the best," Johnson replied, sounding contrite. "And I'm sorry about that, and, again, I felt we talked about [that] and you're looking at it different than I'm looking at it, and what you're saying happened, I'm not entirely agreeing happened. I'm sorry about that."

The girl somehow had landed at Johnson's Camelback Mountain home because of persistent problems at her own residence.

Through his attorney and a pal of his, K.J. denied to New Times that he had done anything even remotely inappropriate with the girl, and left it at that.

County prosecutors never did file criminal charges against K.J., apparently concluding that the admissions during the phone call weren't enough to convince jurors that he was guilty.

The story discussed those prosecutorial problems, noting, "It may be plausible that Johnson is naive enough to believe that being alone — dressed or undressed — in a bedroom with a teenage girl is appropriate. But Johnson comes across at times in a [police] transcript of the confrontation call as a man-child with confusion in his soul."

National reaction to the K.J. story was immediate and intense. Locally, though, the media tried hard to ignore it at first. An Arizona Republic sportswriter wrote about why the paper wasn't writing anything (no kidding!) about the Johnson situation, while never actually saying what it wasn't writing about.

Within days, however, the Republic's Steve Benson produced a devastating cartoon that pooh-poohed Johnson's protestations of innocence, and columnist E.J. Montini chimed in with his own take.

But local sports-talk radio types — for whom the K.J. story would have seemed a natural — studiously backed off from yipping about the troubled superstar.

Bruce Jacobs, then a voice for KGME radio, canceled an interview at the last second with New Times, telling a writer on the phone that Suns officials wouldn't take kindly to added exposure of the story and case.

"I don't want to publicly humiliate Kevin any more than he's already been hit," Jacobs said at the time. "I think K.J. is a little weird. But what happened here is I think some sick slut and her attorney fed you the story after K.J. told them to take a hike in the lawsuit."

That's hardly how it had gone down. Keeping the allegations secret was the best leverage that K.J.'s accuser had in demanding a secret settlement. Nobody associated with the teenage girl had leaked the story.

Interestingly, though, the phrase "sick slut" was precisely how one of K.J.'s lawyers had described the teen to New Times in a pre-publication discussion.

The writer responded with a snide comment about Jacobs' lack of testicles (KGME's motto in those days was "Sports With Balls!").

"I won't deny that they've shrunk a little bit this time," Jacobs responded.

A few days later, after the national media continued to cover the K.J. story, Jacobs blasted Valley media and a Republic sportswriter for coddling the Suns. Alas, such is life on the blabbermouth circuit.

Johnson's play during the Suns' 1997 first-round playoff loss to the Seattle SuperSonics had been spotty, and pundits speculated that the then-looming $750,000 demand letter might have been partly responsible.

Now, Johnson is said to be the frontrunner in a bitterly fought mayoral battle against incumbent Heather Fargo. But the outcome of the June 3 election remains in doubt (even though K.J. has more money than Fargo and, obviously, great name recognition), in part because of the continued allegations of improprieties against him.

In recent weeks, another teenage girl, this one from Sacramento, accused K.J. of inappropriately groping her. That allegation, too, went nowhere with school authorities and, later, with police. Also, revelations in the Sacramento Bee about the shoddy state of some of Johnson's extensive real estate holdings and other issues concerning the St. Hope Academy may be threatening his election.

But K.J. still has the backing, financial and otherwise, of many powerful SacTown politicos, which continues to bode well for him.

If he can just stay away from those pesky young girls . . .


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