THE SUNS' EXTERMINATING ANGEL
Kevin Johnson talks like a choirboy. His intentions are always innocent. At least that's what he always insists later.
But never doubt that KJ is the most lethal member of the Phoenix Suns. He is the club's assassin.
KJ's brutal blow delivered to the face and neck of the Chicago Bulls' Steve Kerr in the final seconds of play last Sunday was both sickening and disturbing.
And like many acts of random violence, it was also illogical. In the context of the game, it was about as smart a move as your average drive-by shooting.
At the time KJ decked the former University of Arizona star, the Suns were leading by three points. Kerr was about to try for a shot that might have merely tied the game, not won it.
KJ's flagrant foul sent Kerr to the foul line, where he made both shots. And then it also gave the Bulls ball possession in the front court. In other words, KJ gave the Bulls the best chance they had to win the game.
Immediately afterward, Hannah Storm of NBC caught KJ at courtside. She asked him on mike whether he realized that his act almost cost the game for the Suns. His answer was characteristically evasive. He even made a weak effort to blame Kerr for pretending he had been knocked down.
In case you have forgotten, it was also a deliberate blow delivered to Doc Rivers of the Knicks that precipitated last season's all-out brawl in the game with New York here.
So don't be surprised if Rod Thorn of the NBA front office hits KJ with a hefty fine and suspension after viewing the films in New York.
Just imagine how the Suns' fans would have reacted Sunday afternoon if it was their beloved KJ who had been slammed to the floor by one of the Bulls' players while he attempted to take a three-point shot in the final minute.
I can hear the groans now. There is no place in professional basketball for this type of criminal behavior, the local wowsers would be moaning.
Even KJ realized temporarily that he had overstepped the bounds of decency. After decking Kerr, he hurried back to the fallen Kerr and made an effort to assist him.
His rationale is that he was attempting to prevent the Suns from being beaten the way John Paxson had upended them in last season's final playoff game.
In his first game back after being sidelined by injury and illness, KJ received a tremendous salvo of applause from his fans.
His game has not changed during his absence. KJ is still one of the quickest guards in the league. But he still dribbles too much. He still forces the ball.
What KJ gives you with his natural talent he takes away from you with his attempt to control the game too much. If it had not been for Coach Paul Westphal's wise decision to bring him to the bench regularly, the Bulls would have won this game.
People who understand the game predicted that Cedric Ceballos' point production would drop precipitously when KJ returned to the lineup. The reason is obvious. KJ just won't give Ceballos, or anybody else, the ball that often.
It was amusing to read about Scottie Pippen's trash talking directed at Ceballos in the local papers.
Actually, it was Ceballos who started trash talking with Pippen when Pippen went to the free-throw line.
"Somebody's in your dressing room stealing your three championship rings," Ceballos shouted at Pippen as he was about to shoot a foul shot.
When Ceballos went to the line, Pippen returned the favor:
"Would you like to come by later on and shine my championship rings?" Pippen asked Ceballos.
There are some things the Suns' brain trust has to deal with if this year's club is to make it past the first round of the playoffs.
1. Dan Majerle is having a subpar season. His playing time must be curtailed. Last Sunday, he played all 48 minutes. Majerle's voracious appetite for taking three-point shots must somehow be reined in. There are too many periods when Majerle's long bombs totally dominate the offense. On nights when he doesn't hit the mark, this strategy is obviously self-defeating.
2. Oliver Miller must have hit some kind of personal wall. His game has collapsed. There are times when he seems lackadaisical and merely going through the motions. At other times, he acts like an overgrown child.
3. Mark West deserves more playing time than he's been getting recently. His gutty performance in Sunday's game saved the day for the Suns. He played 25 minutes and collected ten key rebounds while scoring nine points.
I was drinking coffee with John Kerr, the Bulls' announcer, before the game.
Kerr, who was the first coach ever for both the Bulls and Suns, was recalling what the NBA was like when he was first drafted after making all-American at the University of Illinois.
"They presented me with a contract for $5,000," Kerr said. "I didn't think that was enough, so I asked if it was all right for me to call someone for advice.
"They told me, 'Fine. Use this phone right here. We'll step out of the room while you talk.'
"I got on the phone and called Harry Coombs, who was my college coach. 'John,' he said, 'this team has drafted you. If you don't sign with them, you won't even have a job.'
"So I hung up the phone. And then I heard a second click. They were listening in on another phone in the other room.
"When they came back, I played one final card. 'I'll sign for the $5,000,' I said, 'but I have to get a bonus for signing.'"
Kerr grinned. "So they gave me a $500 bonus."
Kerr played in the NBA for 12 years and set a record as an iron-man performer. He didn't miss a single game for more than 11 years. Then he sat out one game only because his coach, Paul Seymour, decided the streak should end.
In his final season, Kerr's salary was $30,000. "In Shaquille O'Neal's first season, he made more than every player in the NBA combined for my first two years in the league," Kerr said.
Half an hour before the start of the Suns-Chicago Bulls game, I walked outside America West Arena to sit in the sun.
Seated next to me on one of those benches on the east side of the building was a couple who had flown in to Phoenix from Billings, Montana, with their two children for the game.
"How much does it normally cost for a ticket?" the man asked.
He showed me a receipt from something called the Ticket Exchange. It showed that he had paid $1,000 for four tickets to Sunday's game with the Bulls.
They were a family of Michael Jordan fans.
"We're hoping that maybe Michael will be somewhere in the stands. We'd just like to get a look at him in person.
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