One of the NBA's most amazing plays happened 14 years ago this week, when Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson (all six-feet-one of him) executed a one-handed dunk over seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon, the great and very intimidating center for the Houston Rockets. It happened in the second round of the playoffs. (The second round, by the way, sounds awfully good at the moment to Suns fans, some of whom have been reduced to watching the Spurs mount their current—and seemingly inevitable—comeback against the New Orleans Hornets.)
K.J. was one of the greatest Suns, a fiery competitor and fine playmaker who did some wonderous things on the court and was a key component during the team's 1993 run to the NBA Finals, where it unfortunately ran into the phenomenal Chicago Bulls and a fellow named Michael Jordan.
Off the court, Johnson was known for his philanthropic deeds and interest in community service, both here in Phoenix and in his native Sacramento. He founded the St. Hope Academy, a program to help disadvantaged kids, in his hometown. Then, he started a similar program in Phoenix, without the usual fanfare.
But in early 1997, New Times got a tip from someone about a young girl—she was 16 at the time—whose attorney was threatening to "go public" against Johnson with allegations of sexual improprieties. A letter that got into our hands suggested the attorney wanted $750,000 from the wealthy basketball star by a certain date to keep him from spilling the beans. Unfortunately for the prospective plaintiff, the story ruined the attorney's best-laid plans by revealing the inside details of the quirky case. The lawsuit never was filed.
To put it mildly, the Phoenix lawyer, Kent Turley, was none too pleased with publication of the story. He soon hung up on the writer (that would be me) when informed what was happening on the we're-going-to-be-writing-a-story front. On the other side, the Suns, K.J. and his "people" tried almost everything in their power to get the story killed before it hit the streets (11 years ago this week).
They hired a prominent local criminal-defense attorney whom I know well (and like) to try to dissuade me from "ruining" K.J.'s life and reputation. As an aside, that lawyer and I suspended our intense pre-publication discussion one night to jump up and down like kids when Rex Chapman hit the miracle three-pointer to tie the playoff game against the Seattle SuperSonics (alas, the Suns ended up losing the game and, later, the series.)
Actually, Johnson's play during that first-round series was spotty, and pundits later speculated that the spectre of that $750,000 demand to keep quiet had been at least partly responsible
The piece was written as (what we in journalism like to call) a straight-ahead police procedural, with no anonymous sources (the girl's name was changed, as was that of a one-time friend of hers). A detailed Phoenix police report, replete with audio-recorded interview transcripts, served as the story's core.
The upshot was: At best, K.J., 29 when the incident allegedly occurred in the summer of 1995, had some monumental boundary issues, as exhibited by his admission in a confrontrational call recorded by the cops to having showered with the troubled teen-ager (the girl had somehow ended up at his Camelback Mountain home because of problems at her home). At worst, he was a pervert and had evaded criminal charges only because his alleged victim was a mess and a conviction at trial would have been dicey because of the he-said/she-said nature of the situation.
"Do you think us being naked together or taking a shower was normal, or healthy?" the girl asked K.J. at one point during the taped phone call.
"I told you the judgment was not in the best," Johnson replied. "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."
National reaction to the K.J. story was immediate, though locally, sportswriters and TV types at first tried to ignore it. The Arizona Republic wrote something about why it wasn't writing anything (no kidding!) while never actually saying what it was the paper wasn't writing about.
No one, including Johnson and his posse, ever asked us for a correction or even a clarification. Through his attorney and a pal of his, K.J. simply denied that he'd done anything even remotely inappropriate with the girl, and that was that.
Like all stories, this one died down as time passed. K.J. later retired from the NBA and eventually moved back to Sacramento.
Now, he's said to be the frontrunner in a bitterly fought mayoral battle in his hometown against incumbent Heather Fargo, and lo and behold, the decade-old New Times story has become quite the talk on the campaign trail.
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New Times has gotten calls from all manner of media up in Sacramento, including the Sacramento Bee, the alt-weekly Sacramento News & Review (it isn't a VillageVoice Media paper, like this one, by the way), and radio talk-show types. One radio-show producer told me it was my "duty" to get on the air and give my opinion about whether I think Johnson's a perv. I told him I wasn't interested in doing that. He then called me a name or two, until I finally hung up on him. Damned reporters!
My standard reply has been: read my story! It includes this analysis: "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."
For the record, K.J. has no criminal record. Also, for the record and for what it's worth, he's never married. So K.J. (whose number-7 uniform jersey is among those hanging from the rafters at U.S. Airways Center) may well become the next mayor of SacTown, California's capital city of almost 500,000 people.
Then, again, Johnson's an old Phoenix Sun... So who knows what could happen in the homestretch of his campaign?