--Suns coach Paul Westphal
The monkey has been removed from Kevin Johnson's back for the moment.
His performance in last Sunday's triple-overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls restored the reputation tarnished by his inept performances in the first two games of the championship series.
Forget the numbers. KJ was terrific. He fought like a trapped panther. It was KJ's fierce play that provided the difference. Without him the Suns would not have won the game.
But as this was written, there were still two games remaining to play in Chicago Stadium against a now-aroused Michael Jordan. Given Jordan's competitive nature, the pace of the battle will intensify.
The fact that KJ has now been assigned to guard Jordan will only act as a spur. Jordan will attempt to destroy and embarrass KJ. He will seek to add one more victim to his list.
Do you notice that hyperbole has become the accepted style of address during this seven-game Finals series? Everything that happens on the basketball court is reported in terms of superlatives.
As Dickens once wrote, everything is either "the best of times . . . the worst of times." Nothing is ordinary. To report what takes place in clear and concise terms is to lose your audience. Everything is bombastic. Each movement, every three-point shot, is reported upon as though it were the last great battle of a world war.
Before Sunday's game began, I heard one radio personality predicting that "for Kevin Johnson, this will be a career-defining game."
The clear inference was that if KJ didn't improve on his rather pathetic performances of the first two games, his time in the NBA was endangered.
Ridiculous. In KJ's six seasons in the league, he has averaged about 20 points and ten assists per game. From inside sources, his estimated salary this year is $1.9 million. That does not count endorsements. Sing no sad songs for KJ.
That was why I thought Charles Barkley's defense of KJ after game two was both unnecessary and more than a little self-serving.
I refer, of course, to Charles' threat to Phoenix fans that they'd better "stop booing our point guard."
How could anyone report on this with a straight face? Charles, after all, spent his formative years in Philadelphia playing before some of the most vicious fans in all of sports.
Probably, Charles' motives were good. He knew KJ was demoralized. He wanted to prop him up for a strong effort for the remainder of the series.
KJ is clearly a head case. He must be propped up continually or he will go off into a corner and sulk.
For another thing, Seattle's coach, George Karl, was absolutely correct to call KJ a "whiner" and a "princess."
KJ's demand for special treatment is constant. He went through this entire season pleading for help from the referees. Night after night, he put on a series of dramatic performances the equal of John Wilkes Booth, after landing on the stage of Ford's Theatre during that famous performance of Our American Cousin.
Each time the referees refused to send KJ to the foul line on those plays when he catapulted his body up the middle toward the basket, there came a weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Barkley, in chastising the press and fans, reminded them that the Suns wouldn't be in the Finals if it wasn't for KJ. I don't believe that for a moment. If a trade had been made for Dennis Rodman, they would not only be in the Finals, but might even have won the title.
Barkley was being much too kind to KJ because the point guard has had his worst season in a Suns uniform. He has been erratic from the start. Clearly, the biggest problem, aside from a series of injuries, is that KJ has never been able to adjust to Barkley's arrival.
Before the coming of Barkley, KJ was the acknowledged star. He handled the ball in the crucial situations. This was something he found it difficult to give up despite the fact he kept saying he was willing to do so.
Everyone who has seen KJ play on a regular basis understands the level of his athletic ability.
His agility, speed and hand-eye coordination are on a par with Jordan's. KJ is endowed with superb talents. No one else has a first step as quick in going to the basket on a lay-up.
Who else KJ's size can dunk the ball on the way to the basket through traffic? Who else that small (six feet, one inch) can steal critical rebounds from players a half-foot taller?
There is so much to admire about KJ's game. If only he would allow others to compliment him instead of getting on a soapbox to proclaim his own merits.
If KJ would relax, the laurels would come to him naturally. But KJ can't stomach the reality that Barkley has become the acknowledged leader of the team. It gnaws continually at his psyche. So he sulks. And he announces ominously that he will tell us all what's been eating at him when the season is over.
How can he possibly think we don't already know?
His feelings were hurt because the Suns were thinking about trading him at midseason in a deal for Dennis Rodman.
That deal would have gone through, too, but Detroit wanted Richard Dumas included in the package. Jerry Colangelo wanted to protect Dumas, whom he considers the next "Dr. J."
KJ is too sensitive and too ego-driven to sublimate his role. He must remain in the spotlight or he can't exist. People who complain that Barkley sometimes disappears in the second half of games should look at the tapes. They will see that the root cause is KJ dominating possession of the ball for himself.
Many of KJ's problems with the press are brought on by himself.
After all, it was KJ who announced recently that he was the "best point guard in the NBA."
It was KJ who also announced that he felt he was now playing the best basketball of his career.
And so he went into this series against the Bulls and allowed himself to be dominated for the first two games by the underrated B.J. Armstrong.
Who knows what will happen next?