Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Happy Turn to a Horror Story

Kevin Johnson, The Point guard of the Phoenix Suns, has long been an avid reader, so it is no surprise that in times of crisis he tends to turn to the printed word for solace. To help get himself back on track after a pair of woeful performances in the first two games of the 1993 NBA finals last week, Johnson put together a rather eclectic reading list that included Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the Bible, the stack of messages he had recently received via fax, and the words of that renowned social critic Charles Barkley.

It's hard to say whether KJ's reading material had an influence on his dramatic turnaround in Game 3, but all that really mattered was that after looking frustrated and confused during the Chicago Bulls' two victories in Phoenix, Johnson redeemed himself with a stellar triple-overtime performance on Sunday in Chicago. He contributed 25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and some rather bothersome defense on Michael Jordan in 62 bone-wearying minutes, the most ever played in an NBA Finals game.

"I told him to let me know when he got tired," said Phoenix coach Paul Westphal. "I guess he forgot to tell me."

It's more likely that Johnson wanted as much time as he could get to erase the nightmares of the first two games of the series, during which he repeatedly tried to slash into a lane clogged with Bulls, a strategy that not only resulted in charging fouls, blocked shots and turnovers but also made him look like a kid determined to keep swinging at the neighborhood bully no matter how much blood was lowing from the kid's nose. On the Suns' flight from Phoenix to Chicago on Saturday, Johnson was trying to lose himself in Tess when Westphal brought him startling news: He would no longer guard Bull playmaker B.J. Armstrong; instead he would get Jordan. Johnson immediately pulled a blanket over his head and went to sleep. "I'm not sure if it was because I didn't want to think about guarding Michael or because I suddenly knew I was going to need my rest," he says.

On Sunday morning Johnson read the story of Job in the Bible. ("Job had to go through a lot," he said, "but at least God didn't visit the plague called Michael Jordan upon him.") But by that time Johnson's confidence had already been renewed, in part by dozens of faxed messages of support he had received from Sun fans, many of whom were angered that much of the home crowd had booed Johnson late in Game 2 as he was being removed—mercifully—by Westphal.

No one was more enraged al the booing than Barkley. During a press conference just after Game 2, Sir Charles responded to the crowd's derisiveness in his usual direct manner. "If you're going to boo Kevin Johnson or give him a hard time when he's struggling, please don't come to the game," Barkley said. "We've come too far to put up with that crap."

"I didn't know Charles said anything like that until I read it in the papers." Johnson says. "It meant a lot to me. I can deal with what the fans say or what the media says about me as long as I know I have the confidence and respect of the other guys in this locker room."

Johnson's performance on Sunday undoubtedly brought him increased respect from the Bulls, particularly Jordan, who. despite scoring 44 points, made only six of 20 shots in the fourth quarter and the three overtime periods. According to Jordan. Johnson has "quicker hands" than Sun guard Dan Majerle, who had had little success guarding Jordan in Games 1 and 2. "It's tougher to get the first step on him." Jordan said after Sunday's marathon. "Now it becomes a thinking game."

As he rested in front of his locker after the game, Johnson said he planned to write about the night he guarded Michael Jordan. Then again, KJ had already written a new chapter for the NBA Finals, and everyone who had been ready to close the book on the series suddenly wanted to turn another page.