ORLANDO – Former Suns All-Star Kevin Johnson is no different than Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Vlade Divac as ex-NBA players with a credible case for the Hall of Fame in the first year on the ballot: known for a very good career but not legendary, with an important role in building a dragging franchise into a playoff regular, while regarded the No. 2 player, at best, on the roster.
One thing about K.J., though, that may have been lost in time. He was the second-best true point guard of his time — Magic Johnson, who jumped center in The Finals and would later work at power forward, gets his own category — and one of the four or five best at either backcourt spot in an era when play there was historically good.
For a time, there was John Stockton, the best true point, and Magic and Michael Jordan as three of the all-time greats, along with the likes of Clyde Drexler and Joe Dumars, future Hall of Famers themselves. Kevin Johnson never made first-team All-NBA, which does not bode well in the induction conversation, but he also essentially had no chance against a stacked deck. Nobody did.
K.J. was a second-team selection by the media four times and third-team once. The full choices in the backcourt in that time span:
1989 – Magic Johnson and Jordan first team, Stockton and Kevin Johnson second team, Dale Ellis and Mark Price third team.
1990 – Magic and Jordan first team, Stockton and Kevin Johnson second team, Drexler and Dumars third team.
1991 – Jordan and Magic first team, Kevin Johnson and Drexler second team, Stockton and Dumars third team.
1992 – Jordan and Drexler first team, Hardaway and Stockton second team, Price and Kevin Johnson third team.
1993 – Jordan and Price first team, Stockton and Dumars second team, Hardaway and Drazen Petrovic third team.
1994 – Stockton and Latrell Sprewell first team, Richmond and Kevin Johnson second team, Price and Gary Payton third team.
There are few things in the world less predictable than elections for the Hall that salutes all levels of basketball — amateur, international, the women’s game — but K.J.is probably a long shot for the Class of 2012 as the process moves forward with Friday’s announcement of the finalists as part of All-Star weekend.
It’s a tough sell no matter what, and being a first-ballot inductee is impossible to imagine. But the company he kept in the late ’80s and early ’90s will be big in his favor, possibly enough to get Johnson to the finalist stage this time and in line for a stronger push in the future.
The other thing is he can handle himself well in a political game. Johnson won a bruising campaign in 2008 to become mayor of Sacramento, his hometown, and is rightly credited for much of the forward momentum to build a new arena and keep the Kings. He has the respect of Commissioner David Stern, and that will undoubtedly turn into an important Hall endorsement, if asked. He has a solid friendship with Magic Johnson despite their memorable 1989 scuffle on the court, with Magic lending his time to K.J.’s political efforts, and that’s another prominent voice to speak on behalf of basketball player Kevin Johnson.
The future mayor finished at 17.9 points, 9.1 assists, 49.3 points and three All-Star appearances in a rookie season with the Cavaliers followed by 12 with the Suns. He wasn’t the star of the best of the Phoenix teams, not with Charles Barkley big-footing around Planet Orange, but he was an integral part of an elite team that was denied a championship by Jordan’s Bulls.
K.J. remains, at the very least, an interesting debate because of the time and the other point guards and one of the storylines at the Friday announcement in what could become a special day in Phoenix. Paul Westphal and Paul Silas, as players, and Cotton Fitzsimmons are also among the candidates to advance to the finalist stage in the voting process.