Once upon a simpler time, a Hammertime, when the words “dot” and “com” had yet to be perfected, when mall hair ruled the Earth, and “direct television” meant you turned on the television and there was a picture, there lived a kind, talented young knight known as Prince Kevin.
Prince Kevin called a purple and orange Madhouse his home. In the context we use here, however, this Madhouse was a happy place, filled with people who cheered for tall warriors in violet sneakers, who wore cowboy letters across their chests, and very, very short shorts. This Madhouse was in the desert, and Prince Kevin came to that desert from the Land of Cleve, where he was neither loved nor wanted, along with Mark the Massive and Tyrone, the Man of Many Faces (he was a role player), in exchange for two guys named Larry and Mike. Mark and Tyrone were valued additions, but Prince Kevin was the prize.
Prince Kevin arrived in the desert at roughly the same time as Sir Tom, a renowned marksman from the Rain Country, and Dan the Thunder-Bringer, who was famed at the time for hurling himself into storms and almost always coming out with the basketball. Or a bloody lip. Or both. It was hoped that these three young fighters would bring the desert out of the desert, as it were, and restore a kingdom that had fallen into disarray, due to the alleged misadventures of several former knights who were no longer welcome at this particular round table.
On arrival, Prince Kevin proved far better than advertised. Barely more than a child, he instantly became a leader of men, charging down the court well ahead of them – and their opponents, and the referees, and frequently, the television cameras – to do grievous damage to enemy forces. When his way was blocked, he’d wait patiently for his teammates, and deliver them the ball in such a fashion that it almost always resulted in two points. But his favorite place was a land called The Middle, to which he’d flash like lightning and leave foes crying, whether by his own hand, or by throwing the ball out to his trusted friend, Jeff of the Corner.
Prince Kevin was everything the desert kingdom could have asked for. He moved faster than a summer monsoon across the scrub. He both gave (to organizations like St. Hope) and received (in the form of free throws) charity. He could pull up and drive a dagger into you from twenty feet away. And he could even dunk on a Dream. Though overshadowed by a Magician from Los Angeles, and a General (a Postmaster General, as he often worked with a Mailman) from Utah, the people of the kingdom wouldn’t have traded the Prince for two Admirals, a Glove, and a Human Highlight Film to be named later.
With Prince Kevin in command (under King Cotton, it should be said), the desert kingdom rose anew, like a Phoenix, some said, or like Suns in the west. Their progress was steady, and eventually they burned the sunglasses off their hated rivals to the West in a playoff series. Along the way, Prince Kevin assembled statistics the likes of which had seldom been seen, numbers that put him in a historic class with legends like The Tiny One and that Magician from Los Angeles. Everyone said that, with Prince Kevin at the helm, these Suns were the next big thing, an empire in ascendancy. All they needed, everyone said, was one more piece. And the Suns listened to everyone, and they got that piece.
And nothing was ever the same for Prince Kevin.
For the Suns brought in an Ogre. Like another famous ogre, this one of film named Shrek, this basketball playing ogre was lovable and charming, frequently misunderstood, had some forgivable bad habits, attracted a lot of attention, and was of prodigious strength. Some were so enamored of him, they even bestowed knighthood upon him. Sir Charles, they called him. But let’s face it, he was still an ogre. Unlike Shrek, however, he demanded to be, needed to be, the center of attention. Were he not the center of attention, he would not be himself, and the negotiation that brought him to the desert (which exiled Jeff of the Corner to Philadelphia, a fate he surely did not deserve) would have meant nothing.
True, the arrival of Sir Charles brought great initial success to the desert kingdom, and for a time, there was harmony in the desert. In Sir Charles’ first year, having left the Madhouse behind for a New House Named For An Airline (not quite the same ring to it), and having swapped the short shorts and cowboy lettering for sleek and sellable black (which was not slimming to either Sir Charles or his protégé, Oliver the Corpulent), the Suns nearly claimed the entire land, and because they were so successful, heroes of the past willingly changed their roles. Sir Tom graciously moved from “veteran superstar in residence” to the more limited post of “valued bench asset,” while Dan the Thunder-Bringer contented himself to throw lightning strikes from beyond the clouds, which found their marks with great regularity.
But the role of no player changed more than that of valiant Prince Kevin. More and more often, he was told to wait for Sir Charles to plant his big feet on the lower block, then throw the ball to him and go on brief vacation to the other side of the court. His forays to the Middle became less frequent, as he found it often clogged by the ogre and the lesser goblins that chased, held and otherwise fruitlessly tried to hinder him. And Prince Kevin, who was supposed to be entering his physical prime, mysteriously began to decline. It turned out that changing his style was not so good for his armor. Unable to run free and turn the ankles of others, he turned his own ankles with alarming frequency. His hamstrings and knees protested, and Prince Kevin began missing games and losing his most valuable quality, his speed. Where once he was running to the Hall of Fame, Prince Kevin was now running to a well-deserved spot in the local Ring Of Honor, and a mostly-forgotten rank as perhaps the second- or third-best point guard of his generation.
After the initial success, the Suns became more desperate, trading off some of the pieces that had put them on the verge of greatness (including the Thunder-Bringer, who brought a lemony Hot Rod in exchange), trying mightily to add one more piece to that one more piece that had been supposed to put them over the top. Prince Kevin faded away, and returned to his homeland of Sacramento (which he now rules benignly). The desert kingdom hasn’t come as close to the promised land since he left.
Now, if Sir Charles had made the desert kingdom an empire, as was hoped, and if the Son of Pax had not struck the Suns a mortal blow and the Suns had gone on to adorn their tanned fingers with several gaudy rings, then the tale of Prince Kevin would have had a happier than this already-somewhat-happy ending. And Sir Charles did bring the eyes of the nation to the desert by doing wondrous, funny, and sometimes illegal deeds. And Prince Kevin probably did need one more sidekick to help him lift the kingdom. So no fault can be placed on the wizards that brought Sir Charles to the land of cactus. But still, this scribe can’t help but wonder what the ending to Prince Kevin’s tale might have been, had an ogre not come to stay in the middle of what should have been the young prince’s most glorious chapter.
* * *
Okay, literary pretensions aside, here’s my thesis statement:
If not for Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson would be in the NBA Hall of Fame.
I’m not saying getting Barkley in 1992 was a bad thing. Without him, there almost certainly wouldn’t have been a Finals run that season. But his arrival necessitated a change in KJ’s style that was certainly detrimental to him statistically and, I’d contend, detrimental to him physically.
Check out KJ’s stats in his most productive pre-Barkley seasons, and compare them to the most productive seasons by comaprable Hall of Fame players Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and Calvin Murphy:
1988-89: 20.4 ppg., 12.2 apg., 4.2 rpg., 1.7 spg., .505 FG., .882 FT.
1989-90: 22.5 ppg., 11.4 apg., 3.6 rpg., 1.3 spg., .492 FG., .838 FT.
1990-91: 22.2 ppg., 10.1 apg., 3.5 rpg., 2.1 spg., .516 FG., .843 FT.
1991-92: 19.7 ppg., 10.7 apg., 3.7 rpg., 1.5. spg., .479 FG., .807 FT.
1971-72: 28.2 ppg., 9.2 apg., 2.9 rpg., steals not kept as a stat, .486 FG., .822 FT.
1972-73: 34.0 ppg., 11.4 rpg., 2.8 rpg., steals not kept as a stat, .488 FG., .847 FT.
1974-75: 26.5 ppg., 6.8 apg., 2.7 rpg., 1.5 spg., .456 FG., .872 FT.
1975-76: 24.8 ppg., 7.9 apg., 2.7 rpg., 1.6 spg., .453 FG., .802 FT.
1973-74: 20.4 ppg., 7.4 apg., 2.3 rpg., 1.9 spg., .522 FG., .868 FT.
1975-76: 21.0 ppg., 7.3 apg., 2.5 rpg., 1.8 spg., .493 FG., .907 FT.
1977-78: 25.6 ppg., 3.4 apg., 2.2 rpg., 1.5 spg., .491 FG., .918 FT.
1978-79: 20.2 ppg., 4.3 apg., 2.1 rpg., 1.4 spg., .496 FG., .928 FT.
KJ wasn’t the scorer Tiny was, clearly, but he also never averaged more than 16 shots per game in a season. In the four seasons detailed above, Tiny averaged more than 20 shots per game. Some of that, of course, can be attributed to the fact that KJ had better supporting players than Tiny had on some awful Cincinnati and Kansas City teams, but more shots is more shots, and the percentages suggest that, had KJ’s teams needed him to be, he could have been a Tiny-like scorer. As for assists and rebounds, give KJ the edge. The steals and free throws are essentially a wash.
Murphy and KJ were on par as scorers, and KJ was clearly a better ball distributor (early in his career, Murphy had Elvin Hayes to throw to – Later, the Rockets’ offense was completely built around Moses Malone in the low post, so Murphy’s role was more to spot up. In truth, outside of those two seven-plus assist seasons, Murphy never averaged more than five assists in a season). KJ was a better rebounder, Murphy a better free-throw shooter…One of the best in league history, in fact. Field-goal percentages and steals play virtually even.
Tiny won one ring late in his NBA career (largely on the backs of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish). Murphy (like KJ) won none. KJ played in more playoff games than either Hall of Famer. Archibald played in six All-Star games, Murphy in one, KJ in three.
Now look at KJ’s games played before and after Barkley:
Pre-Barkley (age 21-25):
1987-88 – 80 games
1988-89 – 81 games
1989-90 – 74 games
1990-91 – 77 games
1991-92 – 78 games
Post-Barkley (age 26-33):
1992-93 – 49 games
1993-94 – 67 games
1994-95 – 47 games
1996-96 – 56 games
1996-97 – 70 games
1997-98 – 50 games
1999-2000 – 6 games
Anyone who saw KJ in his youth knows his body was a finely-tuned machined designed for fast, forward motion. His early Suns teams, predicated on a two-man game with Tom Chambers that was as potent as Malone-and-Stockton at the same time, were perfect for his playing style. The arrival of Barkley made the Suns more of a clear-out team, in which Barkley held the ball for long periods on the low block, eating the shot clock, and forcing KJ to idle. When a body conditioned to do one thing is now required to do another, something completely foreign, bad things are gonna happen to the body. KJ was, literally, never the same again.
I don’t write this to suggest KJ is a Hall of Famer (although, personally, as a homer, I feel he deserves serious consideration). I just write it to point out that I think he was absolutely, positively headed that way before the organization changed philosophy in an attempt to get over the hump. Whether or not they needed to change philosophy can be debated – Speaking only for myself, I wouldn’t have traded the 1992-93 championship run for anything…except maybe a ring.
But Prince Kevin deserves more historical mention than he gets, a spot among the great point guards of all time, and a happier ending to the fairy tale than the one he received.