Kevin Johnson and the Anatomy of a Hypocrisy

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I'm writing this because I feel that it is important. What follows is something that you may not want to hear. Fair warning.

The Fortunate Sun

There's the Kevin Johnson that we know from Phoenix Suns lore. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him the the most beloved Sun of all-time, at least to the current generation of fans. Van Arsdale, Adams, and Westphal were the original star players, but it's been 25 years since Adams called it a career in 1988 and Van Arsdale and Westphal were long gone by then. Charles Barkley had perhaps the most memorable impact on the franchise, but the Suns were just one of three teams that he spent significant time with. The same could be said of Steve Nash, and since one of those teams is the Lakers in his case he loses some Suns points.

Which brings us to the Suns all-time leading scorer. Not Kevin Johnson, not any of the old-timers, not Barkley or Nash or Stoudemire. Walter Davis is the Suns all-time leading scorer at 15,666 points. Sadly, his drug problem that culminated in his testimony against his teammates during the ugly drug scandal in 1987 is what doomed his legacy, and even to this day people are abundantly more cognizant of this than they are of his prolific career as a Sun.

Somewhat by default, Kevin Johnson seems to be the most all-around popular Sun in the franchise's history. A potential Hall of Fame candidate, KJ's legacy in Phoenix is defined almost exclusively by what he did on the court. Although he battled injuries throughout his career, he retired with the sixth most assists-per-game in NBA history with 9.1, two spots ahead of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, two other all-time great point guards that have spent time in Phoenix. KJ was a three-time All-Star and two-time second team All-NBA during a period when John Stockton, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, and Terry Porter all played in the same conference at the same position. When KJ was healthy enough to stay on the court, he was known for his high motor and relentless playing style, epitomized by playing all but one minute of a triple-overtime Finals game against Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1993. Add to this his public-friendly persona, his winning smile, and his squeaky-clean Born-Again Christian lifestyle, and it's easy to see why the man was and still is beloved in the Valley.

It's not surprising, then, the actions that were taken by both the Suns organization and the local media when a much more disturbing side of Kevin Johnson was revealed.

The Worst Kind of Accusation

The story was published by the Phoenix New Times in May of 1997. It detailed events that occured during the summer of 1995, and the police investigation that took place the following summer in 1996. Allegations were made against Johnson, who was 29 at the time, concerning sexual misconduct with an unnamed defendant, who was 16 at the time. Out of respect for the content of this site, I will refrain from describing the accusations in detail. The article is linked to here, and I will leave the onus on you, the reader.

It's easy to dismiss such a case as an extortion attempt on a multi-milionaire athlete. Yes, the accusor's civil attorney demanded a settlement of $750,000 up front and made subtle threats regarding damage to KJ's well-kept public persona (it is mentioned in this article that KJ eventually settled out of court for $230,000 but it did not include a source and I haven't found anything that corroborates this). Particularly damning, however, was the transcript of a phone call between KJ and his accuser that was arranged by the police in which KJ, despite being apparently aware of the nature of the call from the outset, acknowledges that something happened when pressed to discuss their alleged sexual encounters.

I told you the judgment was not in the best
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.

Bear in mind this is a conversation about sexual encounters between a grown man and a minor.

There is much more in the article, but again I'll leave it up to you to click on the link.

It would also be much easier to dismiss this if it were an isolated incident. It isn't. In a case that received much more national attention, Johnson, as mayor of Sacramento in 2008, was targeted in yet another investigation involving minors, with the accusors being volunteers for his non-profit community outreach program, St. HOPE. This time his behavior was significantly far-reaching, as allegations surfaced that it led to the politically-motivated dismissal of an inspector general, Gerald Walpin. To add another layer of creepy to the whole thing, it has been reported that Johnson's then-fiancee Michelle Rhee took an active role in cleaning up the scandal.

A Tarnished Legacy...Or Not?

The Arizona Republic avoided the 1995 incident like the plague. There were a few sparse mentions of it in the editorial section, but they chose not to pursue it as a story. Local radio personality Bruce Jacobs expressed hostility when reached for comment by the New Times.

"I don't want to publicly humiliate Kevin any more than he's already been hit," Jacobs said at the time. "I think K.J. is a little weird. But what happened here is I think some sick slut and her attorney fed you the story after K.J. told them to take a hike in the lawsuit."

I'm trying to think of a time when a radio personality chose not to discuss such a volatile story out of consideration for the reputation of the accused. I can't think of one. Kobe Bryant is probably wondering how the hell such a reaction from the media could ever be possible. Frankly, that might be one time I actually agree with him. In the climate of high-exposure local celebrities, gossip columns, and the watchdog role that the media often performs, how is this possible? Granted, this was right before the dawn of the Internet Era, when news leaks could be maintained much more easily. But I do wonder where the pressure came from to prevent this from becoming a full-blown local media circus. In fact, Johnson has not had to make a single statement regarding this story to date.

Going full-circle, we come back to Walter Davis. The most prolific scorer in Suns history, known first and foremost as a drug user that ratted out his teammates. The Suns chose not to make a serious offer to keep him when his contract ended. Bye-bye, Walter. There is Jason Kidd, arrested for domestic violence and unceremoniously banished to New Jersey. Clifford Robinson followed soon after following his arrest for [gasp] marijuana possession. The drug scandal resulted in a zero tolerance policy by Jerry Colangelo for criminal behavior, and the Suns have been commended for it. Hell, Jason Richardson received his share of scrutiny for speeding and not securing his child in a car seat. Yet when the adored golden child of the Colangelo era is accused of something so disgusting and heinous, not even talk radio hosts will touch it. And as the years wear on, the love affair seems to grow stronger, perhaps a result of the franchise finding itself in the unfamiliar land of the draft lottery.

Any discussion on KJ is sure to center on his dunk over Olajuwon, his chances at the Hall of Fame, whether he or Nash was the superior point guard (which makes me facepalm, on a purely basketball level).

Walter = drugs. Kidd = Wife beater. KJ = Suns legend.

hypocrisy (plural hypocrisies)

1.the claim or pretense of holding beliefs, feelings, standards, qualities, opinions, virtues or motivations that one does not actually possess. [from early 13th c.]

2.applying criticism to others that one does not apply equally to oneself; moral self-contradiction whereby the behavior of one or more people belies their own claimed or implied possession of certain beliefs, standards or virtues


I can remember KJ's best years pretty well. The days at the Madhouse, the Finals appearance, The Dunk, and a lot of pretty great memories are there as a basketball fan. But when I'm at a Suns game and I see his face in the Ring of Honor, I don't see the Suns player. I see a man that skated on an accusation that would ruin any other man of any other profession. Even in another town, perhaps he would've experienced more repercussions. But not for Kevin Johnson in Phoenix. The covert cleanup campaign was so effective it didn't even hinder his path to politics. I can only speculate that Colangelo was still feeling the sting from the drug scandal and used all of his power (which one would think would be considerable) to keep any tarnish off of his poster boy, even if the alleged act was of the worst kind of perversion imaginable. I will admit, it does bother me that more people are not aware of this and speak of Kevin Johnson only in superlatives. I felt that it was time to say something, for myself if for no one else.

To tell you the truth, I feel better now.

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