Frank Johnson took a circuitous route to his perch in the annals of the Suns franchise.
It was 1992 and Johnson was 33 years old. He had just finished his third season in Italy after an eight year NBA career and was trying to make the Suns regular season roster. At the end the preseason, however, he was the odd man out and there just wasn’t a spot open for him.
Frank Johnson was waived from the Suns on November 3rd.
It was 20 days until Johnson’s 34th birthday and he was three years removed from playing in the NBA. He just got shown the door four days before the regular season opener.
It’s probably safe to assume that Frank was coming to grips with the notion that he might never play in the NBA again.
Then something somewhat bizarre happened that shifted the trajectory of Frank Johnson’s life.
Suns starting point guard Kevin Johnson was injured when he pulled his groin trying to lift the rather corpulent Oliver Miller off the floor.
I know that sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s actually what happened.
KJ would end up missing 33 games that season and Negele Knight was thrust into a starting role in his absence. With Knight moving up the depth chart there was another opening for a backup point guard.
That backup point guard became Frank Johnson.
Just two days after being released, Johnson re-signed with the Suns on November 5th.
Johnson ended up playing in 77 games for the Suns that season and 22 more in the playoffs.
He had modest averages of 4.3 points and 2.4 assists in 14.6 minutes per game, but stepped in and played a vital role in helping the team overcome the injury to their starting point guard and keep a magical season right on track.
It was during this season that Johnson earned his nickname “Fourth Quarter Frank” for his clutch performances helping the team grind out close games.
My friends and I used to call him Donatello... because we thought he looked like a ninja turtle. You be the judge.
Frank stayed around for one more season before the backup spot was wrestled away from him by the inimitable Elliot “Socks” Perry. Of course, he’s the subject of another story about a beloved Suns backup.
Johnson retired after the 1993-94 season at the age of 35.
Frank returned to the Suns shortly thereafter, joining the team as an assistant coach under Danny Ainge for the 1996-97 season.
Johnson took over the head coaching position after Scott Skiles left in February of 2002 and finished off the season with an 11-20 record. Things weren’t exactly going well at this juncture for the Suns, who ended up missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Johnson instantly shook some things up, most notably promoting another Johnson (Joe) to the starting lineup and transitioning Anfernee Hardaway to a reserve role.
Johnson signed a three year deal to remain the head coach of the Suns and came back for the 2002-03 season with a returning core of Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson along with rookie Amar’e Stoudemire. That team would return to the playoffs, finishing with a 44-38 record before exiting in the first round at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Alas, Frank Johnson’s tenure as the head coach of the Suns was fairly short lived.
He ended up being replaced by some scrub named Mike D’Antoni after an 8-13 start to the 2003-04 season. Although the Suns only went 21-40 the rest of the season under D’Antoni’s guidance things did eventually start to turn around. Last thing I heard was that D’Antoni guy was really running the Rockets franchise into the ground, though, so it’s probably good that his marriage to the Suns got annulled before this last blissful era of Suns basketball.
Speaking of marriage, there were also reports at that time that alleged Johnson may have been having an affair with a wife of a team sponsor. That may or may not have impacted the team’s decision.
Johnson finished with a 63-71 overall record, making him one of only three Suns coaches with more than 100 career decisions and a losing record (Johnny Kerr and Jeff Hornacek are the other two).
Johnson was an effective
stop-gap bridge from a period of brief futility to a renaissance of Phoenix basketball. Although his successor enjoyed more success, he did have the benefit of coaching Steve Nash.
Johnson wasn’t the greatest Sun.
Heck, He wasn’t even close to the best Johnson that played for the Suns.
He’s probably fifth at best since he pales in comparison to Kevin Johnson, Dennis Johnson, Eddie Johnson and Joe Johnson.
He wasn’t the greatest coach, either, although some of his successors like Terry Porter and Lindsey Hunter make him look like Gregg Popovich.
He was, however, the best backup point guard in the best season of Suns basketball ever.