MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Boy, did Joe Johnson get in trouble as a kid.
Why, there was that one time when his grandmother was called to school because Johnson left a closed campus to go buy candy at the store.
And how about that afternoon when he was tossing the basketball around his grandma’s house and broke a couple of pictures?
Yeah, Johnson was incorrigible. It’s amazing he grew up to be anything at all.
"We never had any problems with Joe," said his grandmother, Rosie Brown, who watched Johnson while his mother, Diane, worked two jobs. "He was a good kid. He just kept to himself. He was quiet all the time."
Not much has changed.
Johnson has become the Suns’ silent assassin. He doesn’t have the hops of Shawn Marion, the thunder of Amaré Stoudemire or the creativity of Steve Nash, but in his own, understated way, he’s just as valuable.
Johnson is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies after a regular season in which he set career highs in scoring average (17.1) and rebounding (5.2) and finished second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (.478).
Oh, and he hasn’t missed a game since the Boston Celtics traded him to the Suns for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk — what was Boston thinking? — on Feb. 21, 2002.
"I don’t know how you can measure his value," said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. "He’s special. He comes to practice every day, he can play 48 minutes, he never tires, he never complains. I could go on and on and on. He’s amazing to me."
Those characteristics will make Johnson a rich man this summer. He’s a free agent after the season, and his price tag is expected to be about $60 million.
Whichever team ponies up the cash — Johnson hopes it’s the Suns — will get a man who hasn’t changed much since his childhood days growing up in Fouche Dam, Ark., a bedroom community of Little Rock.
Fouche Dam is a two-hour drive from Memphis, and more than 20 of Johnson’s friends and relatives will make the trip again today to see Johnson and the Suns try to eliminate the Grizzlies.
Johnson will acknowledge them before the game with a smile and a wave of the hand, but he won’t say much.
It’s not his style.
"He’s not real flashy," said Johnson’s uncle, Michael. "He’s just a kid who gets up and goes to work every day."
Johnson isn’t sure where he got his quiet gene from. His family is full of talkers.
But his basketball skills came from Michael and his younger brother, Tracy. They put a ball in his hands when he was 9 years old, and Johnson hasn’t let go since.
"He lived with his basketball," Michael said. "He still dribbles it in his house now."
Johnson was a basketball addict. Morning, noon and night he could be found playing ball at the William E. Thrasher Boys and Girls Club in Little Rock.
His bedroom was plastered with posters of his favorite NBA players: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and others.
"I had everybody, man," Johnson said. "The posters covered up my whole room. You couldn’t even see the walls."
Hardaway, a Memphis native, was his favorite.
"I looked up to him because I loved his style of play," Johnson said. "I always compared myself to him."
Like Hardaway in his best days, Johnson has become one of the NBA’s most versatile players. At 6-foot-7 and a sturdy 230 pounds, he’s strong enough to cover power forwards, yet D’Antoni has used him as a backup point guard.
"He’s grown so much in three years it’s unbelievable," D’Antoni said. "There’s no holes in his game at all. Before, 20 points was a good game for him. Now it’s just an average game."
Johnson will return to Fouche Dam in late June for the Joe Johnson Celebrity Weekend to benefit the Thrasher Boys and Girls Club. He has invited several of his Suns teammates, and if they show, they’ll notice a white 2005 Chrysler 300 in front of Rosie Brown’s house.
It was Johnson’s present on Grandmother’s Day last year.
"I can’t repay her for everything she’s done for me," Johnson said.
Maybe not, but it sure does make up for those pictures.