All the Right Moves

Will former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson become the next mayor of Sacramento?

As a late-summer twilight descends on Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, formerly of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, is once more running the fast break. His teammates fan out before him, crisscrossing the blacktop and signaling their captain when they want to run a play. Johnson still wears expensive black Nikes. But above the ankles, his uniform has changed. A summer suit and silk tie signify his new game—politics—and the team he leads now is working to elect him mayor. As he walks down the middle of 33rd Ave­nue in the trim, quiet neighborhood of Fruitridge Manor, teenage volunteers race ahead to canvass the block, waving when someone comes to the door, at which point Johnson nods, excuses himself from a conversation, and breaks left or right into an athletic trot toward another Sacramentoan pleasantly surprised by this encounter with the city’s famous son.

During the spring, Johnson did a lot of trotting, hitting an estimated 20,000 households ahead of the June election, in which he bested six other candidates, including, narrowly, fellow Democrat Heather Fargo, the stolid two-term incumbent whom he’ll face again in a November 4 runoff. Outsiders generally can’t resist the Obama-Clinton parallel, especially because Johnson endorsed Obama, and the mayor Clinton. But what makes the former All-Star point guard’s trajectory interesting goes well beyond that. Even as a rookie, Johnson is as unusual in politics as he was in pro basketball.

“Have an exit strategy,” Johnson remembers his grandfather telling him when he was a 22-year-old NBA newcomer. The advice took. Johnson, who had majored in political science at Berkeley, passed the long hours of travel reading books and policy papers while his teammates played cards and video games. After his first season with the Suns, he returned to Oak Park, the gritty neighborhood where he’d grown up, to establish his exit strategy: a nonprofit education organization called St. Hope Academy, which began as a portable classroom within his alma mater of Sacramento High School. Even as his NBA career progressed, Johnson became fluent in the language of policy entrepreneurs, salting his conversation with terms like holistic community development and personalized learning. A born networker, he traded on his celebrity to meet business and political luminaries wherever he traveled.

When he retired from the Phoenix Suns, in 2000, both the Republicans and the Democrats asked him to run for governor of Arizona. Johnson demurred, choosing instead to put into practice what he’d learned about the power of business to transform urban areas. In 2003, St. Hope took over Sacramento High, turning it into a charter school. In keeping with the precepts of “holistic” development—essentially, that urban renewal requires a web of education, business, arts, and housing—his organization took over an adjacent property, refurbishing the handsome Guild Theater and adding a gallery, a bookstore, and, after Johnson placed a call to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, a roomy coffeehouse that bustled with customers the afternoon we swept through on an impromptu tour.

Of particular excitement to Johnson, because they sprang up independently of St. Hope, are new row houses just down the block. Johnson spotted the architect and, though we were running late, jogged over to say hi, beaming at what he saw: barbecuing on the sidewalk before us were half a dozen 30-ish hipsters, urban pioneers who promised renewal.

Officially, Johnson’s mayoral campaign centers on public safety, better schools, and economic development, particularly of Sacramento’s riverfront, which he believes could rival those he visited as a ballplayer in San Antonio, Chicago, and Washington. But his greatest appeal is that he exhibits that most useful of mayoral traits, an easygoing familiarity with the full menagerie of urban life, from black teenagers to white developers. To this, he adds a quality as common to good politicians as it is rare among pro athletes: eager solicitude for the opinions of others.

Sometimes this has amusing consequences. At evening’s end, Johnson was the honored guest at a meeting of Hmong businessmen—a gathering over which the 6-foot-1-inch Johnson towered, much as most NBA players once towered over him. He talked briefly before opening the floor. For an hour he charmed and bantered (when necessary, through an interpreter), and he was getting ready to call it a night when he was hit with the kind of question every politician dreads, the kind you can’t possibly prepare for. Traditional Hmong shamanism involves the sacrifice of live animals, typically in the home, a practice that had resulted in a felony arrest. What was his position on animal sacrifice?

Johnson froze. The room was silent. He seemed to be wondering whether this was a joke, before deciding that, no, it probably was not a joke, and he had better not laugh. Then Johnson, still quick on his feet, spotted the play and flashed a high-wattage smile. “I’m here tonight to learn what I can do for you,” he said, “and this is exactly the type of issue that I’ll address as mayor, which is why I would like, right now, for volunteers to raise their hands if they’ll agree to be my liaison to the Hmong community.” Soon, five candidates had declared themselves to uproarious applause. Johnson brought them all, giggling and snapping pictures, to the front of the room. Game over.