Q&A: Kevin Johnson
Former Cal standout is currently mayor of Sacramento
Former Cal and NBA standout Kevin Johnson was elected as first African-American mayor of Sacramento in 2008. Before serving as mayor, Johnson founded and was the CEO of St. HOPE, a nonprofit community development organization. He was honored by President George H.W. Bush with the 411th Point of Light for his work with children and education. Johnson was the seventh player selected during the 1987 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and after being traded in 1988 he played nine seasons for the Phoenix Suns. During his time with the Suns, Johnson was a three-time NBA All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection. Johnson remains on multiple career-high lists at Cal and helped the team to its first postseason appearance in 26 seasons with an NIT berth his junior season.
The Silver Anniversary Award recognizes former student-athletes and distinguished individuals on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their college athletics careers. Burke and fellow recipients Tim Brown, Kevin Johnson, Sean Payton, Amy Perko and David Robinson will be honored January 13, 2012 during the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis.
Q: Looking back on your collegiate career how did school and athletics help build you into a guy who’s civic-minded and charitable-minded?
Johnson: The University of California is one of the most diverse campuses in the country. I can’t remember a day that would go by without people being involved politically or socially on some issue. There was always a rally, a symposium, somebody standing on a soap box opposing or supporting some activity and that kind of engagement really carried over to the civic and community things I do today.
Q: Go back 25 years. What was life like on campus for you? How different was it from your previous school experience when you got there?
Johnson: I went to Sacramento High School, which was a good public school, and when I went to the University of California it was just so much bigger. You’re competing in class with some of the most talented people from up and down the state, and around the country academically, and I enjoyed it. What it really forces a young person to do is find that balance between being a student first and then an athlete, and then your social activities; you really had to strike a balance. As you get older it teaches you how to multi-task, it teaches you how to prioritize and it certainly has made a difference in everything I’ve done since I graduated.
Q: What was your best athletic experience?
Johnson: My best experience or something that really stands out is the camaraderie with my teammates certainly; being able to compete day in and day out against the best players in the Pac-10 Conference. It was something that meant a lot to me. The weird thing that really stands out is I remember being a freshman going into the book store where you buy the merchandise, memorabilia or school supplies and there was not any Cal basketball gear for sale. There was football, there was swimming, there was water polo, and no Cal basketball. I said, ‘Before I leave here if it kills me, we’re going to have Cal basketball gear for sale in these bookstores.’ It took about a year. By about the end of my sophomore year, my junior year, it ended up being the top selling merchandise. So that is something that really stands out as an experience.
Q: What’s your top athletic experience?
Johnson: The two things that stand out from an athletic experience standpoint is one we reached the postseason tournament for the first time. In many, many years the Cal basketball program had not played in any postseason tournament, and we did that my junior and senior year. That was something that stood out. Probably the top achievement that stands out is I was part of the basketball team that beat UCLA. We had lost to UCLA for 26 years -- 52 games in a row. Of course, I wasn’t a part of all of those losing streaks, but nonetheless, that was something that really gave probably our whole student body, our faculty, our alumni, future and in-coming students, the greatest pride and the greatest thrill is when we ended that streak and finally beat UCLA in Harmon.
Q: What did you learn about teamwork there that you still use today?
Johnson: I think what I’ve learned about teamwork is you have to set a goal. As a point guard -- I was a point guard on the team –- is you have to distribute the ball and keep everybody involved and be very unselfish, but you got to be willing to call a play at the same time, too. I think in politics, as an elected official, you think about constituents. You have to set a goal; you have to rally your constituents around that shared vision and goal. It is very difficult as well to keep everybody happy in a community because everybody has a different interest that’s important to them and their all pulling in different directions so somehow you have to always make a call that at the end of the day doesn’t make everyone happy, but at least they respect it and they know your track record for being fair and good listener and trying to be accommodating for the most part. People respect that.
Q: Where did that idea for St. Hope come from and what was involved in making that happen?
Johnson: When I got to college at the University of California I was the only kid from my neighborhood that was in college and I remember thinking that I want more people that I grew up with to experience this and there’s nothing I’m going to be able to do about it because by the time my four years are beyond me I won’t be able to impact that. I remember thinking that if I ever become successful enough, I’m going to go back to my community and try and create an environment where more kids from my neighborhood would be able to experience this unbelievable campus and this place called Cal. That’s why I started St. Hope. I really wanted more kids from the underserved community to be able to go to Cal and I wanted them to have friends with them because I was very isolated because I was the only one from my city and my neighborhood; whereas, people from L.A. and the Bay area had tons of kids they went to school with or played in the same league or were friends in elementary school. I didn’t have that. I had to make a whole new set of friends and develop a new peer group while I was at Cal. That’s probably some of the origins of it.
Q: What did it take to make that happen from scratch?
Johnson: I’ve never quit anything in my life, except for one thing. I owed a few classes to get my degree and I came back and was in a summer school class and I remember waking up literally like at 1 in the morning thinking I have got to start this organization now. I’ll come back and finish my summer school class next year. I just packed my bags and left the dorm and this apartment I had rented and I went back and I started St. Hope on July 1, 1989. The mission of St. Hope is essentially to revitalize the inner-city community through public education, economic development, civic engagement and arts so it was a multi-prong kind of holistic approach. I just felt that people in poor neighborhoods wanted the same things that people in affluent neighborhoods want often times they just don’t have somebody or organization or community kind of rallied around that same goal. We started in 1989 and here we are 23 years later. We’ve sent tons of kids to college that are doing extremely well and this is how you know you are successful because now they are coming back community and they work at St. Hope, or they are helping out in the community. In order to sustain an effort, you have to replenish and a lot of times people move out of the community and never come back. What I’ve found are a lot of kids are coming back to give back to that same community.